Civilizations have long been divided along economic, political and religious lines of conservative and liberal. This dichotomy has created the dynamic tension necessary for maintaining an environment wherein progress can be made while keeping a semblance of balance. In America each side of the ideological divide has, until recent times, publicly respected their counterparts and recognized that together they could keep a healthy balance; that, indeed, the dichotomy was necessary for keeping the balance.
In the pages that follow, I will attempt to examine the strengths and weaknesses of each of these positions using historical examples occasionally to show contrast between the two. The contrast, as is true of the definitions, are sharper than real life; most people exhibit a mixture of liberal and conservative views. Please keep this qualifier in mind when the contrast seems too stark.
In the political arena Americans are now well into an unhealthy, destructive and insidious paradigm shift; trust, respect, tolerance and appreciation of the opposition have largely disappeared and have been replaced with intolerance, disrespect and lack of cooperation by both parties. Political compromise has been replaced with rigid partisan barricades. I will return to this idea later.
Dictionary definitions of liberal and conservative include the following:
|Not confined or restricted in a literal sense||Often literal|
|Not narrow or contracted in mind; broad minded||Narrow, not broad minded|
|Generally non-judgmental||Generally judgmental|
|Believes in the inherent goodness of man||Believes in the sinful nature of man|
|not bound by orthodox tenets or established forms in political religious philosophy||bound by orthodox tenets or established forms in political or or religious philosophy|
|welcomes change||opposed to change|
|not conservative||not liberal|
These definitions, taken from more than one dictionary, form a composite that describes fairly the two major mindsets that divide the human family.
The paradigm shift referred to earlier was largely brought about by a fusion of political and religious conservatives. The major impetus for the fusion was the development of the so-called Moral Majority movement led by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell aided by Rev. Pat Robertson and Rev. James Dobson and other right wing religious conservative ideologues. Their modus operandi was, and is, the essence of conservatism; rigid ideology, intolerance, reversion to fundamentalism, literalism, pervasive propensity toward moral judgments and the uniting of church and state. Rev. Falwell, by his own admission, lived for the day the church and state would be united.
Approaching politics with their “I speak for God” stance combined with the fervor of a true believer willing to go to any length to advance the cause they espouse and the God they serve, these apostles of dissension have indeed brought about a paradigm shift in America that may never be reversed. It has alienated political leaders who previously were friends who honestly disagreed, and therefore, could work out a reasonable compromise. It has affected church members and indeed all citizens in a negative way by casting them into these polarized camps. The fusion of political and religious conservatives has overwhelmed and sidelined fiscal conservatives as seen in the last few years of fiscal irresponsibility on the part of government.
To me, at the societal level, the term conservative means keeping one’s philosophy and behavior the same as they were in former times. It means maintaining sameness, stability, security and the appearance of agreement regardless of the subject or the need for change. And that translates into stagnation and lack of progress.
In the religious sphere conservatism at its apex is reflected in fundamentalism. Fundamentalist Christians try to maintain their faith and lifestyle in a fashion such as it was in the days of Jesus, or at least as it was in the days of their grandparents; which in itself is a compromise. Conservative Muslims and other religious groups share this propensity to hold on to ancient ways. The problems with this approach to life are many. Witness the losing struggle the Amish have in avoiding electricity, automobiles and modern dress. Pentecostals lost their struggle against comic strips and radio in the 1950s; and they are losing the fight against television.
The battles fundamentalists are most entrenched in now are those against science and education. Unnoticed by many fundamentalists is the schism between their anti-science and anti-intellectual stance and their use of the fruits of science; they ride in automobiles that are guided by satellites while talking on cell phones on their way to the hospital where they will be treated by physicians virtually all of whom have learned biology and medicine based on the evolution of man.
Baptists who were once champions of church and state separation, are now leading fundamentalists in a return to the ancient practice of a united church and state. The Roman Catholic Church has, of course, never abandoned that abusive and counterproductive system.
Most fundamentalists are also literalists, believing that every word in the Bible is the absolute word of God and should be interpreted literally. The Bible to them is without mistake or contradiction; it is historical and scientific truth. Never mind that it is the earth that moves and not the sun; the Bible says that the sun stood still and “that is that” regardless of what science says. Never mind that Noah’s flood was said to have been on the earth 5 months or, as stated later, 10 months, fundamentalists believe the Bible has no contradictions or conflicts. Never mind that many creatures are born with atrocious deformities; God is depicted as a perfect creator of everything including all living things. Never mind that without the interference of man, over 90 percent of all creatures that ever existed are now extinct; in the mind of the conservative their failure to survive casts no cloud of doubt on the perfect creation story.
Early Christian believers were convinced that the end time was near; many thought they would live to see it. Therefore, planning for a future on earth was not a high priority. Some conservatives today see little reason to be concerned with overpopulation of the earth, preserving the environment and earth’s resources, global warming and pollution. After all, they reason, the end time is near and scientists cannot be trusted to be right or truthful about those predicted dire consequences of fouling our nest; it is just more liberal soft-headed nonsense.
