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Thursday, June 1, 2006

Two cheers for conservative liberals.

I see that my friend Thom has preached a sermon — "Is there such a thing as a conservative UU?" — that draws extensively from a comment I attached to a blog entry more than a year ago. I figure if Thom can find something worth quoting in that comment, I might as well dig it out, dust it off, and publish it as its own entry. It's my partial defense of "conservative Unitarian Universalists":

How I sometimes hate the words "conservative" and "liberal." But I use them anyway because they do, in fact, mean something — or several somethings, not all of them well coordinated. Here we go:

I have to appeal to an a-ha moment I had way back in high school, when for some God-only-knows reason I read Clinton Rossiter's 1962 book Conservatism in America: The Thankless Persuasion. (Yes, those were strange, lonely years for young Philocrites.) What stood out for me about that book was Rossiter's contention that almost all major American political movements could be classified as varieties of liberalism, and that conservatism as such had never really flourished in America.

This may strike many UUs as so deeply counterintuitive as to be simply false, but I've never quite shaken off Rossiter’s basic premise. The U.S. is a liberal constitutional democracy; ours is a liberal society; and yet "liberal" is now, thanks to the calculated work of a band of people who ought to be ashamed of themselves, a bad word. (Today's "conservatives" often prefer the word "freedom" instead. Which is a liberal idea. Oops.) My contention is that even those UUs who claim to be conservatives are, in fact, liberals who disagree with the narrowed definition of liberalism embraced by so-called "liberal Democrats." I dare you to find a genuine conservative in Unitarian Universalism; I'd love to know exactly how their individualist, post-traditional religious beliefs line up with conservatism.

A bit of historical review: The early Unitarians — who tended to be Federalists and Whigs — were conservative liberals; they embraced what you might call a pessimistic liberalism. They rejected the idea that an aristocratic or ecclesiastical hierarchy simply deserved to rule. They embraced a constitutional democracy that derived its authority from the consent of the governed. These things made them liberal in their political philosophy. But it's significant that they also embraced a limited franchise, representative democracy, a system of checks and balances, and inalienable individual liberties that neither the state nor the will of the people could take away. They were wary of popular democracy, in other words, and in many other respects were cautious and tradition-minded. But the only way to describe their political orientation as "conservative" would be to take their liberalism for granted, and to say that they were relatively conservative given their liberalism.

On the other hand, the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian Democrats were much more populist and much more radical. They were what you might call optimistic liberals. The Jacksonian revolution introduced a very different variety of liberalism and shocked the staid gentility of the Whigs by significantly expanding the ranks of voters and empowering "rude" people to political prominence. They trusted common people to shape policy directly and generally distrusted intellectuals and elites. But this, too, is a variety of liberalism.

In the last century, the old school Jefferson-revering Southern Democrats — their racism and anti-modernism notwithstanding — were still drawing on liberal themes. We find some of these themes alive and well in contemporary Libertarianism and conservative Republicanism: self-reliance, small government, deference to the legislative branch rather than the judicial branch, etc. I happen to disagree on the substance of a lot of the particular claims, but I can recognize the liberal pedigree of many contemporary “conservative” ideas.

At the same time, the Northern liberal Democrats — the Adlai Stevensons, for example — were elitists, proceduralists, and internationalists — themes that also have liberal roots. For historical reasons, these Democrats embraced the “liberal” label, while Libertarians embraced a variation on the theme, and Republicans over time staked their political fortunes on becoming anti-liberal. It’s an open question whether the Republican Party is also becoming fundamentally illiberal.

Until you make it all the way over to the theocratic (James Dobson) or aristocratic (William F. Buckley) wings of the post-Barry Goldwater Republican Party, you almost could not find a philosophically conservative major political movement in the U.S. Unfortunately, now we have one [or perhaps more than one] with a vengeance. But I bet almost none of our "conservative" UUs identify with these wings of the Republican Party; I'd bet instead that they identify with the socially moderate, fiscally conservative, essentially secular wing of the Party.

