A common assumption often applied to people who identify as religiously liberal is that if a person is religiously liberal then they are politically liberal too.
As a Unitarian Universalist church in the heartland, we continue to test and debunk the assumption that people with different religious beliefs and political views can’t be united.
This assumption stems from a mistaken understanding of the history of liberalism and its meaning. American political liberalism materialized as a response to the Great Depression in the 1930s, such as President Roosevelt’s New Deal which was a series of social programs executed to stabilize the economy and provide employment.
In the United States, prior to the 1930s, the term liberalism referred to the 17th century intellectual tradition of liberalism of thinkers such as John Locke, the English philosopher commonly referred to as the “Father of Liberalism.” The Lockean idea of liberalism was part of the intellectual engine behind the Age of Enlightenment – a philosophical movement centered on reason and the birthplace of ideas such as liberty, progress, tolerance, constitutional government, and the separation of church and state.
The Founding Fathers drew heavily from Locke’s philosophies and America was founded on intellectual liberalism which conceived the concepts of:
- The rule of law – rather than the authority of rulers.
- The idea that authority comes through the consent of the governed rather than the heredity of a monarchy or by divine dictate.
The notion of fundamental individual rights to life, liberty, and property was born from intellectual liberalism.
The Latin root of the word liberal is “free.” Liberal Arts education is considered a backbone of a thriving democracy. It is rooted in academic freedom and the freedom to inquire. In the same way, liberal religion suggests freedom in religious inquiry and practice. Both religious liberalism and American democracy are products of the Age of Enlightenment. They are based on ideas of freedom, reason, and tolerance.
Liberalism questions the traditions of authority in government, religion, education, and society. Conservatism, by definition, seeks to maintain tradition and traditional institutions. Conservatism comes from the Latin conser-vare, “to preserve.” If there must be change, conservatism wants it to be minimal and gradual.
The root of confusion and assumption.
The political roots of conservatism go back only to the early 19th century. This was just a century after the French Revolution when the monarchy was overthrown and Napoleon’s dictatorship was established. During and after the Revolution, political conservatism was born in that bloody and violent context as a force of moderation to check the extremes of liberalism in order to maintain the health of a free society.
Political conservatism was developed to preserve freedom. American political conservatism is attempting to preserve and strengthen freedom and is not trying to preserve feudal forms of governmental authority.
Religious conservatism, on the other hand, is about preserving ancient structures of authority. Unlike political conservatism, religious conservatism does not fundamentally support freedom of inquiry and practice.
American political conservatism and American political liberalism are both products of the Age of Enlightenment. They both attempt to strengthen freedom and facilitate the maintenance of liberal democracy.
Religious liberalism and political conservatism, at their best and by design, play an essential function in the development of a healthy democracy.
This is how someone can be religiously liberal and support freedom in religion while also being politically conservative. There is no philosophical incongruence between being religiously liberal and politically conservative in America today. In fact, to do so, is to uphold two different, but equally important, aspects of American freedom.
In modern times, being religiously liberal and politically conservative has become a confusing stance to declare. The American conservative party, the Republican Party, has, over the past few decades, yoked itself to the Religious Right on specific social issues. This marriage of politics and religion is challenging for American religious liberals who are politically conservative. Even though, the Religious Right would like their moral positions to be the central issues in conservatism, American political conservatism covers much more than Religious Right’s narrow concerns.
In the midst of divisive, national, political campaigns All Souls’ diversity and covenant are continually put to the test.
As a Unitarian Universalist church in the Heartland, we continue to test and debunk the assumption that people with different religious beliefs and political views can’t be united.
We do this by truly uniting diverse theologies and political stances in every Sunday service and in our community and justice work. For 96 years, All Souls has practiced and will continue to practice what it means to truly love beyond belief.
The promise of love which unites us together as a community is our covenant.