Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

Why I Am a Political Liberal (U. S. Context)

Unlike my former blog, Levellers, Pilgrim Pathways is not primarily about the intersection of faith and politics and I don’t want to focus much on U.S. electoral politics–although one cannot write about Christian theology in an apolitical way since themes of peacemaking, social and economic justice, racial justice, the equality of the sexes and much else are rich biblical/theological themes.  But because of the widespread assumption in the U. S., especially in the media, that all or most Christians are political conservatives (or even reactionary rightwing zealots), I thought I would write this testimony about why I have always been a political liberal. (I am also a political progressive–the terms are not interchangeable and I may write a subsequent post on being a progressive.)

First, let us distinguish “liberal” and “conservative” as tendencies or orientations vs. these terms as the names of  particular politicial ideologies or movements.  A person who is conservative by orientation or temperament is a traditionalist who likes things to change slowly, if at all.  By definition, he or she is more comfortable with the status quo (or an idealized form of such from his or her remembered childhood) than with movements for change.  A liberal by orientation is less satisfied with the status quo and embraces change–is future oriented rather than past oriented.  In this sense of orientation, rather than ideology, all societies need both conservatives and liberals–in order to avoid chaos or dissolution any period of rapid or massive change needs to be offset or balanced by a period of “normalcy” or rest or regrouping.  A society will have good things that need to be preserved from the past as a heritage and those of conservative orientation are the champions of such heritage and tradition. But a society, any society, will also have negative features that need to be overcome (in the U.S., think of slavery, segregation, the times when women couldn’t vote, own property their own names, own businesses, work in “men’s jobs,” hold political office, or have any voice in whether or when they would get pregnant, etc.) and left behind.  Liberals will always lead the charge for such changes.

Now, more specifically, about U.S. liberalism as a political philosophy that I largely share.  It champions individual freedom (both the conservative and progressive traditions add a concern for the common good that is needed to balance the liberal focus on the individual) , is suspicious of concentrations of power (and wealth is power), trusts in reasoned debate and an open society and marketplace of ideas.  It is democratic because it trusts in people to govern themselves.   It is not overawed by traditional authority.   The roots of liberalism are found in the radical Free Church strand of  Protestantism ( with maybe some earlier roots in Medieval nominalism) and the 17th C. Enlightenment philosophy.  In the Free Church tradition, I would highlight especially the thought of  Gerrard Winstanley (1609-1676), John Milton (1608-1674), William Penn (1644-1718), Richard Overton (c. 1631-1664), & Roger Williams (c. 1603-1683).  The Enlightenment political philosophers most influential on the U.S. liberal tradition are the Englishman John Locke (1632-1704),  the Frenchman Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), and the Americans Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), & James Madison (1751-1836).

Contemporary defenses of politicial liberalism that I find helpful (although not agreeing with every part of any of these sources) include: John Rawls, A Theory of Justice Political Liberalism;  Michael Walzer, Spheres of Justice; Susan Moller Okin, Justice, Gender, and the Family;  Seyla Benhabib, Situating the Self: Gender, Community, & Postmodernism in Ethics; Democracy and Difference; Cornel West, Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism; Paul Krugman, The Conscience of a Liberal; Paul Rogat Loeb, The Impossible Will Take a Little While; Soul of a Citizen; Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism; Robert Wexler, Fire-Breathing LiberalThose are a good start.  I was also inspired by the fiction of Flannery O’ Conner, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Dickens, Les Miserables,  & the utopian liberalism of Gene Roddenberry’s “Star Trek” universe.

But the roots of my political liberalism are not just historical, or derived from books–it is wrapped up in my autobiography.  I am a liberal (in the U.S. sense) because, first and foremost, my family supported desegregation. If you were a white person growing up in the South in the 1960s and stood against segregation, you were a liberal–plain and simple. (Actually, “liberal” was one of the nicest things we were called. Other terms included “race traitor,” “communist,” and much worse.) In fact, when my parents were young, any white person in the South who even wanted decent treatment for African-Americans (a term that didn’t yet exist) WITHIN the Jim Crow segregation laws (instead of regularly demeaning, terrorizing, and lynching them) were called “liberals.”  I am a liberal because liberals stand for a world not just of individual liberty, but of equality of persons, the common good, and environmental caretaking.

