Once upon a time it was a good thing to be liberal, but today it seems that to be a liberal is to be godless and unpatriotic. The word has become so disrespected that many liberals run from the label and call themselves by other names. This is the age of Limbaugh, Hannity, and Coulter.
Not long ago conservative Republicans controlled all three branches of the American government, and conservative church leaders had the President’s ear. The once powerful Mainline Protestant churches sat on the sidelines looking back wistfully at what had once been theirs. While the 2008 elections seemed to portend a turning of the tides, it’s much too early to tell which way the wind is actually blowing (as the 2010 elections reminded us).
The rise of conservatism is explained by an appeal to ideas. It was said that liberals, unlike conservatives, seemed to lack ideas or a willingness to stand up for what they believe. Of course this isn’t really true, but the political and religious right have done a good job at portraying themselves as the true protectors of American political, cultural, and religious values.
It may only be a matter of semantics, because it’s quite possible that “liberals” are really “conservatives” and “conservatives” are “liberals.” Turning to my trusty Merriam-Webster Online dictionary I discovered that to be “liberal” is to be free, generous, and broadminded (it can also mean licentious or loose). Freedom, generosity, and broadmindedness would seem to be good American values. That is, to be a liberal people, means that Americans aren’t “bound by authoritarianism, orthodoxy, or traditional forms.” As for the dictionary definition of the word conservative – I’ll deal with that label later.
If you read the definitions of liberal and conservative closely you discover that there is value in both frames of mind. There are traditions, structures, and values worth conserving and preserving, but not everything is worthy of preservation. Surely slavery, Jim Crow, anti-Catholicism, anti-Semitism, the denial of women’s suffrage -- just to name a few -- aren’t values and structures worthy of America. At the same time openness and generosity, and freedom of thought and speech are virtues that should be lifted up and preserved; and by definition these are liberal values.
America was born on the premise that the people have the right and the responsibility to question authority and orthodoxy. This requires a broad education and critical thinking. My fear is that we’re being tempted, out of fear and maybe ignorance, to jettison these values.
In truth, conservatives and liberals need each other. They provide checks and balances that keep us centered. This is as true in religion as in politics. It’s ironic that Mainline Protestantism is often accused of being traditional in its structures and worship, while many conservative Evangelical churches are on the cutting edge of technology and culture.
Being a bit purple myself, I wish to redeem the “L Word.” Many religious “liberals” now call themselves “progressives,” but there’s nothing wrong with being “liberal,” especially if by definition this means that one is free, generous, and broad-minded. When it comes to faith, and I’m a pastor after all, there is value in considering the liberal ideal. Although I love the traditions of the church, including its liturgy and music, there’s also much value to be found in open conversation, critical study, and the application of reason to faith. Openness to the leadership of women is also a liberal value, as is the commitment to learn from secular thought and from people of other faith traditions. I love the Bible and seek to live out its teachings, but I’m not content to simply believe because “the Bible tells me so.” If I’m to profit from its teachings, I must read it responsibly and intelligently.
When it comes to living in a free society, critical thinking and the willingness to grow, even evolve as a human being, is essential. Tradition is important, because it provides us with a sense of rootedness, but tradition can’t be left unquestioned. If we wish to continue moving forward as a nation and not become stagnant, then we must hold strongly to the values of freedom (religious and political), generosity, and broadmindedness. And, if this is what it means to be liberal, then I wear the label proudly.
Excerpt from book under construction -- Faith in the Public Square