If you embrace the idea that individuals can legitimately question and challenge the authority of inherited privilege or inherited submission; if you believe that in political and religious matters people have the moral right and should have the political freedom to reject established doctrines and organize around new ones; if you root the legitimacy of institutions not in their God-given, timeless, eternal Truths but in their responsiveness to evolving human needs; well, if you tend in those directions, you're a liberal whether you want the label or not. Own it, people, even if you're a proud Republican. The Republican Party, after all, is rooted historically in liberal ideals, Barry Goldwater be damned.

I fully endorse your right to be a conservative liberal. (One could make the case that I'm one, although I'd rather not make that case myself right now.) If you're a conservative conservative trying to make your home among Unitarian Universalists, however, I wonder what you're thinking.

Copyright © 2006 by Philocrites | Posted 1 June 2006 at 9:05 PM

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Next: Unitarian Universalists in Mass.'s ten cultural regions.





June 2, 2006 03:05 AM | Permalink for this comment

When you say "the early Unitarians", you of course mean (the context is clear) the early American Unitarians, who, being a part of the Puritan establishment most of them, were surely Conservatives in many political and social issues. But the really-really early Unitarians, those in Central Europe, were much more radical: they were pacifists (at a time when there were 30-year wars raging around the continent and the "Muslim menace" was much more real than it could be now), they tended to oppose or at least ignore political power, and they wanted radical changes in the ways people organized themselves. I am proud of this radical origin and I am not happy to see Conservatism (including a few outspoken Neocons) growing among modern-day UUs. Maybe some people like having a broad political spectrum like the Catholic Church has, but we have neither the size nor the estructural robustness of the Catholic Church to resist many more tensions.


June 2, 2006 07:35 AM | Permalink for this comment

Jaume makes a good point that the Radical Reformation roots of European unitarianism were sectarian. (I wasn't aware that the proto-unitarians were also pacifists, but I did know that other sectarian movements were, so this wouldn't surprise me.) I don't know very much about continental European Unitarianism, but I realize that culture and politics have played out differently there. I do think, however, that English Unitarianism fits the patterns I've described.

One other point: You suggest that conservatism and neoconservatism are growing within U.S. Unitarian Universalism. I'm not sure this is true. I do think that there have always been "conservative liberals" in the American churches — in fact, I think it is historically unusual that they have been the minority — but at different periods their voices have either been unheard or unnoticed. (We remember Jack Mendelssohn from the 1960s and '70s, for example, in part because he was such an eloquent writer — but he wasn't speaking for all UUs, a point he at least acknowledged.)

I'd add that while the blogosphere helps make some perspectives visible, it can also distort the extent to which those perspectives are widely held.

Dudley Jones:

June 2, 2006 12:17 PM | Permalink for this comment

Would you consider Buddhism liberal or conservative? It seems to attract significant numbers of UUs, many of whom are attracted to Zen. Maybe this is not a proper question because there are so very many different kinds of Buddhists, but here it is anyhow.

Jeff Wilson:

June 2, 2006 05:28 PM | Permalink for this comment

I'm getting ready for a party at my house this evening, so I can't address this question of Buddhism as liberal or conservative in depth at the moment. Suffice it to say that I consider Buddhism in the USA to operate _primarily_ as a liberal religious movement (there are certainly counter-examples as well). Among both heritage Buddhists and converts we generally find (comparative to Buddhism in Asia) higher levels of leadership participation by women, a more critical approach to texts, increased lay participation and leadership, criticism of unexamined traditionalism, some form of "social gospel," acknowledgment of multiple valid viewpoints and practices, positive attitude toward non-Buddhists and non-Buddhist religions, greater democratic process within groups, and active engagement with modern culture. There is little in the way of Buddhist intra-community wrangling over issues important to, say, the liberal-conservative splits in American Christianity and Judaism: abortion, text literalism, competing ideas of God, desire for strict orthodoxy and pure communities, millenialism, identity politics, etc. This is not to say that all Buddhist communities in the USA are peaceful and conflict-free; but the issues in Buddhism are different, mainly preferences surrounding orthopraxy, ethnic/racial tensions, the proper location of lineal authority, and disputes over charismatic leaders. None of these readily lend themselves to fundamentalism per se in the American scene, and so Buddhism naturally tends toward the liberal end of the spectrum.

