Had Jesus become a dangerous liberal with new ideas, when he argued against the orthodoxy of his day in the Sermon on the Mount? His "But I say unto you...." condemned what had become their traditional teaching. Even the disciples were stunned. He called little children into his audience. Once he pushed off his own family, mother included, when preaching to the crowd about the kingdom to come.
The first legislation to grant to workers social security against unemployment, sickness and invalidity and to establish pension rights a hundred years ago was the work of conservatives, not liberals.
Both terms 'liberal' and 'conservative' can either cheer or scare the public. They may express pride to describe one's own orientation or may be employed to put down the other person with contempt. The terms are applied to political parties, theological directions, to positions taken on issues concerning society and personal values.
Like any other banner, terms like liberal or conservative shorten the more complicated process of finding a person's actual reasoning. When they suggest assumptions like liberals are progressives with dreams and conservative are traditionalists, stuck in the past, the distinctions remain superficial and do not clarify.
Labels always represent a reality which is far more complex and deserves a more careful treatment. Life, and human language, is never as simple as it may seem on the surface. Terms designate different views, values and ways to arrive at them. Any reality out there in real life is more complex than any description of it in language. Any term is only as good as its definition.
Words inform us, when they are metaphors of our reality. But reality can not be reduced to words. For example, I can explain to you in words where you can buy apples without having to take apples with me or taking you to the spot myself.
Words, however, can also be used to misinform. They can feign or misrepresent a reality. They carry lies or propaganda, deliberate efforts to confuse or to manipulate our reactions. Words make us think we know, when we may not.
Words are like dollar bills: they are only as good as their acceptance in lieu of things or services. They hold a promise, but their value is only that of paper, unless the promise of a commodity like silver, gold, goods and services, apples and information is reliable. Money facilitates exchanges, but has little or no value in itself. (You might still see in it a work of art or use it as wrapping material). You can only demand the fulfillment of the promised trade.
So we need greater clarity to discern what is promised, defined, understood by the terms conservative and liberal. I for one find myself as a Christian to fit only with difficulties and conditions into either of these labels as they are defined in popular usage today.
Let us go back to the questions at the start: Was Jesus Christ conservative or liberal when he took on the Jewish educated establishment of the Pharisees and their interpretation of the Torah? How would we classify his teaching that man is to give taxes to Caesar, for the coins bear the image of the emperor? To God belong our heart, mind and soul, which bear His image. Was Jesus a liberal when he went to eat with sinners and publicans?
We wonder what is liberal or conservative about conservative and liberal positions within the 'church' and within society. Were the prophets in the Old Testament liberal or conservative in calling for repentance in personal and public morals concerning social evils? What exactly did they think Israel should conserve? Or what should they free themselves from? Were they liberals when they asked why Israel had sold the poor for a pair of shoes? And conservative when they reminded Israel of her marriage vows to Jehovah?
Bismarck's reasoning for the social legislation to protect workers was largely that one needed to care for the workers in the industrial society as a matter of right, obligation and Christian decency in a single community of neighbors. The advantages of industrialization and education should be made available to each citizen. The state must offer protection against evil through laws, a shared burden and a community of people, when industrialization had seriously affected home and family.
After seeing the value of state efforts in the past liberals have been encouraged to ask for more intervention to control selfishness, inequality and danger and to provide not only a wide range of services, but also experiences, comfort and security. Conservatives have seen here a paternalistic state that controls too much, disregards individual effort and leaves people perpetually adolescent. Yet they have also failed to recognized the need for contributions from individuals to the public domain, from taxes to education to moral/ethical stands taken less as personal values than as a matter of civil society.
The World: Real or Imaged?
Perhaps the starting point to flesh out the meaning of the terms is to suggest that the conservative "conserves" or accepts certain permanent truths built into the nature of reality itself. By contrast, the liberal sees no such limitation as relevant to his proposals. The former lives in an already created universe, the latter continues to define the world anew all the time in the hope that reality itself would take on a different shape. The conservative has his
feet on the ground, but is running, while the liberal flies away with his dreams, only to crash into the reality of people, limited resources and lasting problems every time he awakes in the real world. This question of how to face reality brings us to the core of the discussion concerning the Biblical view and the Enlightenment distinction. The Enlightenment brought to the discussion of life the proposition that the human being has matured to the point that he must become independent of any outside information about life. "He has come of age," Kant wrote. Independence from church and state eventually lead to independence from God and creation as well. For now God no longer shed light on our understanding, but man could begin to see the world the way he wanted to. If reason is the only key to truth, anything may become reasonable to the one who does the explaining to himself.
