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

What Turned a Conservative into a Liberal?

I regularly have conversations with conservatives, both political and religious conservatives. Sometimes that is through my work as an Army Chaplain, sometimes through my work as a liberal minister in a fairly conservative town, and sometimes it is through people from my past who seek me out to ask me the question… “what happened? How did you go wrong, David?”

These recent conversations have had me thinking about what was at the core of my transition from political and religious conservative to political and religious liberal. Not what the experiences were (such as my Bosnian “Moment on the Road to Damascus”, or my encounter with guerillas in El Salvador), but what were the core internal transitions that allowed me to move from a very conservative upbringing, religion, and worldview to being a political, religious, and social liberal?

In an earlier article on this topic, I implied that I had always been a liberal, and that it just took life to uncover that.  I’ve realized that answer is too simple.  It is true that I had the inclinations and capacities towards liberalism as a child, but I had to do more than uncover them… there were some true transitions that occurred in my life and worldview that were not covered in that earlier article. 

As I have thought about the internal shift that happened within me, I have found that it was one of aspiration. What I aspired to, what I hoped for, both in my life and in the world… changed. To explain this, I have to explain what my internal aspirations were as a conservative, and then name how they shifted in becoming a liberal. Now, I do not want to paint with too broad a brush, and say that the aspirations I held as a conservative are the aspirations of all conservatives. I feel that my experience may point to something larger, but I am aware that it is just my experience.

It was an article of faith with me, when I was a conservative, that the world simply is as it is. That neither individuals nor movements can significantly change the core fundamentals of the world. Governments may come and governments may go, revolutions may come and revolutions may go, but at the core any institutions and societies created by human beings will follow the same patterns, because human beings are not capable of significant or profound change. Cosmetic change was possible, yet human behavior would always fall into common patterns, preventing transformative change. Therefore, my role was to know how best to take care of myself and others I care about within a system that simply is.

Efforts at transformation of human social order or systems were ultimately doomed to failure, and only accomplished a temporary upset of the social system. Often this upset was for the purposes of others in the social system changing their own particular standing in an unfair way, through such periods of temporary instability. Therefore, “reform movements” always had the nefarious motives of their leaders, and should be opposed on principle because transformative change of the system was not possible in the long term, and in the short term only caused instability and inequality. We should accept the system as we know it, and work within it for our own protection and benefit.

Besides, any change in or temporary disruption of the system that I knew would change the rules that I have learned, and will make it more difficult to take care of myself and those I love. Therefore I should oppose those who seek such change simply on the grounds of self-interest, regardless that such change is ultimately pointless and wasteful… and frightening.

Ok, now before I get a bunch of emails asking me how I could believe such things (as I know most of the readers here at Celestial Lands are progressives or liberals), I want to state that I am trying to capture the core of the worldview I had as a conservative. Also, for those who think I have misrepresented conservativism, I just want to reiterate that this is my crystallization about what I meant when I called myself a conservative. I am happy to hear from you… but what I’m putting forth here is what was operative for me in my life.

I’ve wondered for years why my journey from conservative to liberal (with a brief lay-over in Libertarian land) took as long as it did… approximately 5 years. I’ve come to the realization that there were actually three separate transitions that I made in my worldview and philosophy, and they each had to happen in sequence and with enough time in-between to take root in my life.

The first transition occurred to me sometime during the 18 months after I came home from serving as a Peacekeeper in Bosnia-y-Herzegovina. It actually began while I was in Sarajevo, but it took a long while afterward for me to be able to articulate what I was feeling. I had encountered events and experiences while in Bosnia which made me look closely at the assumptions of my conservative worldview. I saw a decimated city, three societies seething with hatred, and the aftermath of atrocities and war. My conservative philosophy said to me “This is how the world is; you just have to accept that human beings will do this kind of thing to one another. How do you take care of and protect yourself amidst this reality?”

I have no other way to describe what happened for me than this… my heart rebelled. It took me at least a year and a good counselor to formulate what I was feeling as a statement, and that formulation was my first transition. The statement was this… “There has to be a better way for humans to treat one another”.

Naming this statement actually threw me into even greater inner turmoil than I had been in before, for stating that there had to be a better way for humans to relate to one another than what we were practicing now did not state that such a way was possible to find. I toyed with the theology from my childhood in a Conservative Christian Church as an answer… that such a better way of treating one another was not possible on Earth, and we had to wait until the evil was purified out of the human race by death and resurrection before we could build a society (the Kingdom of God in Heaven) where we could live in beloved community.

I don’t know how it happened, or why… but attending conservative churches that held this theology seemed like a cop-out to me. It seemed like I was evading my own responsibility for the world as I had now come to see it. I was sitting in the back of a Baptist Church one Sunday morning when my second transition happened. The preacher had brought in an A-frame ladder to use as a prop for the service. He talked about how we had to purify our lives, to become more like Jesus. We had to remove as much sin as we could, and with each step in purifying ourselves, he would take another step up the ladder towards “The Kingdom of God in Heaven”.

And I thought to myself… ‘I thought the Kingdom of God was supposed to come to us here on Earth, not the other way around?’

It took awhile for this second transition to sink in, and this was probably the point that I left behind being a conservative. I’m not sure I ever formulated the second transition into something as clear as a statement, yet even for that it had a profound impact on my life. If I had made it into a statement, perhaps it would have been something like this “It is possible for us to change who we are as human beings, and what kinds of societies we build… and we can do so on this Earth, in our own lifetimes”. In theological language, I had come to believe that the Kingdom of God was meant to be on Earth, not in Heaven… and that we were responsible for building it.

So, if my first transition on journey to becoming a Liberal was that there had to be a better form of human society, and my second transition was that a better human society was possible… then my third transition, and where I think I really became a Liberal, was in finding a way to discern what that better society, what that “Kingdom (or Realm, in more gender neutral language) of God” could become. The transition happened for me a few years after I began attending a Unitarian Universalist congregation, when I discovered in Liberalism a methodology for determining what such a world could be. Liberalism does not tell me what that world is, it only gives me the tools to work with others in crafting such a world of beloved community.

I’ve written about what it means to be a Liberal before, and even about my objections to Progressivism as the basis of such a vision of the future. Progressivism, like Libertarianism, espouses a pre-set method to transform society, and yet what I moved to was finding a methodology to allow the world-to-be to shape itself along certain lines of principles and values… to let the “Realm of God” find its own shape rather than to try to impose a human shape upon it.

This was my third transition in becoming a Liberal, and that is to hold the future in a kind of faithful hope. To see what I can do to help affect the formation of “Beloved Community” or “The Realm of God”, and yet leave room for it to be more than I could imagine, more than I could hope, more than I could dream. To allow principle, value, and faith to be our guides, not simply another pre-determined pattern of human behavior.

In essence, my final transition was to realize that I was “in conspiracy with the future.”

Yours in Faith,

Rev. David

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