It was American liberals (known as abolitionists) who worked to end the scourge of slavery in this country–a country founded as a slave republic. In the original, unamended, U.S. Constitution, enslaved persons of African descent are only counted as 3/5ths of a person (for the purposes of census).  The abolitionists tried to abolish slavery legislatively–and through Constitutional amendment, only to be constantly thwarted by Southern senators. (A senator from KY used a walking cane to bludgeon an abolitionist senator from New England to death on the floor of the senate!)  The slogan “states rights” was coined to mean the right of slaveholding states to keep slaves without interference from the federal government.  But these same “states rights” conservatives had no philosophical problem with passing the Fugitive Slave Law usurping the rights of other states and using the power of the federal government to force the return of their escaped human property.  The Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, so frustrated with attempts to end slavery within our original slave-loving Constitution burned a copy of it at a 4th of July speech while quoting anti-slavery passages from the Bible.  Another abolitionist (and former slave), Frederick Douglass, gave as one of his most powerful anti-slavery speeches, “What, to the Slave, is the 4th of July?” Arguing that it was a day of supreme American hypocrisy. Douglass contrasted the Christianity of the Bible with the false Christianity of white slaveholders, too.  Liberals defeated slavery; conservatives defended it.

Liberals fought for 70 years to win the right to vote for women. Liberals ended child labor. Liberals created the public school system, arguing that democracy requires universal education–that only an educated electorate can decide intelligently about the issues.  Liberals (and progressives) fought for the rights of workers to organize and bargain collectively for fair wages, times of rest, safe working conditions and benefits.  Liberals (called “muckrakers”) exposed the dangers of tainted meat and other food and created government safety inspections of food and medicines.  Liberals created Social Security (greatly decreasing poverty among the elderly–old age had been a time of absolute fear and horror beforehand), Medicare, Medicaid (and,now, the first steps to truly universal healthcare). Liberals ended segregation (American apartheid) and have continued to work for racial equality and justice and a multi-cultural society where difference is celebrated rather than demonized.  It was a liberal Republican president (Teddy Roosevelt) who broke up the corporate monopolies and created the national park system. It was liberals who began the environmental movement and passed the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Environmental Protection Agency. 

Liberals began the modern tradition of international law, forged international organizations that would help the relations of nations be decided by other things than naked force. Liberals strive for the codification and protection of universal human rights.

All of these things were strongly, often violently, opposed by conservatives.  Sometimes they were later accepted by conservatives–few would argue for a return to segregation, for instance. (However, see Republican  candidate for U.S. Senate from KY and Tea Party hero, Dr. Rand Paul, who would allow segregation in private businesses.) At other times, such as repeated attempts to abolish Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid (and, now, to repeal Health Insurance Reform), the conservative opposition to the progress made by liberals has never died.

(I have not talked about war and peace because these issues do not easily chart along a liberal-conservative axis. There have been forms of liberal internationalism that have resulted in very militaristic outlooks–from Teddy Roosevelt to Woodrow Wilson to FDR, JFK & LBJ–“Cold War liberalism,” to the pro-war views of Clinton and Obama.  Likewise, there have been conservative outlooks that led to anti-war views–especially in the libertarian strand of modern conservatism.  What is true is that liberalism’s international outlook usually works against military unilateralism–but not always.  My own commitment to pacifism and nonviolence is rooted deeply in my Christian faith, not in political liberalism. )

I have been working lately to formulate my view of political liberalism into a few major principles.  This is my latest attempt:

  • People matter more than profits.  Profits matter in most cases. I am not a Marxist (though I have learned from Marx and find the conservative fear to even read Marx or consider the areas in which he is right to be ridiculous). Most businesses will not be non-profit or not-for-profit and without profits few businesses can survive.  But for liberals like myself, unlimited profit can never be the bottom line.  Profits cannot come at all costs.  People matter more than profits.  If a person or company must make less profit for the sake of people–in making a safe product or having safe working conditions or making sure one’s environmental impact is as little as possible, for instance–then the welfare of people trumps higher profits.
  • Corporations are not persons–despite the stupid ruling of the Roberts Supreme Court in Citizens United v. FEC.  The preamble to the Constitution begins “We, the people,” not “We, the corporations.”  The fiction of corporate personhood undermines the human rights of actual persons. 
  • Money is not speech.  The rightwing Supreme Court has been striking down campaign finance laws by claiming that restrictions on campaign donations by individuals or corporations stifles free speech. But if money is speech then there is no free speech.  The person or corporation with the most money can buy the most speech.  Banning corporate financing, publicly financing campaigns and giving each campaign equal access to free media promotes better democracy:  It means that people with great ideas who would make great elected officials can run even if they aren’t rich or supported by the rich. More ideas can be debated in the public sphere than just those approved by the narrow range of the corporate media. And elected officials won’t be owned by the big corporations who fund their campaigns.  If a rich person wants to own more TVs or i-Pads than others, liberals have no complaint–but they must not be allowed to use their money to purchase “more democracy” than others.
  • The Earth is meant to be humanity’s home–not our toilet.  We must care for this planet. Sure, from the beginning we have adapted our environments to suit ourselves. And this is not bad in itself.  But, too often, we have destroyed our environments–turning forests into deserts, wiping out whole species of plants and animals, poisoning our air and water and threatening the survival of our own species with our greed.  To the liberal, there is an ethic of “enough.”  Consumption has limits.  (Why do conservatives never want to conserve anything?)  To a liberal, a responsible ecological ethic is not necessarily anti-technology–but we recognize that technology is not a god and not all technological advances are truly “progress.” We have to care for and adapt to the limits of our environment because we are not separate from it. We are all connected in a great web of life.
  • Individual liberties are balanced with concern for the common good.  Authoritarian societies–whether fascist, communist, or theocratic–oppress all individualism for the sake of (the authority’s view of ) the common good. So, a particular society may decide that homosexuality threatens the common good and thus may have various penalties for gays and lesbians–sometimes even the death penalty. Others may believe that society functions best with women in clearly subservient roles to men–and may disallow women the right to vote or to be educated or to be seen in public, etc.  By contrast, libertarians defend only individual rights (or the rights of corporations).  But the U.S. liberal tradition, influenced by the democratic socialist tradition (a very strong influence on me), works to balance individual liberty and the common good–and recognizes that this balance is not always easy and that errors are made in both directions. (Example: Religious liberty means that all are free to worship the divine as they understand it–or to live without worship if they are atheists. We protect minority religious viewpoints against the tyranny of any religious majority. But there are limits:  If one’s religion demands human sacrifice, concern for the common good must trump that.  One’s religious convictions cannot be exercised to the degree that they represent a threat to others’ wellbeing.)
  • The primary moral values of the political liberal are liberty, equality, & justice, & compassion.  From liberty, we get our concerns for freedom of religion (and it’s corollary, separation of religious institutions from governmental institutions), freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances (my only arrests have come from exercising this right in the form known as civil disobedience).  From equality, liberals do not derive the conclusion of “simple equality” that Marxists would (e.g., demanding that everyone have exactly the same money, property, etc.). Nor are we content with simply the libertarian insistence on “equality of opportunity,” but endorse a “complex equality,” that accepts differences in talent, etc. but works for “equal participation”  and the equal value of all persons.  In liberal perspective, there is nothing inherently unjust in one person making more money than another–as long as all have what they need for human flourishing.  The cumulative GAP between rich and poor (i.e., the erosion of the middle class) is unjust, however, because it represents the concentration of power in the hands of the few.
  • Government (of the people, by the people, for the people) exists not just for defense of property and the enforcement of contracts (the conservative view), but to enable people to work together to those good ends which are difficult or impossible to do separately. To the liberal, the debate over “big government” vs. “small government” is mostly misplaced–the debate should be over what constitutes good government.  Clean government vs. corrupt government, competent government vs. ineffective government, or responsive government vs. out-of-touch government–are all the kinds of debates that liberals find more helpful than simple “big vs. small” government debates.
  • Taxes are a civic tithe.  Yes, taxes can be too high and too burdensome.  And, especially in a nation like ours that began with a series of tax protests, no one is ever going to like paying taxes.  But taxes are not inherently evil, but rather the price we pay for civilization. In countries where the taxes are insufficient to pay decent wages to government officials, bribery and corruption is rampant. Taxes are the price for good governance. With taxes we get roads paved, bridges built and kept in repair, levees built and kept in repair–all the infrastructure needed for a healthy society–including a healthy marketplace.  Taxes pay for firefighters and police officers and public schools, Social Security, clean water and air, and much else.  The rich should pay a greater percentage of their income in taxes because they can.  Flat tax schemes are inherently harmful to the poor. (If you have $1,00 & I have $1,000 and we are both taxed 10%, I’ll have $900 left over to get through the month, but you’ll only have $90–and probably won’t make it to the end of the month.)
  • Regulations exist to protect the vulnerable.  No one likes red tape–and all bureacracies get tedious and need periodic reform. It is quite possible to over-regulate things.  But regulation and enforcement of regulation is necessary.  If you don’t want your food to poison you, it needs to be inspected by the U.S. Dairy and Agriculture dept. (USDA) or the restaraunt you’re going to needs inspecting by the health department. If you don’t want your kids to get sick from lead toys from China, then you need regulations–and enough inspectors to prevent this.  If you don’t want oil companies to ravish the planet, then you need strict regulations–and a robust enforcement regime.  With “deregulation” of financing comes risky behavior that results in a collapsed economy.  Regulations need regular reexamination to see if they need reform, but “deregulation” as a battle cry or a political philosophy is a cry for anarchy and a recipe for disaster.
  • Liberals do not worship the “good ol’ days.”  We value and learn from the best of our history and from the mistakes in our history.  But whether it is the “Leave It To Beaver” view of the 1950s or the triumphalist perspective of The Patriot’s History of the United States,  liberals do not have the conservative view of an idealized or perfected past.  Conservatives seem to believe that “the U.S. began perfect and only got better”–until the 1960s.  By contrast, liberals see the promise of the American dream as always being a struggle–“toward a more perfect union.” Liberals can be overly confident about the ability to forge a perfect society in the future–some liberals need a sense of human sin and finiteness. But liberalism is (rightly in my view) oriented to the future. We look to the past for guidance, but we are journeying together toward the future–not wanting a return to a past that wasn’t as good as remembered.