The Bible starts with the affirmation that God created a real world with clear distinctions. Reality is real. The universe and its form, as Dr. Schaeffer used to emphasize, is a weighty contribution to the basic understanding of the person of God, his thoughts, rationality and the framework of his actions into history.
Yet that creation has two limitations. In the first place it is unfinished. Adam and Eve were to create themselves from what God had given them to have dominion over. They would create their relationship, their children and the ploughs to work with. They would organize time and effort to make a living. They and we, their children, would change the world, resist evil and diminish the effects of sin through art and science and also enrich it through our work.
In the second place, the world is now fallen and no longer only good. Besides the multiplying mandate there is also the moral corrective to be pursued. Wrong needs to be righted, sickness prevented and death fought. Unfairness in life is to be met with compassion, generosity and kindness. Walking the extra mile, giving the shirt off your back, taking in strangers is to be a way to bring healing into a broken world.
In other words, there is to be more than repetition of natural patterns. History is linear, with goals and judgments, obligations and accomplishments. There is a work to be done in the search for justice. The clues for life are not found in nature or in oneself. They are revealed from the Creator in the Bible.
All efforts need to recognize certain limits, definitions of and insights into the unchanging aspects of reality. We cannot change the definition of what is a human being, which is anchored in fact, not in faith. We can not change the reality of death, though we can push against its manner and timing. We cannot change the flow of history, where choices always have consequences. We can also not change the reality of evil, and therefore always need law to remind us of what is true, good and right. We cannot change our definitions of words without loosing all trust and meaningful speech. We cannot eat our cake and still have it as well. In short, there are defined structures to reality itself, both in nature and the human being. Any optimism is always tempered by realism.
The Liberal Ideal
The modern liberal sees himself far more free from the form of the universe, from agreed definitions as well as from practical and moral limitations. He starts from the image of a future world of his own making and then works backwards. To him all things are (eventually) possible, all reality subject to change in order to produce an environment, that is good or will make human beings good. Wrong is only in one's mind, a state of incompleteness now, to be improved with progress, programs and the will of 'the people.'
Freedom from 'religious prejudice' means that there may not be a god at all. Perhaps we are all god ourselves. At best the personal God of the Bible becomes the private god of one's inner light. More likely he is seen as a part of a process to harmonious perfection, the force behind everything.
As today's Liberals tend to deny any true and lasting truth, private property is also looked at with suspicion as an expression of selfishness, which prevents that harmony and puts pot holes into any road to harmony. Only controlled and distributed equality are the moral and fair outcome of life. An ideal, an image in his mind, determines actions. In search of that harmony the choices of individuals are guided to have only personal consequences. Material choices about life, work habits, punctuality, efficiency and such must not lead to material differences.
So convinced is he of his autonomy to image a better world, he no longer needs to work with the reality of nature or of people. He will be tempted to find ways to impose his ideal for the improvement of mankind. The freedom to disagree is easily limited by law, including taxes, with guarantees of a better way for the community, thereby denying 'inalienable rights' and 'self-evident' truth. The liberal will redefine both god and state to serve his ends. He will resist the state when an objective standard is upheld, but will use the power of the state to accompany his own liberal agenda. His affirmation of abortion rights, of homosexual marriages, of distributive justice and of multi-culturalism express both a denial of a created order and the rights of people to think and to define reality otherwise in any important area.
For there is barely any room within the liberal palace for a person with convictions of truth. He is in this way the modern Roman, for whom also all religions were allowed as long as they did not claim to be true.
Characteristic for the liberal is his focus on an ideal about man and society. It remains a dream, an abstraction. It does not relate to the child, the woman or the man whom we know as neighbors today. The embrace of an ideal more than a reality surfaces in many contemporary issues. One can find it in the efforts to build self-esteem while neglecting the emphasis on skills and real competitiveness. The current quest for personal happiness in any stage of life liberated one from faithfulness to any previous promises. Loyalties and commitments relate more to myself, my job, my personal career goals than to others. The former understanding of commitment is seen to act like fetters, which prevent the discovery of the changing human potential.
