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Beyond Liberal or Conservative

One of my heroes, Fr. James Schall, has penned a fun essay describing how the terms "liberal" and "conservative" have lost much of their meaning and can often get in the way of thinking critically about particular ideas. One important point he makes is how 18th and 19th century liberals would be called "conservatives" in most Anglo-American political circles.

When asked if he is liberal or conservative, Schall responds that he is a "Thomist." That would be a better description, however, there are also many varities of Thomists.

A lot of people complain they don't like the terms "liberal" or "conservative," but not for the reasons Schall describes. Most don't want to be associated with bedfelllows they may not like to have (understandable - I don't like Jerry Falwell one bit). However, this sentiment often arises from a refusal to go back to first principles and consider the implications of those truths for one's worldview. Except for a few cherished issues (if any) most folks want to do take a common-sense, pragmatic approach that is both conciliatory and goes with the flow. If there is anything one wants purposely to avoid, it is showing any hint of extremism. As one good friend put it, "we are all moderates now." Just look at our college campuses today. There is harldy a whiff of radicalism or rallying to some cause, and no one gets excited politically these days except for the defense of deviant sexual behavior, whether personal or someone else's.

I for one will gladly retain the moniker conservative, despite its baggage. I don't think we need to abandon terms because folks don't understand them or they have been dumbed down. I think certain labels are helpful as they provide a reference point for discussing issues. If I know where someone is coming from, I can seek to establish common ground and then move the discussion further to some conclusion. The folks that don't understand conservatism, its variants, or what it stands for, generally aren't the sort that will want to engage in these sorts of discussions anyway, so why abandon the term so that these folks won't get confused about what I stand for. Let's seek to educate folks about what conservatism is and isn't.

In my view, conservatives stand for authority, community, and tradition. These are the basic principles of social order. Social order provides the medium through which liberty is properly exercised and develops into virtue. Man's true end is to grow in virtue and holiness. The state should assist man in this goal, but it is emphatically not the state's responsibility to make man virtuous. It provides the peace, order, and freedom for man to pursue this end.

So, in my view conservatives are not necessarily: 1) Republicans; 2) Theists (although that is a more tenuous position); 3) foreign policy hawks (or isolationists); 4) enemies of the welfare state; 5) suburbanites with SUVs and Wal-Mart cards; or 6) tempermentally conservative (reserved might be the better word). The last point gets to the fact that conservatives need not be boring or sticks in the mud. Most might reject the degrading culture that surrounds us today, but may enjoy dancing, jazz, most of the rock music that has been released (debatable), and a whole host of other universally-acknowledged "cool" or "fun" things.



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