There may be other principles that could be added–and liberals have certainly often made mistakes or had blindspots.  Political liberalism is a tradition–and this is the U.S. strand of that tradition. Traditions are, as the decidedly non-liberal Alasdair MacIntyre reminds us, arguments or conversations over time.  For better and worse, this is tradition in which I stand in the American story.


May 30, 2010 - Posted by | autobiographyu, civil rights, justice, political philosophy


  1. I’m curious if you’ve ever taken a basic course in economic theory. If not, I’d suggest the excellent book Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt. While all your major tenets are extremely laudable, you might be surprised to discover that many of the methods you advance to uphold those tenets are in fact counterproductive to that end. I hope you’ll consider giving it a read.

    Comment by Danny | May 31, 2010 | Reply

    • I am BY NO MEANS an economist, but I have taken basic economics courses and I read popularized accounts by a range of economists including Robert Kuttner, Robert Reich, James Galbraith, Paul Krugman and (more radically) Herman Reuther & Gar Alperovitz. One of my close friends from church has a Ph.D. in economics and worked at the IMF before she and her husband began a socially responsible investment firm/micro-lending institution. Broadly speaking, I am a Keynesian with some neo-Marxist influence–and a decided repudiation of the Milton Friedman-Paul Ruebens “Chicago School of Economics.”

      Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 5, 2010 | Reply

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