For the sake of feeling better you are invited to forget real needs, obligations and self-discipline. The 'pursuit of happiness' has become the notion of a right to selfish fulfillment, sensual pleasure, and material equality in a life without risk or obligation. To get there, one advocates preferential treatment based on association with a group rather than on merit. In every case, the facts of the real world are neglected to pursue the dream with little responsibility.
Modern Liberalism gives the impression, from the root of the word itself, that we are free to desire, to demand, to interpret and to try all things without being tied to any part of the real world. The liberal assumes that all things can and should be redefined if necessary. "The only thing to fear is fear itself" and "All problems have been made by man and by man they shall be solved" are two slogans associated with liberal programs. There is no stability, there are no permanent things. Where the older Marxist said: "Each historic moment has its own justification", the modern Liberal promises that life owes me the satisfaction of every right, protected or assumed. Each generation invents anew what a human being is in his social, economic and legal context. There is no end to dreaming, no limit to hope, no restraint to self-realization. We never have to go beyond our adolescence.
Traditions, perspectives and values loose their reference to an objective world. Reality only exists as an historical personal perspective in light of the present. New realities can be invented, claimed and then actualized.
I recall a geography textbook, in which the separation between Africa and Asia ran up the Persian Gulf, not the Red Sea, in order to have the birthplace of Mohammed on the Arabian peninsula become a part of Africa. Islam would then be the religion of Africa. On another occasion I was told that Jesus must have been black, for otherwise he would not have been received in Egypt during the from Herod's fury.
For liberals the conservatives exist as a constant hindrance to progress and the development of what is seen as human potential for good in every person. Conservatives always harp on the need to have both feet on the ground of reality!
'Conservative' implies that there are realities we cannot avoid. Some are even worth keeping, they should be conserved. We live in a defined, rational and created world with a fixed grid of certainties. While there are movable items, subject to change, invention and intervention, we fundamentally live in a world of order, definitions and lasting conditions in the form of the universe and the manishness of man. Against the fragility created by human whims the conservative sets a system of insights which are anchored in the shape of the world. Just like natural law describes the functioning of things in nature, there is a need for law to define wrong in any society. The conservative acknowledges a world of cause and effect, of personal significance and moral obligations.
While one can not have the cake and eat it as well there are more and different cakes to be baked by and for more people. This is a world in which each person has a separate identity, real value and a unique personality in a social context of parents and neighbors. Here choices matter and consequences follow. We are not free to take from those who own and give it to the poor. Moral persuasion and a system of laws to prevent evil take the place of moral posturing and the imposition of what is decided to be good for people. It is a world after the Fall, where life is never fair for anyone. Love, compassion, teaching and fair law are ways to diminish the effects of evil on each life in a broken world. They result in real improvements through effort, kindness and wisdom.
The conservative does not believe that a better world would make for better people. He rather believes that people must better themselves by taking the responsibility to repent of and to resist evil, to seek good and to protect the poor in justice.
In practical terms, the conservative develops ideas and possibilities with respect to the limits of a world already there, real and unchanging. He acknowledges, for instance, that persons are always only born from a father and a mother, and therefore a marriage is only between a man and a woman. He understands that one can only eat what has been harvested. He should recognize the unfairness of life in a fallen world, where suffering is not only the result of wrong personal choices. He will seek to help strengthen the weak, care for orphans and widows and punish the guilty. He believes in the power of ideas and in the need to recognize and solve problems in a fallen world. He should understand social obligations to neighbors (for he always has parents and neighbors) and express, that love focuses not on self alone, but on God and neighbor as well.
Conservatives bow to the reality and its form. That may come in the form of traditions patterns of demeanor, from king or state.....and from revelation. An older, larger and respected authority sets the tone. The Bible in Jewish and Christian conservatism is different from pagan traditional conservatism. It reveals a tangibly good Creator, who has created a lawful nature, spoken in reasonable language, acted in history and who gives a special place to man and woman made in his image. Jews and Christians recognize evil without assuming that it comes from the hand of the creator. Reality, nature also, is abnormal and not to be copied or to be accepted as final master.
