Our nation needs both liberals and conservatives

Posted July 05, 2010, at 7:26 p.m.

I’m proud to be an unrepentant liberal. Just as an automobile needs both an accelerator and brakes, our nation needs both liberals and conservatives. But, because conservative commentators have successfully trashed the word, few political leaders are willing to admit that they are liberals.

No one should be embarrassed to be called liberal. The dictionary says that “liberal,” which is closely related to the word “liberty,” means generous, ample, open-minded, favoring reform, free from bigotry, not authoritarian or orthodox, not strict or literal.

The American Revolution was a liberal movement, opposing a conservative English monarchy and parliament. Liberals wrote our Declaration of Independence and Constitution. Liberals gave us our Bill of Rights, extended the vote to men who were not property owners, abolished slavery, extended the vote to former slaves and to women, gave us a public school system, preserved national parks, gave us rural electrification, Social Security and Medicare, created the Interstate Highway System and ended racial segregation. Conservatives said no to most of these reforms.

Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, the rule of law and equality under the law, limitations on government power, tolerance of difference — all are liberal ideas. Liberalism is the tradition of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony, Teddy Roose-velt and Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower, John, Bobby and Ted Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. It is the tradition of Mainers such as Hannibal Hamlin, Margaret Chase Smith, Ed Muskie and George Mitchell.

In religion, liberals affirm freedom of conscience. For the religious liberal faith is ultimately a personal decision. The creeds and dogmas of our churches, even our Bibles, were written by people capable of making mistakes.

As a religious liberal, I read the Bible as I would read any other book, using my reason and intelligence. And my faith, no matter how much it is built on the wisdom of the past, must take into account modern knowledge, including science.

My colleague, the late Rev. Forrest Church, said that the most famous liberal of all time must be God. “No one is more generous, bounteous, or misunderstood,” he wrote. “Every word I can conjure for God is a synonym for liberal. God is munificent and open-handed. The creation is exuberant, lavish, even prodigal. As the ground of our being, God is ample and plenteous.” The Bible tells us that God is love and has a bleeding heart that will not stop.

Certainly Jesus was a liberal. He taught women, and included them in his entourage. He was a pluralist who did not conform to strict orthodox religious practices; he broke the Sabbath laws, for instance. He spoke well of Samaritans, even though they were regarded as heretics. He rejected greed, the glorification of power, and the amassing of wealth without social justice. He said, “Judge not so that you will not be judged,” and “Take the log out of your own eye before you try to remove the speck from your neighbor’s eye.”

He did not go about condemning sexual behavior, but he did criticize those self-righteous religious leaders who judged and condemned others. He said, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” and “Put down your sword, for those who live by the sword will perish by the sword.”

According to the Book of Acts, the earliest Christians held all their goods in common. “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need” (Acts 2:44-45, and 4:32-35). So the Apostles went beyond liberalism, all the way to socialism. And where did they learn to share? The Gospels tell us that Jesus and his disciples kept one common purse.

As a liberal, I prefer humane capitalism. But whenever right-wing commentators deliberately confuse liberalism with socialism, I figure I’m in good company with Jesus and the Apostles.

The Rev. Mark Worth serves the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Castine. He lives in Penobscot.

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