Liberalism is probably the rootiest root of Unitarianism, and to a lesser degree, Universalism, which concerns itself historically with God’s love. Liberalism has comprised both freedom, and generosity. It has also been an active political movement and the happy result of that is the greatest positive effect on relieving the pain and strain in the lives of ordinary people. We have something to be proud and happy about.
I love liberalism. I assume you do too. As a boy I loved Unitarianism, and then UU-ism, especially, because I found liberalism there when I was young, and felt safe and cared for with those people. I love liberals because they’ve encouraged me and everyone to be big-hearted and whole, generous and loving.
Liberality has a tremendous and honorable history, for liberals and their policies are responsible for reducing much of the pain and strain in the lives of ordinary people.
This is a huge subject, touching as it does on all aspects of modern life, but it’s very much worth talking and thinking about, as it is the primary impetus of Unitarianism and Universalism, and still forms the core of our modern faith.
‘Liber’— that’s Latin for ‘free.’ It’s the root for both ‘liberty’ and ‘liberal.’ To be liberal is to be free and open-minded. It is also to be generous and open-hearted.
Being truly liberal is hard and unceasing work, not suited to the faint of heart–not suited to those who must have things settled; and not suited to those who feel that questioning is somehow disloyal, or heretical.
There are misuses and excesses of freedom. ‘Libertine’ and ‘libertarian’ are also rooted in the Latin liber. Libertines are those who place little or no restraint on their personal behavior, that is, they want a selfish freedom, to take liberties with other people.
A Libertarian used to mean simply someone who upholds the principles of liberty, as do “civil libertarians” today. But thanks to the Libertarian Party, it has generally come to signify those who desire as much freedom from government as possible, especially freedom from taxation. This too, in my view, is a selfish impulse, for taxation is how the people pay for the services and structures that are beyond the means of individuals or small groups.
Finally, there are those who simply have a habit of disconnecting their theoretical thinking from their common sense and morals. The poet Robert Frost wrote, “A liberal is a [person] too broad-minded to take [their] own side in a quarrel.” And my dear, late, liberal mother-in-law Gwen, who, when she spotted what she considered irresponsible thinking, would remark, “some people are so open-minded their brains have fallen out.”
In a discussion of liberalism, we might keep these extremes in mind, remembering, as with almost everything human, it’s possible to distort, or have too much of, a good thing.
Liberals have been around for a long time, but liberalism is a recent arrival. Its roots are in ancient philosophy, but as a movement it was born in the Enlightenment, the same time as the movement for American independence.
There are many individual liberals scattered throughout history: the stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius, the heretic Pelagius in the 5th Century, St. Francis in the Middle Ages, Erasmus, Locke, Descartes, Voltaire. As schoolchildren we admired George Washington for his fortitude, but we loved Lincoln, for his generosity. And let’s not forget the greatest liberal of them all—Himself, Jesus of Nazareth. Who was more free and more generous than he? In our own time we have been blessed by a great many more, too numerous to mention, except I have to mention two of my favorites: Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Notorious RBG. And Fred Rogers.
All right—what beliefs define liberalism?
- Value of the individual: “The fundamental postulate (underlying assumption) of liberalism has been the moral worth, the absolute value, and the essential dignity of the human personality.” That idea is embodied in our 1st Principle.
- Freedom: Liberalism favors freedom, as opposed to authoritarianism, be that of the state, the church, a political party, or public opinion.
- Freedom to associate: Groups of individuals can join together to assert themselves against injustice.
- Intellectual freedom: The most-prized freedom is that of thought and expression.
- Equal Rights: Civil liberty and equal rights before the law.
- Toleration in the best sense: Respect for differences.
- Rationalism: Liberalism believes in objective truth, and that we are essentially, but not always, rational creatures capable of discovering it.
Change and progress are a modern and characteristically liberal ideal. As one writer put it:
From this came the ideas of step-by-step improvement, via a series of reforms.
It’s such an easy case to make. Here’s a short list of liberalism’s accomplishments:
- Representative government
- Republicanism, that is to say, no kings – the people are sovereign
- The very idea of progress, and with it
- The idea of reform, and gradualism. For instance:
- The end of the slave trade, and then the end of slavery, and then the end of Jim Crow, and now we are going after systemic racism.
