Liberal has become a "cuss" word in both American religion and politics. I recently received from a fundamentalist church in Florida a brochure announcing its annual lectureship. This year's subject is "The Blight of Liberalism," and every speaker on the panel has been assigned the task of denouncing some aspect of religious liberalism. During the 2004 presidential campaign, George W. Bush constantly smeared his opponent by labeling him a "liberal." No attempt was ever made to explain what is wrong with being a liberal, because the candidate knew that his audience, especially those with fundamentalist religious beliefs, had been conditioned over time to react negatively to the suggestion that someone was a liberal. Both religious leaders and politicians know that merely saying the word liberal will usually bring desired negative reactions from their audiences.
People generally don't like change. They prefer that everything, especially customs and traditions, remain the same as when they were growing up, and we often hear people talking nostalgically about "the good old days" when life was much better than it is now. I am especially sensitive to this issue, because my mother was probably more resistant to change than anyone I have ever known. When cars began to come from factories with seatbelts as standard equipment, she obstinately refused to wear tham and even took scissors and cut them out of the last two cars she bought. They didn't have seatbelts when she was growing up, so, by golly, they didn't need them now either. After she had cut the seatbelts out of a new car she had bought, she had a serious wreck that totaled both cars involved. Luckily, she suffered only a broken ankle, but she still refused to admit that seatbelts might be a new idea that was worth trying. When she reached 65, she refused to accept social security, because... that's right, because they didn't used to have social security, so she wasn't going to depend on government handouts to live. Never mind, that she had paid social security for years while she was working as a nurse. It was still a handout, and she just wasn't going to accept it. At the age of 72, the social security checks were sent anyway, and she died not knowing that they had kept her from losing the farm that had been in her family for years. She spent six years unaware of her surroundings in a 24-hour daycare center, whose costs amounted to more than the income from her farm, so the added income from social security had saved her farm from the auction block. I regret that she died not knowing how helpful that new fangled social security turned out to be.
Having grown up in a family so resistant to social change, it is no wonder that I began my adult life as an ultraconservative socially, religiously, and politically. It is also a wonder that I ever made changes in my life that have left me a social and political moderate and an unabashed religious liberal. I eventually came to realize that if there had never been liberals, willing to try new ideas and experiment with social changes, we would all be living in caves today instead of the modern homes that make life comfortable for us. The first human who found that tools could be fabricated to make life simpler was a liberal, and so was the person who discovered that fire could be domesticated. All through human history, the social groups who were willing to try new ideas were the ones who brought us to where we are today. Political and religious conservatives today laud the so-called "founding fathers" of our nation, but I doubt that many of them have ever stopped to think that these men were the radical liberals of their day. They weren't satisfied with the political status quo. They wanted change, and change could best be obtained by declaring political independence from England. The conservatives of that time wanted to retain their colonial affiliation with England, so had there been no political liberals in the 18th century, life for us today might be substantially different from what it now is. Like Canada, we might have become just another part of the British Commonwealth.
We see bumperstickers that say such things as, "If you can read this, thank a teacher," or, "If you enjoy liberty, thank a vet." I have often thought of making a bumpersticker that says, "If you enjoy the good life you now have, thank a liberal," because every idea, invention, and social improvement that make life comfortable had their origins with liberals who were not satisfied with status quo in their lives and tried new ideas.
This is something that religious conservatives have difficulty understanding, and so we have conservative extremists like those in Amish societies who shun "modern inventions" like automobiles, electric lights, and telephones, apparently not realizing that there was a time when horsedrawn carriages, candles, and written communications like letters were the very latest developments that had been introduced into society by the liberals of their time. Not every fundamentalist religious group is as extremely conservative as the Amish, but in matters of religious doctrines and ceremonial rituals, many groups resist all changes. Hence, Catholics still want their priests dressed in ancient ceremonial robes, waving censors, sprinkling holy water, and using Latin in masses. I mentioned the conservative religious views that I used to have and preach. I grew up in the Church of Christ, which proudly--but incorrectly--boasts that it is exactly like the church of the first century. Hence, its members resist all ceremonial, ritual, and doctrinal changes and are for all intents and purposes the ceremonial, ritual, and doctrinal equivalents of the Amish. This keep-things-as-they-are attitude was so deeply ingrained into my personality that it took years for me to overcome it and moderate my social and political views and eventually liberalize my religious thinking.