UU participation in Buddhism is mostly located in recently developed convert Buddhist communities. These groups, mainly drawing on a sub-set of Buddhism most closely aligned to certain forms of Zen, Theravada, and Vajrayana, are explicitly part of the Modernist movement in world religion generally from the 19th century onward. They tend to reflect the modern liberal political and religious ethos that Boomer and post-Boomer converts bring into Buddhism, rather than drawing firstly from the ideals of their parent Buddhist lineages in Asia (some which were themselves substantially liberalized, even Unitarianized, in Asia prior to arrival here). I don't say that to diminish their Buddhist credentials (Buddhism is what people who identify as Buddhists say it is, not some essentialized abstract phenomenon outside of particular communities), but to point out that these groups tend to draw heavily and foundationally on American liberal values and seek ways to express them via Buddhism. Often people are actually leaving conservative forms of Westerm monotheism because they perceive them as too poorly upholding American liberal values, and seek to reposition themselves as the loyal minority with a fresh start in the more exotic (but heavily rationalized and re-imagined) American Buddhist scene. In the specifically UU case, the average UU Buddhist practitioner is seeking relatively greater religious coherency by commitment to a particular religious stream (Buddhism has specific texts, traditions, doctrines, and practices, vs. UUism's largely wide open and hodge-podge universalism) and developed spiritual technologies (meditation techniques, etc); what this average UU practitioner is NOT seeking is advice on politics or how to approach religion generally--these things tend to be provided by the UU framework and so are simply imported into each person's emerging UU Buddhism. Thus even though UU Buddhists aren't trying to leave Western monotheism in most cases, they nonetheless effectively replicate the patterns of their non-UU convert Buddhist fellows.

OK, I have to go. Interesting side topic, even if it isn't exactly the matter under discussion.


June 2, 2006 07:43 PM | Permalink for this comment

While Thom and Chris make good points about the meaning of liberalism it is interesting to note that Thom is, himself, no liberal. He writes:

"Our role in society is to be equally engaged and transformational, not meek and removed. It is to clearly and unambiguously call our nation and world back to those great and holy ends we envision for this world. To declare them courageously, and the theological basis for them. And it is our role as a liberal church to unmask and challenge those forces in our country and world that advocate demonic ends, and scheme demonic means for reaching those ends."

The key arguments here, that the purpose of the United States should be determined theologically and that people who disagree with the speaker are "demonic" are ones we hear often from Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell etc. They are not arguments that would be considered "liberal" by the vast majority of people who call themselves liberals. Maybe "theoleftist" but not "liberal"


June 3, 2006 08:25 AM | Permalink for this comment

Yes, I think it's worth seeing that Thom emphasizes what James Luther Adams called the "prophetic" purpose of the liberal church: The liberal church sees religious purposes in the larger society that require cultivation. When it sees these purposes being frustrated (by the state or by other groups of people, including by itself), it judges them prophetically as failures of covenant.

In Adams's view, it's a debased (but nonetheless real) form of liberalism that simply accepts the cultural status quo in a liberal society ("the Progress of Makind Onward and Upward Forever!") as given. A church that doesn't offer a critique of society is a religious failure, in Adams's view.

Having invoked Adams in Thom's defense, I'll add that as long as I've known Thom he's been much less ambiguous in his defense of prophetic liberalism than I am. I don't disagree with Adams, but it seems to me that he never offered a critique of the inherent temptations of false prophecy. He criticized laissez faire liberalism often, because it was the dominant form in Unitarianism and liberal Protestantism when he first began writing in the 1930s, but he never really criticized his own left-liberal biases.

