Do you consider yourself to be “conservative” or “liberal”?* This can be a surprisingly difficult question to answer. Some people – journalists come to mind – like to divide others into these two categories. I doubt, however, if anyone is conservative or liberal on every issue. Nor is it easy to define what exactly these words mean. They are slippery words, whose meaning is more in the ears of the listener than in the mouth of the speaker.
At a basic level, though, and at the risk of over-generalising, let me venture the following definition: conservatives tend to look back to a time when things were (supposedly) better and liberals look forward to a time when things will (hopefully) be better.
A person might be conservative in political questions, but liberal in social questions, or vice versa. An institution, too, might be a mixture of both. The Catholic Church is often labelled conservative, because it is indeed conservative on matters relating to sexual behavior. On the other hand, it is often very liberal on social issues and challenges right-wing governments that it believes do not do enough to alleviate poverty or inequality. Its liturgy is progressive compared with that of the Orthodox Church, but conservative compared with that of most Protestant churches. The music of the Catholic mass is often very progressive – Christian folk songs – rather than Gregorian plain chant. The Anglican (high) church, on the other hand, is often liturgically more conservative – old translations of the Bible and old hymns, for example, are in use – although it is liberal in numerous other matters, such as women priests, contraception or the distribution of wealth.
A Lutheran might approve of women priests but insist on a rigid, traditional liturgy. He/she is labelled conservative for opposing gay marriage within the church, although that same person might be liberal on other issues. Two of the four candidates in the campaign for the position of Bishop of Espoo are sympathetic towards same-sex marriage within the church, while two have a negative attitude towards it. The media reduce them to the two liberals and the two conservatives. These labels are overused and reductive: they reduce somebody to one definition which perhaps only adequately describes that person’s views on that one issue.
We live in a society which encourages us to be superficial. We supposedly haven’t got time to thoroughly acquaint ourselves with a topic or a person. We seem to need the shortcut of simple labels. It is inevitable that journalists use these labels: newspaper articles are short and many people only skim-read them. The reader wants facts quickly. But perhaps we should make more of an effort to get a fuller picture of a person or institution that really matters to us before making our minds up.
*My personal answer to this question: I am most definitely a conservative liberal.
Pastor Chris Montgomery