Conservatives conserve their values

They asked me to talk to them about “conservative values.” Theirs was a study group in a church that presents itself, with reasonable accuracy, as “liberal.” When people who consider themselves liberal moved to this town, they were directed to this one. Others moving to town and considering themselves conservative were advised against this church. If they happened to attend, it was once. Whatever “liberal” and “liberalism” means, then, it was best represented in this church.

The members of this particular group all seemed confident in their self-description as “liberal,” and a few were conspicuously proud of being liberals. (I worry more about these latter.) They had already brought in an authentically liberal theologian from an unmistakably liberal university. The group was “liberal” in a very good sense of the terms, i.e., it was seeking to hear from all sides and to learn from all.

Those who presented the group’s invitation to speak to them didn’t tell me why I was the one asked to speak about conservative values. Nor were my qualifications to speak on the subject mentioned when I was introduced. I took it they felt neither I nor they needed to have this explained.

After I was introduced, which was sincerely polite and warmly gracious, I studied their faces long enough to make them wonder what I was up to. I then said, “I believe values ought to be conserved.” And I sat down.

Most looked puzzled, as I had intended by this act, and a few giggled nervously. When one or two began to rise from their chairs, I decided it was time for me to make my point.

If it is a value, we need to hold onto it. If a matter is worthy, we need to avail ourselves of its worth. If it’s valuable, it’s usable. We shouldn’t surrender such things, and we shouldn’t let them slip away. Don’t forget them; remember them. Preserve values. Conserve values—whatever is of value. This is simply the conservation of values. This, as I already said, is conservative values, and I am here to speak for them.

They all laughed now, and in good humor and with good will. Yet, they still did not seem to get my point. I suppose they felt I had played antics with semantics as a funny introduction to what I was going to say. But this is exactly what I was going to say, and I had said it: Conservative values is that values must be conserved precisely because they are values.

Those matters that are not values (and there are, indeed, such matters) are worthless. Worthless things distract from those matters that are values. Some destroy values and, so, we need to escape from them. This is to say, in the other direction, we need to be liberated from their harm and oppression. And this, those of you who champion liberality and liberalism, is what it actually means to be liberal and a liberal.

Just as conservatism is intended to conserve values, liberalism is to liberate from worthless things. Alright, perhaps both definitions strain at reality and facts. I fear almost any time you make “ism” a suffix to a term, you change the thing. When those who seek to conserve values institutionalize their intended purpose into conservatism, it may not be values they conserve and they may prevent new values. When those who seek to liberate from oppression institutionalize their purpose into liberalism, they may destroy values and create new oppression.

Conserving things that must be conserved is action to be respected. Liberating from things from which we must be liberated is action to be appreciated. It requires wholesome thinking and tenacity to conserve rightly without becoming entirely a conservative. It requires critical thinking and carefulness to liberate rightly without becoming entirely a liberal.

If an individual can be fairly described as a conservative, it ought to mean she is more effective in conserving values. If another person can be fairly described as a liberal, it ought to mean he is more effective in liberating from worthless things. Most of us, I should think, would find ourselves both conserving and liberating, depending upon the particular need.

This is what I told them that evening. They agreed, but they still consider themselves liberal and me conservative. They are probably right.

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