[Editor’s note: This article is part of an OCR DOUBLE-TAKE. Read its counterpart here.]
I teach a high school course on current social problems. I like to joke that my students begin the course thinking that dandruff and halitosis are social problems, and I try to expand their understanding to include the familiar list of controversies: immigration, gun control, abortion, the death penalty… issues well-known to most culturally-aware adults but only vaguely familiar to most high school kids.
They don’t know what “conservative” and “liberal” mean unless they listen to talk radio, in which case they know that “liberal” is bad and “conservative” is good, but they’re not exactly sure why.
The two words are intriguing in their own right. Their elasticity must be confusing to anyone learning English. Liberal arts colleges have no counterpart in “conservative arts” colleges. You can spread jam liberally but not conservatively. We conserve resources, but we don’t liberate them.
Still, the term “conservative” reveals a great deal about the ideology it portrays. After all, we conservatives strive to conserve something we deem valuable. We believe there are traditions and values that are precious and can be neglected only at great peril. We look to the great Western cultural tradition and the rich Judeo-Christian tradition as templates for a just and prosperous society. We are rightly suspicious of cultural innovations that jeopardize those values and traditions.
But here’s where ideology must be tempered with careful thought. A mere ideologue supports the cause without question. A thoughtful conservative must always ask, What we are trying to preserve and do we really want to preserve it?
Case in point: Southern conservatives were clearly, obviously on the wrong side of history during the days of the civil rights movement. The traditions they sought to preserve — racial segregation, Jim Crow laws, white privilege — were wrong, and white conservatives were wrong to support it, even if that was what they had grown up with. We can see that now. Blinded by a deeply entrenched tradition, they could not. Their position was untenable and indefensible, not just from a moral point of view but from the view of the common good.
On a whole host of contemporary issues — gun control, immigration, health care, and capital punishment, for instance — liberals and conservatives have staked out their positions. Fire-breathing ideologues on both sides will support the cause just because it is their cause.
But thoughtful conservatives owe it to themselves and, more importantly, to their nation, always to evaluate their motives and their message. If our motive is to recapture or consolidate power, we’ll never create a message that resonates with the moral sense of the public, and we’ll never be able to convince anyone — not even ourselves — that we are arguing for the common good.
Do we really think the solution to mass shootings is more guns in the hands of more people?
Do we really oppose the pathway to citizenship for all illegal immigrants, even the ones who were brought here as children and know no other home?
Do we really think health care is a commodity subject to the vicissitudes of the marketplace and not a right that should be accessible to all citizens?
Do we really think executing violent criminals is always just and right?
Our problem is that we’re all too predictable. We’re always against something, always anti-something. What are we for? How do we envision a more just and prosperous society? Is it enough to oppose Obama and the liberal agenda simply because cooperation is political suicide? Are the words “the president is right about this” impossible for a good conservative to think, let alone utter aloud?
Older conservatives can remember a time when leaders from the two sides of the aisle could afford to mix socially without fear of being labeled a traitor, when “compromise” was the grand art of politics, not a toxic label that kills careers.
The air in Washington and Columbus might be too thick with suspicion to allow that kind of collaboration. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Conservatives don’t have to march to the beat of the most aggressive drummer, even if he does have an audience in the tens of millions. We are, you know, capable of thinking for ourselves.
It may be that young conservatives, instead of leading the charge hard-right, can regroup and present a more thoughtful, nuanced message for a public exhausted by cynicism. It may be that conservatives can find common ground with liberals on issues that will benefit everyone. It may be that conservatives can take the lead in breaking up the gridlock that has paralyzed our government and alienated the voting public.
Or it may be that we’ll just keep doing what we’ve been doing.
Paul William Pyle has taught high school for 36 years and serves as an elder in a Dayton-area church. He studied English and music at Evangel University and holds the M.A. in Biblical Studies from Dallas Theological Seminary. He and his wife have four children, ages 18-33. His blog, “Noticing,” can be found at paulwpyle.blogspot.com.
All opinions expressed belong solely to their authors and may not be construed as the opinions of other writers or of OCR staff.
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