I also find Isaiah Berlin's liberalism compelling because he carefully studied the dangers of utopianism and the zealotry of people who have discovered a singular solution to our problems. Utopianism wreaks havoc. Berlin emphasized instead a liberalism of restraint and managed conflict, because societies are invariably diverse in their values and commitments and can't be organized around singular ends without a lot of coercion.

But Berlin's liberalism was fundamentally secular, and I don't know how to apply his insights in religious or theological contexts. I'd love to know what he might have said if he and Adams had ever become aware of each other.


June 3, 2006 10:29 AM | Permalink for this comment

Philocrites, you may check the story about the Polish Brethren and their "wooden swords" in the Wikipedia:


June 3, 2006 08:28 PM | Permalink for this comment

Thanks this is very helpful. I have always wondered how exactly the AUA weent from the complacent libertarianism of William Howard Taft to the organization we all know and love. Maybe JLA is the key.

I have always thought of JLA as one of a generation for whom the rise of fascism discredited traditional liberalism. Maybe that is why JLA and many other prophetic UUs refuse to accept that fascism was discredited by the events of the 1940s. They need to keep fascism around to fend off the charms of traditional liberalism.

Maybe this also explains why so few US liberals are UUs. Liberals tend to be optimistic people yet JLA's vision of Christian Fascism is pretty dark. It has the horrors of the apocalypse without any real prospect of redemption. After all if 50 million liberals and 100 million moderates can't stop fascism in America, what hope is there for 160,000 UUs?

Personally, having been brought up in a UU home and having spent my adult life in very liberal parts of the country I tend to think that old fashioned liberalism is in pretty good shape in America. The most popular politician in the country is a guy who, when his marriage broke up, moved in with a gay couple. Obviously the country isn't perfect and there is no cause for complacency, but things are, on average, getting better.

Kevin M:

June 4, 2006 08:28 PM | Permalink for this comment

I'll go you and Rossiter one better, Philocrites, and question whether today's "conservative" movement is actually all that conservative in the traditional philosophical sense. In The Right Nation by Micklethwait and Wooldridge (which I've plugged here many times already; given your interests, uuwonk, I encourage you in particular to check it out), the authors distinguish contemporary American conservativism from the older European variety by pointing out that classical conservatism is self-consciously elitist and wary of change. American conservatives, on the other hand, are remarkably populist and almost reckless in their willingness to tinker with the way things are done in order to achieve what they consider a brighter future.

Here's what Wooldridge has to say:

One of the things that most strikes one as a foreign visitor to the U.S. is the size, scope, and ambition of the conservative movement. Many American conservatives think that they are part of an international brotherhood, that there are people like them all around the world, and they can point to the fact that they have been influenced by European thinkers, such as F.A. Hayek and Leo Strauss.

But the truth is that they are very much alone in the world. There are simply no equivalents anywhere else. There are lots of equivalents of the American left, if you think of public sector workers or academics or union operatives; those sorts of people exist very much in Europe. But the sort of people who dominate the American right -- the anti-tax activists, the religious enthusiasts, the people who want to restore traditional values -- they are very much peculiar to the U.S.

This is partly a matter of beliefs, that American conservatism is a very different creed from European conservatism. It’s more hostile to government, it’s more individualistic, more patriotic, more optimistic, less concerned with issues such as hierarchy and traditional elites.

But it is also, and even more importantly, a matter of organization. There simply isn’t anywhere else in the world an organized right like in the United States, where you have Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly; you have 1,500 Christian radio stations, 200 Christian television channels; you have extraordinary huge, powerful think-tanks. These sorts of religious organizations, these think-tanks, at least on the scale that they operate in the United States, just don’t exist in Europe.

Today's American conservatives are, in other words, a highly organized social change movement with a reflexive tendency to champion the average person's quest for freedom: freedom from taxation, freedom from government intervention, freedom to practice religion in the public square, and so forth. They are hardly aristocratic snobs. The American conservative movement beats with a liberal heart, and I find it fascinating that American liberals and conservatives don't realize how similar they are, and how different from the rest of the world.


