Are you a liberal or a conservative?

Liberal or conservative?

Can I buy an “and” to replace that “or”?

The most tiresome and discouraging thing about the current political mess in the USA is that we are supposedly compelled to choose between two polar opposites in answer to every question.

No thanks.

One of the greatest minds in the Western tradition is Aristotle, whose ethics (i.e., the treatise known as The Nicomachean Ethics) is structured throughout on the basis of his belief that between opposite excesses, with regard to every character trait, there is a golden mean: neither too little, nor too much, but just right.

An author of several good books published by the company that I work for does not use the words “conservative” and “liberal” in talking about tendencies in doctrine and practice in her church. She uses the words “liberating” and “conserving.” She makes a good point.

There is something odd about being a proponent of “liberty” but seeing “liberal” as a dirty word. “Liberal education” is education that frees people to realize their fullest potential, that fits them to live as free human beings. “Liberal democracy” is a polity that liberates people from kings, tyrants, and demagogues and enables them to live in freedom.

There is also something odd, for anyone who doesn’t want to live in sheer chaos and anarchy, about having no use for anything “conservative.” Just as there are things from which we need to be set free, there are things worth keeping, and without which life would hardly be worth living.

The task for people of virtue, people who want to be able to live together and flourish together, is to discern, in every situation that is disputed, in every moment of conflict: What do we need to conserve here? And what do we need to be freed from?

I understand that this is not how the words “conservative” and “liberal” are used in our own current political culture. But our current political culture is not well. It is sick. We can do better. Doing better—for our community and for our nation—will depend on teaching our children, in our public schools, in ways that will enable them to discern that our society has both elements that need to be preserved and elements from which we have not yet been freed and need to be freed. Teachers cannot tell them in detail which are which. But teachers can help them learn to make these judgments for themselves on the basis of foundational principles and evidence-based observation of reality.

I grew up among people who called themselves conservatives, always; never liberals. But they also believed in a principle that their pastors called “semper reformanda.” That’s a Latin expression used by the Protestant Reformers of the 16th century: “ecclesia reformata semper reformanda”: the church, once it has been reformed, will always be in need of further reforming. Many Reformed Christians in West Michigan should recognize and resonate with that saying. But I think Americans of every religious persuasion should be able to recognize a related truth: “homo liberatus semper liberandus”: every human being who has been set free—who is an heir to liberty—will still always, this side of the future glory in which some of us hope, need further liberating.

The same must be said of nations. Anyone who tells you that the moment for liberating lies only in the past, and not also in the present and in the future—anyone who says that the only needful thing now is to lock your doors, lock your mind, batten down the hatches, bury the talent in a napkin, claim that we have fully arrived, that there is no need for further self-critique, further change, further setting free of remaining captives—anyone who reflexively rejects every liberal/liberating impulse—is not a true conservative. You cannot conserve liberty by banning liberation any more than you can liberate by setting out to destroy every element of tradition.

We have to get beyond seeing “conservative” and “liberal” as polar opposites. They are complementary principles.

I have not broached particular, concrete, current disputes here. I have only argued for a principle. That is deliberate. Until we can agree that our past has never been perfect but nevertheless gives us much that is of great value, there is no point trying to talk about particulars.


Postscript (11/25/2022): See this similar observation by Yu Levin in 2015:

“To my mind, conservatism is gratitude. Conservatives tend to begin from gratitude for what is good and what works in our society and then strive to build on it, while liberals tend to begin from outrage at what is bad and broken and seek to uproot it.

“You need both, because some of what is good about our world is irreplaceable and has to be guarded, while some of what is bad is unacceptable and has to be changed. We should never forget that the people who oppose our various endeavors and argue for another way are well intentioned too, even when they’re wrong, and that they’re not always wrong.”

2 thoughts on “Are you a liberal or a conservative?

  1. Good afternoon Dr. Ernest,

    I have thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog on both points of ageement and disagreement. I heartily agree with your sentiments expressed with Aristotle that excesses on either side are dangerous (As Plato also attests to in “The Laws,” advising that swinging the pendulum to far in either direction poses great harm to the health of the polis).

    As a product of Caledonia Community Schools I am very happy with the education I recieved, which included the opportunity in taking classes from theater and sports, to industrial arts and financial well-being. Looking back now over a decade later, I would have appreciated better curriculum regarding history/social studies. One of the major issues as an adult I now find with many of my high school history text books is the lack of primary documents for students to read and examine.

    In your opinion, how can the school board introduce history curriculum that relies on primary source documents which allows students to examine, read, discuss, and draw their own conclusions? Examination of primary documents fosters and encourages free and critical thinking in contrast to brief/broad summarization of texts or events which encourages historical proof texting.

    Best wishes,


    1. Jacob, I remember not too long ago hearing someone who teaches elsewhere saying something like: They say teachers are bad-mouthing Christopher Columbus now. I just give my students readings from the diaries of Columbus. They draw their own conclusions.

      I am not a specialist in American history or in the history of American colonization. I was not even aware that Columbus wrote diaries, or that they are extant. But when I hear this teacher say that, I thought: this is a good teacher.

      I know from teaching and taking courses in other areas that textbooks and primary sources can compete for time. Sometimes there’s “so much to cover” that teachers feel compelled to just go with the textbook; they don’t have time to incorporate primary texts extensively. On the level of the high schools and junior high schools, I think revising curriculum to include extensive reading in primary sources would not be a project for an individual teacher. I would love to talk with teachers before trying to make suggestions. This is the sort of question I would love to pursue if I get an opportunity to serve.

      Meanwhile, the new curriculum is certainly a big improvement on the outdated books you were given a decade ago.


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