We used to have a cat called "Two-face." That was about 30 years ago, back when the daughters were little, and they are the ones who came up with the name. Mindy and Alison were normally two bright and creative girls, except when it came to naming cats. They kept coming up with names like Whitey, Butterscotch, Blackie...and moved on to hyphenated names: Blacky-Whitey, Whitey-Blacky, etc. When one poor little kitten came along with half a gray face and half a white face, they called her Two-Face.
I used to think it was cute, and all our visitors got a laugh out of the name. But then I had to take the cat to the vet once, and of course the vet needs a name for the office records. It was really embarrassing to be sitting in the reception area when the secretary called out, "Two-Face Smith," and I was the one who had to get up and walk across the room in front of everyone's stares. I felt like some scummy character in a bad Western. Two-Face Smith.
It reminded me of my high school days when my friends and I on the school speech team would argue about politics. Doug Fitzgerald was the resident liberal in our class and often referred to me as an idiot conservative. On the other hand, Joel Book judged me to be so liberal as to predict that I would someday become a renowned pinko communist. As for myself, I was actually trying to figure out whether I was a conservative or a liberal. I even checked out a couple books, something along the lines of
What is a Conservative and
What is a Liberal to see if I could figure it out. And just like any other ole Two-Face Smith, I kind of agreed with both points of view.
I'm not always so conflicted about what I am: definitely a Cub fan, definitely orthodox in my theology, definitely a mid-westerner, and definitely pastoral in my relationships with people. Being a Cub fan is a something akin to a lifelong and painful security blanket for me. I am comfortable with traditional theology because it feels so roomy and generative to me. I never knew I was such a mid-westerner until I went east to go to seminary. That's when I discovered that the Midwest is rich in culture without having the snobbiness of the northeast, roomy without having the emptiness of the west, and hospitable without having the sugar-coating of the south. Plus, I like having a year with four distinct seasons.
But to this day I'm still not sure whether I'm a liberal or a conservative. I still like both of them.
Conservatives strive to
things, including the environment. They hold tradition in high regard, believing it to be generative. Conservatives believe in change because it is only through accepting change that we can keep the things we have always valued. Conservatives trust people who are honest and modest, prudent and reliable. Conservatives prefer investing in organic growth over social engineering. They honor, but do not blindly defend, institutions and institutional memory. Conservatives believe that those who have privileges in this life also have an obligation to help those who are vulnerable and poor. Conservatives value saving and investment and personal responsibility.
Liberals are generous. They believe in change in order to upset the homeostasis: if the system is hurting people, the boat needs to be rocked and the system changed. Liberals are not afraid of risk, they traffic and thrive in faith and imagination. Liberals are not afraid to be excessive in pursuit of justice or liberation. They believe in taking equal rights as far as practically possible. Liberals believe in self-sacrifice, giving you everything they have and everything they are in order to reverse harm and do good. Liberals believe that new life is born from conflict and boldness.
Liberal and conservative are not opposites, they are complementary. When we politicize and polarize the two philosophies, we render ourselves impotent of addressing all of the important issues of our day: gun violence, global warming, war, poverty, or racism.
In the nineteen sixties, conservatives abandoned true conservatism and ended up on the wrong side of the debates we were then having about Viet Nam and Civil Rights. In subsequent decades, they have also abandoned genuine conservative values when it comes to fair taxation, immigration, the NRA, global warming, and investing in education for the young.
Liberals, at the same time, abandoned the spiritual foundations of liberality and became identified with careless morality, entertainment over substance, hypocrisies of political correctness, abandonment of hard work and personal responsibility, and social engineering that increased the misery of the poor.
When the Republicans hijacked conservatism, and when the Democrats kidnapped liberalism, the two grand philosophies morphed into forms unrecognizable by those who knew the true values of them. In the hands of our two modern political parties, conservatism and liberalism have become mortal enemies.
And until some of us steal them back and connect them and let them become a creative tension, we will never make progress on any of the issues that threaten our families, our communities, and our world.
Go ahead, call me Two-Face Smith. When it comes to liberalism or conservatism, I still refuse to pick one.