June 4, 2006 08:47 PM | Permalink for this comment

Kevin, I think Wooldridge and Micklethwait are largely saying something quite similar to what I'm saying -- but better, of course -- and I thank you for quoting them. But I'd add that even though some branches of the American conservative movement are reformist or even (like some forms of libertarianism) liberal, other branches are I think genuinely reactionary. Some parts of the Christian right, for example, are profoundly antiliberal; their movement does not "beat with a liberal heart," and it would be foolhardy to pretend otherwise.

I'll gladly agree that some on the Christian right are not genuinely "conservative." Instead, their traditionalism often fades off right into neofascism. But if you're trying to point out that many religious Americans do share a liberal worldview (generously understood) while also holding much more conservative religious and cultural values, I'm right there with you.

Kevin M:

June 5, 2006 12:10 AM | Permalink for this comment

Some parts of the Christian right, for example, are profoundly antiliberal; their movement does not "beat with a liberal heart," and it would be foolhardy to pretend otherwise.

I don't mean to suggest that conservatives are merely liberals in disguise, but rather that virtually all American political movements are based on a set of rhetorical pretenses that can only be described as liberal: the notion that their particular ideology champions the freedom and autonomy of the many against the constricting interests of the few. The right rails against "activist judges" in virtually the same terms as the left rails against "greedy corporations." I think the basic impulse is the same.

There are certainly authoritarian elements on the right: fundamentalist Christians who would be happy to see America become a theocracy and nationalistic bigots who would be happy to see America veer into fascism. But I think that both of these positions are marginal and extreme; I doubt if they prevail among the 30% or so of American voters who consistently call themselves conservative. Likewise, there are plenty of authoritarian views to be found on the fringes of the far left, but few serious threats.

So perhaps I should ask what you have in mind when you talk about profoundly antiliberal conservatives. It's easy to see a constitutional ban on gay marriage, for example, as profoundly antiliberal: it would, after all, explicitly exclude a class of people from a social benefit, a move that would undeniably restrict their freedom and autonomy. But the right would counterargue that this benefit does not actually exist for gay people, and that a constitutional ban is a fair and democratic way to keep it from coming into existence by antiliberal means, which is to say, by judical fiat. Think what you will of this argument (I think it's baloney), it has great currency on the right because of, not despite, its liberal premise.

Peter A. Taylor:

June 6, 2006 10:05 PM | Permalink for this comment

Dear Mr. Walton,

I think this article is essentially correct.

I am the founder of the Conservative Covenant Group at the Bay Area UU Church (Houston, TX), and I can vouch that political language has been a real stumbling block.  I consider myself more "small-l libertarian" than "conservative," but we settled on Conservative in our name as being the least misleading alternative of any reasonable length. Our minister, Rev. Matt Tittle, has also written cogently on the confusion resulting from the use of the words "liberal" and "conservative" simultaneously in both religious and political contexts, where they mean different things. You may find our FAQ (written by Jason Pullen) and several articles of mine here:


My articles (see the Religion and Partisan Politics sections):

I would like to draw your attention in particular to the Southwest UU Summer Institute (SWUUSI) 2005 workshop notes.

Steven den Beste has argued that liberal and conservative are not opposites--they are not on the same axis. The opposite of a liberal is an authoritarian, and the opposite of a conservative is a radical. A liberal who is living in a country where the liberals won the revolutionary war and who wants to preserve that victory is thus both a liberal and a conservative.

I would argue that Adam Smith was a liberal, and Karl Marx was an authoritarian. In my opinion, people whose economic (and social) views are more in the Marxist tradition than in the classical tradition have no business calling themselves "liberals." Properly understood, "liberal" is my word, and as someone who is embarrassed by the Libertarian movement, I want my word back.

Thank you,
Peter Taylor

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