“Conservative” and “Liberal” as Christian Labels

A quick followup to a previous post from a week or so ago about “verbicide”…..The shifting sands of culture, underneath our very feet, have a far reaching impact on how Christians use words.

Take the labels “conservative” and “liberal.”  To conserve, as in conserving or preserving a tradition, is pretty straight forward.  To be liberal, or to liberate, is to set free, or to discard a tradition, is well known. But most of the time, we use these type of words as pejoratives, to identify parties or viewpoints we do not like.

Owen Barfield, one of the Inklings, in company with friend C.S. Lewis, writes about the history behind the adoption of the predecessor words to “conservative” and “liberal,” namely “tory” and “whig,” respectively (History of English Words, p.73-74).

“Spite, which always loves a rich vocabulary, is also the father of those venerable labels tory and whig. The old Celtic word tory was first applied in the seventeenth century to the unfortunate Irish Catholics, dispossessed by Cromwell, who became savage outlaws living chiefly upon plunder; after that it was used for some time of bandits in general, and at the close of James II’s reign the ‘Exclusioners’ found it a conveniently offensive nickname for those who favored the succession of the Roman Catholic James, Duke of York. Thus, when William of Orange finally succeeded in reaching the throne, it became the approved name of one of the two great political parties in Great Britain. Whig is shortened of whiggamore , a name given to certain Scotchmen from the word whiggam, which they used in driving their horses. It was first used of the rebellious Scottish Covenanters who march to Edinburgh in 1648; then of the Exclusioners, who were opposed to the accession of James; and finally, from 1689 onwards, of the other great political party or one of its adherents.”

Lewis himself observes that the terms conservative and liberal came to replace tory and whig, having been born into a political context. Along with the terminology of conservative and liberal came the use of right and left.

In the summer of 1789, France had its revolution, only 14 years after the American colonists declared their independence from Great Britain. That summer, the French were divided amongst themselves as to what to do with the French monarchy, which had become an unmanageable form of government under King Louis  XVI, burdened by overwhelming financial debt. When the French National Assembly met to draft a constitution, different parties gathered together in the room, according to their sympathies.

The meeting of the famous Tennis Court Oath, when French leaders met on a tennis court, standing on one side of the tennis net, as opposed to the other, gives a visual picture of when “right” and “left” got embedded in the Western consciousness. Those who favored a constitutional form of monarchy, much like the British system, gathered on the right side of the room. Those who favored dismantling the traditional monarchy, advocating a more egalitarian form of governance, gathered on the left side of the room. The language of right wing and left wing has been with us ever since.

Eventually, such political language entered the theological arena, whereby conservatives on the right would hold to a more traditional view of Scripture and Bible doctrine, and liberals on the left would reject such tradition. Among evangelicals today, the use of the word “liberal” is tantamount to questioning a person’s theological orthodoxy. Alternatively, to be a “conservative” theologically is considered to be a good thing, as the surrounding Western culture continues to be ripped from its traditional, Judeo-Christian moorings. But when and if such “conservatism” is perceived to be reactionary, or otherwise ill-advised, we often hear more pejorative sounding words used to describe one’s theology, like the word “fundamentalist.”

What a shift from the older meanings that these words once possessed! To be “conservative” was once understood to be something noble, conserving those traditions which were indeed truly good. To be “liberal” was to contend for freedom, one of the greatest virtues found in the Bible, as in, for the “truth will set you free” (John 8:32).

Alas, not any more.

Labels. Labels. Labels.

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

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