What is liberalism?
Some of the popular definitions for the word "liberal" include "showing or characterized by broad-mindedness;" "generous and broad sympathies," tolerant," "having political or social views favoring reform and progress," " tolerant of change;" "not bound by authoritarianism, orthodoxy, or tradition;" "a person who favors a political philosophy of progress and reform and the protection of personal civil liberties."
"Liberalism," is thus a philosophy that seeks to advance "social progress," usually defined as continual movement towards increased personal freedom and broader protection for the individual from the threat of poverty, prejudice, illness and ignorance. Liberalism is thus an orientation toward the future rather than the past.
These definitions beg a question: who gets to define these terms? What is "progress," "poverty," "prejudice" and "ignorance?" How does a society alleviate the illnesses of its citizens? What is the "future" towards which liberalism pushes us? Is this future inevitable, irresistible, divinely determined or created by human initiative?
For most people claiming to be liberals, it is human government that becomes the agent of societal transformation, the force that enables "progress;" that is to say, "movement toward the future." Government decides what constitutes "ignorance," "prejudice," "progress," and "poverty" because democratic government is simply the formalized will of the people. As in the case of "conservatives," there are many different kinds of "liberals."
It may be shocking to many Americans to learn that our "liberals" are often viewed by Europeans and people of other industrial nations as "moderates" or even as "conservatives." Furthermore, even in our own country the definition of what makes a person a "liberal" varies from region to region. However, in hopes of gaining some common definition of a label we use daily, let's look at some of the possible meanings for the word.
Social liberals seek to create a secularized public sphere in which the representatives of the various religions (as well as those of no religion) can work together to maintain the common good of its citizens. The values of our public life should thus be founded upon the latest findings of science (including the social sciences.) Since a well-ordered society requires continual investment in the common good, social liberals are dedicated to public funding of such things as education, health care, mass transit, parks, and other resources that work together to promote human dignity and expression.
When stated this way, is likely that most Americans will have considerable sympathy for "liberalism." Americans generally prefer a future orientation rather than one focused on the past. The issues that provoke people who might otherwise think of themselves as "progressive" to resist the liberal label, involves the role of religion and religious values in society, the means by which social infrastructure is to be funded, and whether or not these aims can be reached without a loss of traditional culture and values.
A social liberal can be (although usually is not) a religious conservative. For example, a person who is deeply committed to his or her church and its teachings may not believe that the state ought to be an expression of any particular church. In this view, it is better for the state to be apathetic and neutral where religious questions and values are concerned. This encourages freedom for all religious people to express their various faiths unhindered by any state preference for a specific faith. Historically, this was the traditional Baptist position.
"Theological liberalism" is an intellectual attitude toward one's own faith that says in effect: "my faith contains many precious things that I do not want to lose. However, I am a modern person who must take into account all sorts of scientific discoveries and social advances. Therefore, a religious man or woman should reinterpret his or her faith in order to bring its values into the present age."
Theological liberalism makes it possible for some professing Christians in our times to support things that leave orthodox believers angry and bewildered. An obvious example is homosexual unions. Some church groups have decided that ordaining openly partnered homosexual church leaders is a "prophetic" statement that pushes the Christian faith into the modern world. An orthodox Christian, who may otherwise agree with the aim of political liberals to promote and maintain a social infrastructure, cannot conscientiously condone such actions. By rejecting such "progressive" actions, an orthodox believer becomes a "conservative" almost by default. In the present polarized political climate it becomes difficult to see another possibility.
Fiscal liberalism is the belief that a society's economic health is the result of strategic public investment. Strategies to advance social progress may include public debt or the printing of paper to float governmental expenditures. The best-known economist of this school is John Maynard Keynes, the architect of President Franklin Rooselvelt's New Deal.
A more extreme version of economic liberalism is the socialist (and mixed economy) model preferred by many European countries, especially in the aftermath of the Second World War. In this model, citizens are protected by an extensive social net that provides financial help during times of unemployment, by free or nearly free health care services, and by providing easy access to higher education.
Maintaining an economically liberal society requires the collection of higher taxes, of course, since someone must pay for all the social amenities enjoyed by the populace.
At the core of the conservative-liberal divide is the issue of how individualistic VS how communal a well-ordered society should be. Should a culture create the sorts of infrastructure that provide the greatest amount of good for the greatest numbers of its citizens? Or, should a culture provide the greatest possible amount of freedom for its creative and entrepreneurial citizens, who will in turn develop the businesses and organizations that will lift all the other citizens?
History suggests that a society that allows the greatest freedom for its creative and enterpreneurial citizens will produce the most wealth. However, this wealth often comes at an enormous cost for the elderly, the ill, the disabled and those who for whatever reason are unable to participate in the wealth of their fellow citizens. For this reason, American culture has tended to vacillate between a free-market and a commitment to social nets that protect the most vulnerable.
If you consider yourself to be a "liberal," you may want to ask whether you wish to embrace all the meanings of the term listed here or merely some of them.
If you do not consider yourself to be a "liberal", you may want to consider whether any of the aims of those referred to as "liberal" appeal to you, or whether you may share something in common with those who do.