Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

The Journey from Conservative to Liberal

I remember a day in seventh grade when I came home all excited to tell my parents that I had discovered that I was a Liberal. We had been studying the American political system in social studies class, and in our textbook was a little box that showed the typical characteristics of a Conservative and the typical characteristics of a Liberal. I don’t remember what the text book said, I only remember I read the two, and decided that I was a Liberal.

My parents were not amused.

Now, for the most part my parents gave me some freedom in deciding who I was. They rarely had any commentary about my friends, they let me choose what classes I was going to take, and even what after school activities I would participate in. I remember my father and I had a deal that I could wear whatever clothes I wanted to and have my hair however I wanted, so long as I did nothing permanent… no tattoos and no piercings. So, I thought that my declaration of my status as a Liberal would be met with the same kind of acceptance…

In truth, that declaration was enough to engender one of my experiences of having to go on a “walk” with my parents. They had the tradition that, whenever I was in trouble, my parents would walk the dog around the block and talk about it, and then they would collect me and we would walk around the block and discuss whatever I had done together. Sometimes, the dog was very tired by way too much walking (we could cover the block several times over easily). This particular walk was a discussion of what we as a family believed, what all the problems were with Liberals, and why I must be mistaken… there was simply no way their child could be a Liberal.

So, I accepted their wisdom, and donned the conservative cloak for myself. This was not an act to please my parents… I respected my mom and dad, and found they were often right about many things… I began to look at the world through the lens of conservatism, because that was what I obviously was… or must be. With their description of what made someone a conservative (love of country, military service, value in religious beliefs, etc) and what a Liberal was (communist, hedonist, hater of the military) I did indeed sound more like a Conservative than a Liberal. The textbook must have been wrong.

This began a long, and amazing journey for me to reclaim that moment of identity that occurred and was denied to me in seventh grade. I do not want you to think I attach any bitterness to this, because I do not. I would not trade that journey for anything. There are some places along the way where people could have been more helpful, and I’ll mention a few of those. But I have a deeper appreciation of who I am, of what our American political system is, and of why I hold to the beliefs, identity, and values I do than I would have any other way. For this gift, I’m thankful for the time and the journey it took to obtain. For in that journey I not only learned that I am a Liberal, I learned why I am. I not only learned I am not a conservative, I also learned why I am not. I discovered that I am more populist than Democrat, that the line between Conservative and Liberal is not as clearly defined as we like to think, and that, for me, being a Liberal is more about how you believe than it is about what you believe… and about what you do with your beliefs once you have them.

I’ve written before about parts of my journey to discover my inherent Liberalism, and I won’t cover them all again. Suffice it to say that I discovered poverty in Latin America, and my reaction to it helped uncover my Liberal identity. I discovered hatred and division in Bosnia, and my reaction to it helped uncover my Liberal identity. I discovered and had a 5 year long affair with Fox News (beginning when it first came on the air), and my eventual reaction to it helped uncover my Liberal identity. I had an even longer affair with Conservative talk radio, and my reaction to it helped uncover my Liberal identity.

But that uncovering took a long time, and a lot of reflection. It took a lot of inner work and discovery to push past that assumption that had been placed upon me by my parents, an assumption I carried due to years of maligning of and misunderstanding of liberalism, and by years of indoctrination that you could not be a Liberal and an American Patriot at the same time. It took years of discovery for me to let go of the self-understanding based in an image of me as a “Conservative” to reclaim that 7th grade truth of the reality that I was, at heart, a Liberal. It took years of reflection, and a degree in history and political science.

It also took finding a Unitarian Universalist congregation willing to accept me… even though I was still a Republican.

In our society we often equate Conservative with Republican and Liberal with Democrat, but frankly that has in the past been, and should in the future be a false equation. I believe it is possible, realistically possible, for a true philosophical Liberal to support the Republican Party… just as you will find plenty of philosophical Conservatives among the ranks of the Democratic Party. Whether a person is a Liberal or a Conservative has much to do with how you come to your beliefs, rather than what beliefs you hold, or what policies you support. There is some commonality that often occurs around the beliefs of Liberals or Conservatives, but this is by no means ironclad. I have come to realize that even at my most Republican, I was still a Liberal. I’ve written about what it means to be a Liberal, so I will let that sermon stand in here in the space for a longer explanation of this point.

The congregation that adopted me as one of their own even when I was a declared Republican bordering on Libertarian, that engaged me in an honest conversation in what this meant to me, that gave me the space to deepen my own understanding of myself as a Liberal, and allowed me to let go of defining myself as either Republican or Democrat… this was not the first Unitarian Universalist congregation I had tried to attend… and this is really the point of this particular article. The congregation that adopted me was a small, lay-led Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. My first congregation was a large Unitarian Universalist “flagship” church. Two UUA presidents had served this particular congregation (something they are quite proud of).

Now, I want to say right off that both of these congregations are wonderful congregations. I know them both very well now, and consider them both to have brought me into Unitarian Universalism. My initial reaction to the first, larger Unitarian Universalist Church I attended had much more to do with where I was in my journey at that time than it had to do with who they are or how welcoming they may or may not be. Truthfully, I’ve found them to be quite welcoming each of the other times I’ve visited them, including when I’ve been back to preach there.

