“Liberal” and “Conservative”

We use these words, “liberal” and “conservative” quite a bit and in multiple contexts. From where I stand, I see them used most frequently in theological and political contexts. They are not as helpful as we think, since we often fail to recognize that they operate on two different levels.

The first order use of these terms refers to substantive traditions. The liberal traditions in both political and theological thought are complex and have multiple forms. There are competing visions of what it means to be a liberal. This is also true for the conservative traditions in politics and theology. This first order usage is not the primary way we use the terms, however.

More commonly we lapse into the second order usage. We think of a liberal as one who is open to change and new experience. A conservative is one who wants things to stay the same. This second order usage is perfectly fine – but if we’re unaware that it’s different from the first order usage, we can run into some confusions.

Think about this. Are most participants in the American liberal political tradition liberal (open to change) or conservative when it comes to maintaining Social Security? Are most in the American conservative political tradition conservative (closed to change) when it comes to Obamacare?

Because of these confusions (and others), some have suggested a moratorium on the use of “liberal” or “conservative.” Some say they have become meaningless. I wouldn’t go that far. Rather, I’d prefer that we pay attention to our use of this language and try to be clear.

Paying attention to the ongoing arguments that constitute and advance these complex traditions in both realms, politics and theology, will do us well. It will also do us well to recognize that there are elements of our communities, churches, ideologies, etc., about which we would do well to be liberal, as in open to change, and other elements about which we would do well to be conservative, as in working toward maintaining what we have.

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