Houston Smith, who writes textbooks on world religions, suggests that we should always judge a religion by what’s best in it, not by its more strident expressions. The same is true for ideologies. Liberals and conservatives should be judged by what’s best in them, not by their worst expressions.
With that being said, here’s a little snapshot of both, at their worst and at their best:
At their worst, conservatives are mean-spirited, narrow, and grandiose, seeing every liberalizing tendency as dangerous, godless, an enemy, a tyranny of relativity. With much of the outside world perceived as a threat, strident conservatives live a lot by fear and their primary instinct is to protect, circle the wagons, re-entrench, reduce ambiguity, and have clarity trump everything else. They have one litmus text for morality, abortion. Conservatives, at their worst, move more naturally to exclusion rather than inclusion. God becomes a hammer to defend truth. At their worst, conservatives are prone to use power and authority to shut down discussion and to actively remove those who oppose them. If a conservative doesn’t like you, he or she will try to get you fired! Conservatives, at their worst, are overly serious and grandiose – because they see themselves as the sole guardians of God and truth, and how can such an awesome responsibility be taken lightly?
And liberals return the favor: At their worst, liberals are naive, adolescent, and arrogant. For them, every secular challenge to traditional values and religion is the moral high ground and may itself not be challenged. Secular enlightenment is seen as the exclusive agent in having brought about the liberation of human freedom from superstition and false authority. Secular enlightenment is also seen as being the sole agent in the struggle against racism, sexism, and other forms of inequality and injustice. Its litmus tests for morality are pro-choice and gay marriage. As a young liberal complained recently, at a liberal political convention, you can admit that you have had an abortion or are gay, but you may not admit that you take Jesus seriously. Strident liberals tend to be secular fundamentalists and are unable to see and admit that what’s best inside of their own morality comes out of Judeo-Christian roots. If a liberal doesn’t like you he or she probably won’t try to get you fired but they will try to intimidate and shame you intellectually. God isn’t a hammer with which to defend truth, but God is excluded from public discourse.
But that’s conservatives and liberals at their angry worst, it’s not the place where they should be judged. What are they at their best?
At their best, conservatives keep us aware of some important truths:
First, that energy isn’t friendly and we shouldn’t be naive to that fact. Karl Jung once suggested that it is naive to think that energy is friendly, it isn’t. It’s imperialistic, wreaks havoc with our lives and our relationships, and often beats us up like the playground bully. Taboos exist for a reason and the release of energy is in fact often a slippery slope. Next, conservatives highlight: the truth that every kingdom needs to be protected. From our countries, to our neighborhoods, to our marriages, to our families, to our private relationships, something or someone will invariably encroach on our boundaries and it’s naive to think that what’s precious doesn’t need to be protected. Importantly too, conservatives point out that sexuality is not an exempt area within morality and politics. It too has consequences. Finally, conservatives rightly point out that there are some absolutes. Perhaps we can’t always know what they are and perhaps we sometimes draw our boundaries too tightly and live with too much fear and timidity, but there are absolutes that we cannot ignore without seriously hurting ourselves and our world.
At their best, what do liberals bring to the table?
Liberals rightly highlight that freedom is a divine gift, that it has been bought at a great historical price, and that it should never be denigrated or reduced in God’s name. God wants us to be free, and free from fear. The opposite of a liberal is not the church but the Taliban. Next, liberals rightly point out that there are as many dangers in being too safe as there are in taking risks. As Goethe points out, and every parent knows, the dangers of life are many, and safety is one of those dangers. Liberals too rightly point out that historically the golden age of the church was not as golden for non-whites and for women. Finally, and importantly, liberals at their best, challenge us to “catholicity”, namely, to an ever-wider embrace, to an ever-widening openness to what’s other, to the truth revealed by Jesus that God’s heart is not a ghetto but a house with many rooms.
Sadly though, mostly liberals and conservatives fight each other when in fact they badly need each other. Both carry important truths and our culture and our churches would be far healthier if would accept that.