Those religious conservatives who abhor even the mere suggestion of changes in their churches apparently don't understand the New Testament well enough to realize that they are the antithesis of Jesus Christ, a notable liberal of his day who brought about radical religious changes. If you keep in mind that a religious conservative is someone who wants to keep doctrines and rituals as they are and have been thoughout his/her life, it will be easy to see that Jesus was certainly no conservative. His desire to effect changes in the religion of his day was very much in evidence in his sermon on the mount. In all of the quotations below from that sermon, Jesus was speaking in a way that clearly showed that he wanted changes in the religious thinking of his time.
Matthew 5:21 "You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, 'You shall not murder'; and 'whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.' 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, 'You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire.
Matthew 5:27 "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
Matthew 5:33 "Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, 'You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.' 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be 'Yes, Yes' or 'No, No'; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
Matthew 5:38 "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.
Matthew 5:43 "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?
"But I say to you" was a central theme in the sermon on the mount. It was Jesus's way of saying that what has always been done was not good enough and that improvements were needed. That was the voice of a liberal, who wanted changes, and not a conservative, who wanted his sudience to stick to the old ways.
A rigid observance of the Sabbath was expected of all faithful Jews, but Jesus showed that he thought that common sense should be used to determine how strictly the Sabbath should be observed.
Mark 2:23 One sabbath he [Jesus] was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, "Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?" 25 And he said to them, "Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? 26 He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions." 27 Then he said to them, "The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.
Situational ethics is another cussing term with fundamentalist groups, who think that morality is always objective, but an attitude of situational ethics was clearly shown by Jesus in his reply to the Pharisees who had condemned his disciples for gathering grain on the Sabbath. As Jesus said here in telling the story of David's eating of the showbread or bread of the presence, priests were the ones who were supposed to eat it (Lev. 24:5-9), but he clearly indicated that David, who was urgently in need of food, had done no wrong in eating the showbread that was given to him. In saying that the sabbath was made for man [humankind] rather than man [humankind] for the sabbath, Jesus was saying that situations can arise when religious customs and laws should be disregarded.
The law of Moses stipulated that one caught in adultery should be put to death (Lev. 20:10), but when a group of Pharisees brought to Jesus a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery and asked if she should be put to death as prescribed in the law of Moses, Jesus made his often quoted statement, "Let him who is without sin among you cast the first stone" (John 8:7). Incidents like these in the life of Jesus show that he was indeed a notable liberal who believed that adjustments to circumstances in life could be more important than strict observance of religious customs and laws. As noted in this section of "The Morality of the Religious Right," Jesus thought that showing mercy and compassion were "weightier matters" that were more important than keeping the letter of the law. That was a liberal idea for someone living in a society dominated by the influence of strict Pharisaical observance of religious laws. Jesus, then, was indeed a notable liberal of his time, who was willing to put compassion, mercy, and plain old common sense above religious laws that had been written centuries earlier.
Unfortunately, many people in our society, Pharisaically tied to their own religious customs and laws, have yet to recognize the debt that they owe to liberals. Had there been no liberals, we would be living in a radically different social, political, and religious environment. For one thing, if Jesus had not been a liberal who was willing to try new ideas rather than to live slavishly bound to old religious customs and traditions, there would be no Christianity that so many conservatives in our society consider to be primarily important in their lives.
The next time a preacher or a politician labels
someone a "liberal," ask yourself why that
within itself should be any reason to hold him/her in disdain. Keep in
mind a logical axiom
that recognizes that the truth or falsity of propositions is always
independent of its source,
so it is entirely possible that an idea proposed by a liberal just
might be worthy of your
consideration. Indeed, history has taught us that the ideas of liberals
have been the driving
force that led us out of caves into the society that we now enjoy, and
whatever progress awaits
mankind in the future will come to us through the efforts of liberals
who will dare to buck
the status quo and consider new ideas. Knowing that should be enough to
encourage you to
listen to what that liberal has to say.