Conservative and Liberal are Meaningless Labels

What do the terms “conservative” and “liberal” mean? After much reflection, I think they mean too many things to be meaningful words. Using the words to categorize and accept or dismiss others, as is often the case, is like throwing a bucket of paint on the side of a barn rather than touching up a spot with a small brush.

The terms have always meant something different in religion than they have in politics, despite affinities between conservative or liberal politics and religious practice.

Using Christianity as the example—the religion that has, historically, claimed the largest percentage of adherents in the U.S.—conservative might mean an evangelical, a fundamentalist, a Pentecostal, a kind of Catholic. The term might refer to someone with advanced degrees from Wheaton and Fuller, from Notre Dame, or to someone who eschews all formal education and learns simply from the Bible, the Holy Spirit, and the University of Hard Knocks. Jim Wallis and the Christians who founded and manage “Sojourners” are, in comparison to the founders and editorial stance of “The Christian Century,” conservative in terms of doctrine and sometimes more radical, if not liberal, in terms of social policy.

It is possible to be radically “liberal” in terms of social policy and fundamentally “conservative” in terms of doctrine. The Christian abolitionists of the 19th century certainly fit this description as do many intentional small urban communal or monastic groups today.

Using the word “conservative” demands context.

Christian liberalism has meant both a way of interpreting the Bible and a stance toward culture and social issues. Also in a bygone era, to be a liberal meant to approach the Bible as a book written by human beings to express their relationship with God. Words may be inspired but not all words and not taken “literally”—which any self-identified liberal would tell you is a fiction. The interpreter claims responsibility for interpreting and uses the same historical, literary, and critical tools used to interpret any book.

Today, liberationist and post-colonial scholars reject the “liberal” moniker as one rooted in a cultural time and experience (white, male, European, middle class) different from their own. Centering their own experience and community may or may not involve “liberal” approaches to scripture and faith.

Calling every form of not-conservative faith “liberal” is a mistake.

In politics and culture of the past, the terms liberal and conservative provided two stances toward the shared commitment to liberal democracy. Liberal democracy refers to the American experiment in self-governance, commitments to free and fair elections, a constitutional republic, limited government, protection of property, free speech, freedom from the tyranny of a state religion, the rule of law, and the right to redress grievances.

Conservatives and liberals, more or less—one thinks of the significant number of segregationists and racists throughout our history—shared these commitments. Where the sides differed was in how small or large government needed to be, what happens when families and voluntary organizations can’t fully care for their people and issues, and how extensive government involvement in business must be in order to protect citizens from exploitation by business interests.

Today, however, when someone tells me they are conservative or liberal, I need to respond with “Tell me more. What do you mean?”

Some political conservatives despise the former president even as they agreed with some of his policies. Such conservatives also accepted the election results and feel the shame and anger many others feel regarding January 6. They hope the January 6th Commission and the testimonies of their many conservative colleagues lead to a just outcome, including prosecutions.

Some people label themselves conservative and believe one must be a Christian to be a good American, the election was stolen, Victor Orban’s illiberal policies are the future of America, Democrats murder children, and January 6th was a useful exercise from which to learn how to be completely successful next time. Several candidates for political offices are running ads in which they wield semi-automatic weapons—something a traditional conservative or someone on another side would not do.

So, what does it mean to be conservative? I think Christian nationalism is radical, not conservative. Much of what the previous president did and the signals he sent by which foreign leaders he admired do not represent conservatives.

The term “liberal” has been used as a smear for so long now that many persons who have been a traditional liberal did not use the term. Thus, “progressive” grew in popularity. But, as has been widely reported, the commitments to free speech and a constitutional republic (rather than a more pure democracy) have eroded among those who might have been labeled liberal in a previous generation.

For many years, I thought of myself as a liberal. However, today, that is a term still despised on the right and judged on the left nearly as harshly. The term, and those of us who drew meaning from it, are going the way of the dinosaurs.

Rather than using the terms conservative or liberal, here is how I’m coming to see today’s religious and political tensions.

In one quadrant, there is freedom. In another there is equality. There are many stances possible to express what freedom means. At its most extreme, absolute freedom is a right that only some people can have. Once freedom is granted to others to the extent one grants it to oneself, freedom cannot be absolute. There are those in society who recognize that freedom is a right for everyone and seek to develop an ethics and a society accordingly. There are those who claim freedom for themselves and don’t give a rip about others—and live and vote accordingly. The stronger the advocate for freedom, the more such persons see all problems as individual.

In the equality quadrant there are also multiple possibilities. Equality could mean equality of opportunity. But it might also mean equality of outcomes—equity. Equality of outcomes might be enforced by law and would require a re-distribution of income and wealth, as well as moving with a fine-tooth comb through every law and regulation. Problems are systemic and the systems, from language labels through legislation and the courts, must change.

Absolute freedom for some is a version of hell for equality advocates. Equality of outcomes is a version of hell for freedom advocates.

So, I see the conflict between freedom and equality and between the perspective that problems are individual versus problems are systemic as more helpful in interpreting today than the labels liberal and conservative.

And, I would add one more tension. Shall we read our history—as religious people, as Americans—as prototype or archetype? Is there a previous time when the religious or civic communities got “it” right and lived a pattern to which we should return (archetype)? Or is each generation an experiment in living out beliefs and principles that sometimes are carried forward from the past while others must be invented to meet the challenges of the day?

Freedom in tension with equality. Individual responsibility in tension with social responsibility. Prototype in tension with archetype.

And, like a true liberal, I could not get that on a bumper sticker.

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