Conservatives Christian and Jewish believers are obliged to be creative and imaginative. After six days of work God left us an unfinished creation. In addition we are to seek justice, the good and the healing of people. We now live after the Fall of man in a less-than-perfect world.
The conservative view does not deal with values, but with morals. What is right is not a list of preferred or valued items, but an acknowledgment of having to live in an ordered universe. It does not counter with a dream, but with the facts of the real world. We acknowledge things to be the way they are in the structures of creation. Conservatives pursue stability, making life somewhat predictable and pass on from generation to generation an outlook anchored in reality.
Against the background of moral certainties they must never become old-fashioned. Instead, in the face of real human needs, conservatives are creative, imaginative, compassionate and free to be human.
No Ready Labels, No Quick Fixes
From this discussion we recognize that the use of labels ain't as easy as that. One can conserve a bad or a beneficial thing or an inherited tradition. A liberal effort can produce chaos or greater humanness, depending on whether freedom from God, reality and reason is advocated or resistance to sin and ways to diminish the burdens. Any Bill of Rights, from the Magna Charta to the US Constitution and her moral children elsewhere, can be used to assert self-claimed rights by both Liberal and Conservative: the protection of individuals against the power of the State or society.
The terms liberal and conservative have gone through a number of changes in history. We cannot simply use them and assume to be understood. Liberal, as the term was applied before the 18th century, is a free, generous, noble person, who practices liberality. In the time of anticlericalism and rationalism the term is used to describe a person free from political or religious prejudice. In the 19th century it is applied to those persons, who leaned against the oppressive power of the state and the church, where their power stood in the way of personal responsibility, reason and effort.
Liberals in the 19th century stood for education, legal protection and the freedom to shape one's own life, to have title to and to manage private property. They sought liberty from the remaining monarchies, ecclesiastical authorities, conservative land owners and their rights to determine the lives of their people, including the right to tax without representation. They wanted to review and change laws and traditions tied to unexamined assumptions. They were members of the then developing middle class, who for the first time prospered in larger numbers. They wanted to have the protection of law for their accomplishment against arbitrary interference of men, from the state and from social custom.
The liberal was the shop keeper, the entrepreneur, who, once awakened to a life of economic and educational possibility in the 19th century, saw his new position threatened by conservative social orders, the titled and landed gentry and remaining royalists, themselves not bound by law. In other words, the liberal stood against authoritarian and invasive government, religious indoctrination and the prison of unexamined traditions in much of life.
This description closely fits a modern conservative view point. In fact the Protestant Reformation and her children placed the person once again in the position of responsibility under the authority of the God of the Bible. Reformers taught a sense of personal 'calling' from God. They removed the distinction between the special and the common in reference to the priesthood of all believers. The Christian should be hard working, responsible, disciplined and virtuous. Still today the Liberal parties in Europe are the conservative parties for free enterprise, personal responsibility and a diminished role for state.
As the power of king and church decreased through constitutions, law and education, the individual had to practice self-discipline to prevent chaos. If the state must exist to prevent evil, it was not held responsible to bring in the good of mankind. To do good, by contrast, was left for the individual to accomplish through hard work, frugality and restrained desires.
Today the advocates of conservatism call for freedom, traditional values and less state, for opportunities and free market Yet they have often lost the context in which these ideas flourished. They tend to see the state always as a burden, when in fact authority is needed to control our selfishness. Their stance should be limited to opposing the newer idealistic liberal with his visions of bringing in a new world, where society will be forced to be good under the control of an ever more powerful state.
Yet, in the manner of stating opposition to modern liberal programs conservatives often contradict what should be part of their own convictions. They let the opponent determine the agenda, while they themselves should be advocates of community and compassion. These concerns to help, to seek justice and to reduce unfairness are genuine and required. The way to interpret and to solve them differs from conservative to liberal. The liberal wants to improve the social context to end up with better people. The conservative believes in exhorting people to change their ways. By reacting only instead of acting conservatives can often mask a blatant selfishness, anger, poverty of spirit, and other vice. What should be the stance of a moral conservative with compassion is associated with a bigoted and frustrated redneck.