- The steady expansion of the voting franchise, from only white men of property, to white men of the middle class, to white men of the working class, to white women 28 and older, to white women 21 and older, and eventually to people of color, and lastly to all people 18 and older.
- Winning limits on the hours of the work week, from unlimited, to 60 hours a week, to 48, to 44, to 40
- In commerce: free enterprise in place of the heavy controls of mercantilism. Later, in promoting government regulation to keep the inherent selfishness of capitalism from getting out of hand.
- Improving conditions in the factories, such as fencing the dangerous machinery and other protections for workers
- Improving conditions in the mines, including such a simple thing as facilities at the pit head where the miner could get clean before going home
- Ending child labor in both factories and mines, and later, any labor that interferes with education and health;
- Support of the trade union movement
- Support of racial justice
- Support of economic justice
- Support of feminism
- Support of BGLT-plus persons
- Protection of the environment (conservation)
- Public education
- Public health
- Birth control
- Prison and punishment reform: ending routine flogging in the army and navy, and reducing the number of capital crimes from more than 200 to a handful, and now working on the elimination of capital punishment entirely, and ending prisons for profit.
- Opposition to abuse in all its forms: Scotland just outlawed “smacking” children, joining 58 countries that ban corporal punishment.
- Humane treatment of the mentally ill
- The end of the worst forms of poverty
- Old age insurance (Social Security)
- Disability insurance
- Unemployment insurance
- Health insurance, and we are now working on healthcare for all.
These are all liberal programs, initiated and made law by liberals. Other groups of voters have over time, accepted most of these causes, eventually. Sometimes decades later, but OK. But no matter how long it has taken, nobody wants to bring back absolute monarchy, nor trade controlled by guilds, nor education controlled by priests and restricted to the sons of the nobility, nor limiting the vote to propertied white men, nor slavery, nor flogging soldiers and sailors. The list of things we don’t want to change includes most of the reforms that liberals have instituted in the last couple hundred years.
Does this not give us some hope for the future? It tells us that liberalism’s going to continue to advance, in its typical herky jerky way. It’s just a matter of time. Time, and persistent effort.
Most UUs hold most of the liberal values, and our liberal religious ancestors built a religion around them. We believe, do we not, that truth is consistent and universal – not partitioned – therefore religious truth does not contradict truth from any other source. There are no alternative truths.
But there are difficulties. The better the liberal, the rockier the path; our beliefs must be revised in the face of new information. We are a non-creedal faith, and there’s a price to pay for it. We get no rest, which partly accounts for our small numbers. Should we care to take a good long liberal look at ourselves, we will find we are quite imperfect liberals in this regard. It’s natural to want to fall back sometimes on things we ‘know’ are certain, and don’t want to look again, deeper. Maybe tomorrow.
And let’s not forget the liberal, generous, open heart. Let us practice constant acts of kindness. Let us give to causes we believe in. Let us give something to the beggar we pass by. Let us give to the people so close to us we hardly think of them as needing kindness. Oh, but they do (do need our kindness).
The Dalai Lama has said “essentially, my religion is kindness.” Most liberals are inclined to believe in and practice acts of kindness, both random and intentional. We know our world sometimes seems filled with fools and demons. That we can’t get away from the mean-spirited. But history tells us that everybody aspires to freedom, and betterment.
History shows us that progress, despite the frequent failures and setbacks, is steady, and we are moving two or three steps forward for each step back.
In my own lifetime we have seen a revolution in the status of women, of blacks, of Latinos, of Asians, of Native Americans, of the sexual-orientation and gender-identification minorities; the status of the disabled; the status of children, and students and the elderly; of those desiring birth control; of those against cruelty to animals; of death with dignity; of our attitude toward the earth and her bounty; of our attitude toward mistreatment in all its forms. Nationalism is slowly weakening in some places, and internationalism is slowly strengthening.
We can have an unshakable confidence that liberalism will continue to work its magic, not as a movement or political party, but as an attitude, as a habit of kindness and generosity toward people we don’t know, and willingness to do something about injustice. Liberalism is moving with the tide of history, and some day, some day sooner than we might expect, in the words of our hymn, we will “see the Earth made fair, and all her people one.”