Serious Thinking Requires Moving Beyond 'Liberal' and 'Conservative' Labels


Once upon a time (say as late as 1948), the terms "liberal" and "conservative" actually held clearly defined meaning.

Conservatives generally regarded change or experimentation via government to be dangerous. They, therefore, sought to slow the pace and scope of change. Liberals for the most part believed the challenges of the time required enormous shifts in the role of government and so pushed for bold action. Nearly all political debates were fueled by this enormous difference in perspective.

It's enough to make one long for the good old days! Nowadays, it seems both so-called conservatives and liberals favor substantial governmental involvement in private and business life. They often differ over what government should do, but both assume government should work to cast American society in their preferred image. The terms "liberal" and "conservative" have been reduced to adjectives attached to particular issues.

That being the case, I propose we abandon both terms when describing ourselves to one another. Rather than "liberal" versus "conservative," I propose we use the following self-descriptors:

--Research versus Soundbite. There is a great divide between those who dig in and do their homework on matters of law, constitutional history, war, peace, public health and the rest of the great issues of our day and those who tend to make decisions on the basis of sound bites.

--Open versus Reflexive. Some of us thrive on options. Others of us prefer to preclude some options from consideration before a discussion begins. Are you intrigued by challenges and ideas, or do you tend to react negatively?

--Integrated versus Tribal. We live in a society composed of many ethnic, racial and language groups. Many of us take a tribal approach to the matter, insisting that all other groups either recognize the primacy of our tribe or become members of our tribe. A few even suggest that all other tribes should leave the country! Others seek to integrate the tribes, hoping to enrich the lives of all of us.

My own bias, of course, is clear. I believe we would be better Christians and citizens if we committed ourselves to research, openness and integration. Such an approach would not lead us to the same conclusions on any given issue. It would, however, tend to transform us into serious persons, capable of thinking clearly for ourselves rather than being pushed to and fro by every headline.

The challenges of the 21st century are too great for "liberals" and "conservatives." Serious women and men, provided there are enough of them, may fashion a future worth having for our children, grandchildren and generations yet to come.

Mike Smith is pastor at First Baptist Church in Murfreesboro, Tenn. This column appeared originally in his blog.

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Tags: Conservatives, Liberals, Mike Smith, Politics