Conserving Liberalism

The terms “liberal” and “conservative” are obviously relative; what’s liberal in one century might be conservative in the next. But one thing remains essentially the same: conservatives fight change and liberals fight for it. How we judge the liberalism or conservatism of any time or place ultimately depends on what’s being changed. If it’s good, we should seek to conserve it; if it’s bad, we should seek to be liberated from it.

The United States of America began as a liberal nation when it declared that “all men are created equal” and endowed with rights by their Creator. No other nation had ever committed to such an inclusive creed; no other nation ever progressed as rapidly toward the decline of poverty, the abolition of slavery, and equality under the law. No better or stronger system of government had ever been established –offering freedom to its citizens, allowing for its own improvement, and ensuring the restraint of the very government it empowered… so long as it be properly administered and obeyed.

Likewise, Christianity began as a liberal sect of Judaism when it first preached faith as the only requirement for salvation. No other religion had ever made such a promise; even Jews were expected to adhere to the Mosaic law – yet Judaism itself was something of a liberal faith in the ancient world, where rulers ignored human rights and parents sacrificed their children to pagan gods. Through a monotheistic belief in one good and ultimate God, the Judeo-Christian tradition taught us to value human dignity (as reflecting His image) and treat one another with love (by the example of Jesus Christ). It also led to the liberal tenets of western civilization: freedom to choose our own path (in the Protestant Reformation) and respect for the natural order of the universe (in the Enlightenment). Only against that backdrop could America have broken free of a conservative world that regarded priests and kings as divine authorities.

As a Christian, I thus value and respect what the United States stands for: because I’m not ashamed to believe that all men were created equal. Like the Declaration, I “hold these truths to be self-evident”: that the law should protect our rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and that justice is the fair and equal protection of those rights. I stand by Superman’s old mantra – “truth, justice, and the American way” – because I know “the way, the truth, and the life.”

Today, my defense of these classically liberal ideas puts me at odds with the modern left, because liberal has been redefined. It’s no longer used in the American Revolutionary sense of freedom for the good of all, but in the French Revolutionary sense of change for the sake of change – abandoning old standards and institutions that keep us from having what we want. (And if you don’t already know, the French Revolution didn’t turn out half as well as America’s.) That’s why so many today fail to understand the meaning and importance of our Judeo-Christian heritage and the American founding: because they’ve lost respect for the past.

But to repeat myself: we should seek to be liberated from things that are bad and to conserve things that are good. In 1787, the United States set up the most liberal system of government in world history… and it was very good. The freedoms it offered – eventually to everyone – helped it progress at a rate no other nation ever saw. In population, civil rights, medicine, wealth, and technology, this upstart new country outpaced the majority of the world (most of which had a head start by centuries) not long after its first centennial; and nowhere else were the oppressed and dissident ever heard so loudly as in modern America.

I’m deeply offended by much of our nation’s history – but not by the principles on which it was founded. We’re governed by human beings, so we often fail to live up to those principles; but we should condemn the failure, not the principles we failed to uphold. The best we can do is to learn from our mistakes and try again. As C. S. Lewis said, progress often means going back when we’ve taken a wrong turn. These days, however, it seems we would rather continue aimlessly just to stay off the old path.

My worldview rests on faith, family, and founding fathers – the bedrock of our civilization. But the worldview of modern liberals is rooted in self. They believe that the greatest good is in having what we all desire – comfort, wealth, convenience, pleasure, affirmation – and that government should guarantee us that right in the name of compassion. They don’t consider the long-term consequences for society or the individual in question. If something feels good right now, the left tells us to pursue it. And they’ll find any way to justify that… even if it contradicts research, experience, common sense, and their own original argument.

You see, the left isn’t shaped by any underlying philosophy, so much as their philosophy is shaped by the left. There’s no appeal to religion, nature, history, or law to support their proposals, no objective or authoritative source from which they derive their ideas. Their loyalty is not to God or country. The foundation of modern liberalism is liberalism itself – though it can never be consistently defined, as it changes year by year. As long as it’s “liberal” in some modern sense, it requires no further explanation. When conservatives object that liberalism violates their Christian beliefs or the U.S. Constitution, liberals might just argue that Christ and Constitution violate liberalism… and in their minds, that’s enough.

I don’t mean to say that liberals have no moral standards; obviously, liberals and conservatives should be able to agree on a good many things. No, my point is that modern liberals have no ultimate standard at all, no framework by which their opinions are formed. If they believe the right things, it’s not out of loyalty to the truth; it’s because it’s convenient to the moment. Their standards are made up as necessary and abandoned for new ones on a regular basis. Once an idea goes out of style, they typically lose their passion for it – though it never stops them from believing in their own correctness.

However fickle and far out they get, the left always assumes that their ideas will lead to a happy, free, and moral society – even if those ideas are never the same. No amount of failure can convince them otherwise; no degree of radicalism is ever enough. They never ask if something is right or wrong, good or bad, wise or foolish. They don’t even know how to define those words except by proximity to the left; if it’s liberal, it must be right and good and wise, despite all evidence to the contrary. As a result, they end up condoning, promoting, and believing things for no other reason than its current usefulness.

And that, on the most fundamental level, is why I don’t support the left. (I hope to be more specific in my next post.) My moral views are defined by tried and timeless truths about God and human nature – not by personal desire, political trends, or popular movements. When the answer isn’t clear, I look to what works, not what sounds nice. I don’t care what society tells me. I’m not controlled by public opinion. I don’t have to support allegedly liberal ideas just because “it’s 2021” and our culture has chosen to embrace them. That’s not progress; it’s peer pressure.

True liberalism is the freedom to do what’s right – whether it means going forward or backward. I still believe in that, even if the left has abandoned the cause.

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