And, what I perceived as their political stances had me bounce in and out of the larger congregation over and over during a two year period. I would feel the need for a religious community that would accept me as the Deist I had become, I would go a few Sunday mornings, something would happen that I would perceive as overtly and Democratically political, and I would run away screaming at myself (so as not to scream at anyone else). I would go home and turn on Fox News and try to accept that I was just never meant to find a religious community of my own. I even became involved (and eventually in leadership of) a group to found a Church for Deism, as paradoxical as that might sound… because I could not find a Unitarian Universalist community in which I felt comfortable being a Republican.

Till I moved and found a small UU Fellowship that was more interested in building relationship with me than how Democratically orthodox I was. The dialogues and conversation that we had during the year I was a visitor there not only built that relationship, but began me on the path of reclaiming my identity as a Liberal.

Let me state now that I’m not a member of the Republican or the Democratic Party. All of the problems I have had for decades with the Democratic party still exist… the Democratic party is just as wishy washy and spineless as I have always found it to be. I have always thought of them as a flavor of oligarchy, an attribution that I also ascribe to the Republican Party. With a choice between these two flavors of American Aristocracy, I will choose to be a part of neither and vote my conscience… so you can tell I never plan to run for political office! In politics, I am a populist, and in life I am a Liberal.

And, if you’ve been around Celestial Lands for awhile, you might remember my problem with the whole idea of “Progressivism”.

And so finally, in a post almost as wandering as my personal journey from “Conservative” to “Liberal”, we arrive at what I actually wanted to say… we Unitarian Universalists, both as individuals and as congregations, need to better understand what it means to be a Liberal. We need to see that being a Liberal is about how you decide and discover your beliefs, not necessarily what beliefs you may hold. We need space within our “Welcoming” denomination for those of Liberal philosophy who may arrive at different beliefs (and political affiliations) than we might ourselves hold. We need to have the space in our hearts and in the hearts of our congregation to practice one of the core methods of Liberalism… the ability to have enough doubt in our beliefs that we enter into relationship, conversation, and dialogue with those who, while also practicing liberals, may hold different beliefs than we do.

We also need to recognize that being welcoming is not just a matter of reality, but one of perception. I remember a controversy that happened while I was at Meadville Lombard between a group of students and the administration over the portraits in the Curtis Room, the main social room of the school. The portraits were of many of the past presidents of the school, all of whom had been great supporters of equality and justice for minorities. Many had been involved in helping to integrate theological education… and the perception those portraits gave the school was that it was a place that celebrated Old White Men.

The same is true of being welcoming in our congregations. We not only need the reality of inviting those of different political backgrounds into relationship with our congregations, but also we need to be careful to craft our perception as such. Now, I am in no way wishing to limit our prophetic voice on issue of justice, of the environment, of immigration, of racial equality, of economic justice… only that we be careful to move into the prophetic responsibilities of our faith from a stance of faith… not of politics. Each of those causes has plenty of political activists… we are called to a different role.

And even in our activism, a Liberal methodology calls us to maintain the space for dialogue, the space to be welcoming, and the space for doubt. For when we define ourselves by our beliefs and not by our methodology, I’m afraid we miss the point of Liberalism, and of Liberal faith.

Yours in faith,

Rev. David

5 Thoughts on “The Journey from Conservative to Liberal

  1. A great read, David! Thanks so much. It all really hits home to me, including that last part about perception. We have congregations proudly proclaiming that “all are welcome” and that “we all belong,” but the message of their liturgy and services and physical environment shouts otherwise. Some have huge crosses hanging behind their pulpits, for example, suggesting that some are more welcome, or more belonging, than others. On the other hand, some resist all mention of God, or Jesus. I think I’m seeing some positive changes in this, however, in subtle changes to our covenants, our orders of service, even the names of our congregations. Even Rev. Morales’ talks about “religion beyond belief” points us in a direction where attitude, affection and methodology are more understood to be the common threads of a distinctively free and discerning — rather than orthodox, authoritarian — approach to, and tradition in, religion.

  2. Dear David,

    Your perspective is just what I need at a time when I am myself, at a point of questioning what my being a Democrat means and wondering whether or not I am really a Progressive and whether or not a label of either is really important?

    By the way, I am a member of the Prairie Circle Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Grayslake, Illinois where you have preached on several occasions.

    My husband, Tony and I are founding members of PCUUC and for about five years I chaired the Worship Committee.

    Best to you at your new church. My gramps was from Saginaw, nearby, and I spent a lot of time there when I was a child, visiting cousins, one of whom lives in Midland.

    Carol Niec
    1288 Prairie Trail
    Grayslake, Illinois 60030

  3. Your writing is such a blessing! Thank you. And you were blessed to have parents that instituted such a great way to handle issues in their parenting. I’m going to try it myself.

    PS the random article feature isn’t working. (firefox)

  4. I shared a similar path from Conservative to Libertarian to Progressive/Integralist. It was the discovery of Deism and discussions with deist Libertarians, Conservatives, Liberals and Progressives that helped me to formulate and realize my political world view.

  5. Pingback: What Turned a Conservative into a Liberal? | Celestial Lands

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