The problem has its root perhaps in the confusion between ideas and ideals. Good ideas are needed to exercise dominion and to resist what is wrong. That differs from the pursuit of an ideal, of life, society or the world. An ideal is only an image, a projection, a wish or a dream.
The Enlightenment introduced the pursuit of such ideals. It taught that man is basically good, that history is progressive, that social action derives from the social context. These ideals have many fathers, but one common mother. Rousseau sought salvation in a return of man to the ideal his natural condition. Voltaire suggested salvation through education. Darwin saw the survivor always as the most fit to carry on. The Enlightenment's belief in progress, technology, the market or democracy is always based on the assumption of a fundamental goodness of the world without considering the most unpredictable element in the equation: the moral or immoral choices of the human person.
The older political liberalism is based on the freedom and responsibility the Gospel brings to people. Modern liberalism comes from the ideal of liberty, brotherhood and egality in the French Revolution. The freedom to serve God and neighbor is replaced by a freedom from God, from reason and his creation. A Biblical view of Man, of work, of life has been replaced by secularism. The conservative is accountable to his children, to the facts of the real world and to God. The liberal effort is measured by the rewards for his efforts from the voters.
Now, unfortunately many conservatives get caught in the pursuit of a similar ideal or dream. It may revolve only around themselves. But it is an ideal nevertheless. They also assume a world without real evil, without obligations other than to selfish dreams, in which everyone will be like them. Some believe that all a person needs is an opportunity. To help someone fish he needs a tackle, they say. But a person also needs motivation, example, and explanations to fish.
They believe life is fair, just because they have what they worked for (or what their parents left for them). In their eyes, the market heals. All a man needs to be successful is an opportunity, which will turn people into good citizens, since hunger can turn a person into a thief. They believe that happiness is proportionate to the number of toys they have.
Conservatives often also want to impose their vision of society, in which everyone lives only from the fruits of his own effort. They look at themselves, but have become blind to their selfishness. For in a fallen world the poor do not always deserve their situation.
The mandate from the Bible is clear. It is based in reality and in the call to diminish wrong. That is the heart of the conservative obligation. The should recognize the valuable reminders from an older liberalism: we are all part of one human race, life is unfair to each of us; law is necessary to limit also our own tendency to selfishness; a grieving person needs a cup of water often before he needs a job; an immigrant is an asset in the market, a source of energy, imagination and skill and hopefully a convert to our understanding of life, work and community.
Bowing to a world with real people Conservatives recognize the limited scope of enforcing good. After he looked over the ideological attempts since the Enlightenment to produce a good society, a just economic reality and a new man and seeing the blood, Andre Gluecksmann suggests an 11th Commandment: Though shalt not impose the Good. That is God's work, not the state's.
Instead we encourage solid ideas of how to add to possibilities in an unfinished creation. Conservatives should work within the givens, including the recognition of human brokenness, sin and an unfairness of life after the Fall. They must stretch these givens through imagination, compassion and an attitude of generosity. Conservatives should not overlook the suffering of others, but should walk the extra mile. They know one needs to work for a surplus in order to live seven days on the work of six, to care for (basically unproductive!) children as well as orphans and widows. Rather than sharing, they first produce water and bread to give to the poor. They are more realistic about the world and must explain, in word and deed, their ability to have dominion more effectively. They are example, an encouragement and a shelter.
Conservatives should assert these moral insights and obligations. When they are not practiced the cause is the failure and sin of a new kind of conservatism. Our concerns should reflect the shape of the world and the uniqueness of every human being in a tragically fallen world. The modern Liberal does not refer to this when believes in a salad bowl of distinct ethnic peoples with tribal priorities and personal values. For him the picture signifies that there is no true truth for all of us in the human family. There is only change, no lasting truth, in their ideology. There is no personal responsibility for a person's poverty in faulty tribal world views and poor attitudes about life, work and other people.
The Conservative starts with the givens, he sees the human family as the melting pot. He celebrates diversity in many matters of human relations, language and art, but demonstrates a more realistic approach to human life in the real world of created definitions. For, at the end of every party one must face reality... and judgment.
Francis A. Schaeffer Institute of Church Leadership Development http://www.truespirituality.org/