Jesus was too liberal for the establishment and for many of his Jewish followers. His support for the poor, criticism of the establishment, support for separation of church and state, inclusiveness of Gentiles, women, the poor, the powerless and oppressed, and his willingness to reject the Biblical law under which the Jews lived, was too much for many of them. Given the times in which he lived can there be any doubt that his positions on these issues were liberal positions?
Liberals have followed up on his example, being more inclusive and accepting of people of different color, belief, culture, sex and lifestyle; being willing to modify the ancient law to fit new understanding. More than a century ago liberal churches followed his example by espousing the Social Gospel. Today non-religious groups such as humanists espouse his example also. Liberal politicians who have risked careers by espousing legislation prohibiting discrimination, providing for those who are poor, sick, powerless and in need are continuing the caring mission he started. Was Jesus the first widely influential liberal?
American liberals have made some astounding strides in the last two hundred years. Liberal “muckrakers” cleaned up the meat packing industry and other elements of the commercial food trade, made cars safer, forced the railroads to erect lights and crossing guards to protect pedestrians. Liberals cleaned up mental hospitals where the churches dominated with their devil possession theories, where they beat the patients and generally made them miserable so the evil spirits would leave. This happened in America. Liberals were responsible for securing women’s right to vote. Liberals were responsible for Social Security that was fought by conservatives until the 1960s and some oppose it even today. And, yes, liberals were responsible for integration and civil rights legislation.
If conservatives had their way, we would still have slavery. Liberals are responsible for public education; if it were not for compulsory, tax supported public education, the wealthy would send their progeny to high-class schools and the rest would remain uneducated and working at slave wages as before. Were it not for liberals there would be no child labor laws; young children would be working in factories. Aubrey Williams, an Alabama boy, started his work life at age 6 in a factory screwing nose cones on torpedoes. He had to stand on a box to reach the torpedoes. Williams eventually ran some of President Roosevelt’s 1930s programs – WPA (in the south), NYA and, eventually, the REA (Rural Electric Program). When President Roosevelt came into office there was not one program designed to help people (individuals) in need. There was no history or model for individual assistance. But corporate welfare was everywhere: shipping, railroads, automobile and airplane industries. All received regular support and subsidies from Federal coffers. The government was bailing out sinking companies right and left. This is still happening under both parties and is taken for granted, while proposals for assistance to individuals, such as universal health insurance, is highly controversial. When the depression, under conservative President Hoover, got so bad people in the larger cities were suffering and veterans protested on Soldier’s field, President Hoover sent the military in to control the protesters , and some of the protesters were killed. His successor, President Roosevelt, the liberal, took a different approach, using government money to generate millions of jobs nationwide. These were jobs for individuals; it was the model for government support of individuals in need. Liberals created the minimum wage, public housing and the food stamp program. Now liberals are leading the way in rights for homosexuals who are also, according to the creator theory, a creature of a loving God. The list goes on.
Not all liberal programs have worked totally as intended, but overall they have made our American society a better place in which to live. It is unbelievable that, at a time when America is racked with uncertainty and pain created largely by the notoriously conservative financial industry to the tune of billions of dollars, there is still opposition to the liberal initiated universal health insurance plan on the basis that it costs too much.
I cannot name one major social program initiated by conservatives.
There is no argument against the idea that both political parties are needed as a check and balance to each other. However, conservatism, which by its very nature is resistant to change and out of the box thinking, has so calcified this balancing principle that it is no longer much of an asset to either side. That this paradigm shift is profound and tragic there can be little doubt. One suspects that even those politicians who brought the shift about did not anticipate the true consequences and are powerless to retreat; they are trapped in a web of their own making. Conservative, fundamentalist, literalist Christians, having spoken for God, cannot retreat or escape from their own self-made prison. To retreat would cast doubt either on their God or on their misrepresentation of him.
The use of the “God Card,” as the current vernacular would have it, suggests desperation on the part of conservatives. It suggests that the anemic state of their philosophy demands the attention of the divine. Perhaps the ineffectual nature of their political philosophy prompts a longing for the combined power of church and state as it existed in the pre and post Christian era. Never mind that Jesus said render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s.
In conclusion, none of what has been presented here is intended to portray a “good guy vs bad guy” scenario, but rather to portray good people guided by debilitating philosophies. And none of this is to suggest that the liberal philosophy is always right, but being free to go in different directions in their thinking liberals are more diverse and less cohesive and therefore usually less controlling and extreme. A final point is that when conservative politics and conservative religion combine forces they reinforce each other creating a powerful, regressive and destructive force that will inevitably bring conflict between faith, science and reason. The conservative political and religious coalition has gained so much momentum in the last few years that politicians of both parties are afraid it cannot be reversed. The Faith Based Initiative is the golden egg laid in the church manger by the tax paying goose. President G.W. Bush, failing to get the program passed by the Congress created it by Executive Order. President Obama, a constitutional scholar who knows the program is unconstitutional, appears to be afraid to abolish it by his own Executive Order.