What Is A Liberal?

“Liberal” is deeply problematic term in the contemporary world. It comes from the Latin word “liberalis” which literally means “pertaining to a free person.” This Latin term liberalis was used to translate the Greek term “eleutheros” in the Vulgate (Jerome’s translation of the scriptures from Greek to Latin). This same Greek term is translated as “liberty” or “freedom” in most English translations. (This fact will become significant in a later essay.)

In secular usage it has bounced back and forth between being a complimentary and pejorative term. In the 14th century “liberal” referred to things that were noble and generous. In turn, during the 16th and 17th centuries it was frequently used a term of reproach. European society had become quite rigid in this period and those who rejected society’s standards – free thinkers, carousers, libertines, and other trouble makers – were thought of as liberal, that is, as bad for the health of society.

It was therefore a perfect word to turn on its head as the Enlightenment gained traction in the 18th century. The term came to mean “tolerant” or “free from prejudice” during this period. Given the wanton destruction, the general meanness, and occasional purely evil activities associated with the European societal upheaval of this period (everything from the ethno-religious wars sparked by the Reformation, to the Roman Catholic over-reaction epitomized in the Inquisition, to the Thirty Years War), the thought of being “liberal,” that is of being tolerant or free from prejudice, became absolutely virtuous.

This is the sense with which it entered the North American vocabulary. The early English settlers (particularly the Pilgrims and later the Puritans) were not particularly open-minded and the societies they created in Massachusetts and Virginia were anything but “liberal” in the Enlightenment sense. One of less understood aspects of the European settlement of North America is that the American frontier was not kind to Christianity. The settlers who moved to the western frontier (wherever that frontier happened to be at the time) were largely irreligious. And in the highly authoritarian Massachusetts society many who stayed strongly resisted the authoritarian religious society which had developed.

This, by the way, is why the Great Awakening (1730s and 1740s) is so crucial in understanding American history. The original settlers were indeed religious. But this raw land with an unlimited western boundary was very unfriendly to religion. If an individual didn’t like something he or she found to be religiously distasteful, it was easy to move west. Rather than deal with the discipline and limits that Christianity preperly puts on sinful nature, it was far easier to move west and live life by my rules. Within a few short years, Puritan America devolved into a freewheeling, often drunken, and nearly lawless land of individuals who lived life on their own terms, which, if it included God at all, included God as was convenient for my own lifestyle.

This is also how Rhode Island came to be founded. It was the first authentically libertarian (and to a certain extent, anti-Christian) colony and was decidedly opposed to any public religion because religion (especially the Puritan and Roman Catholic varieties) had come to be seen as decidedly intolerant and very prejudicial.

While the American people were privately deeply affected by the Great Awakening and America once again became a very religious place after the Great Awakening, it was no longer the societal Christianity of the Puritans. American Christianity after the Great Awakening had been tamed and privatized. And while the people were religious, the country itself became a secular land which gave lip service to religion under the twin headings of “freedom of religion” and “separation of church and state,” while adopting an official position far less friendly to authentic Christianity and far more attuned to the Enlightenment belief that man was his own measure and judge. If any one man (or group of men) chose that measure to be God’s standards – as they privately understood God and his standards – so be it. Just don’t try to impose that standard on everyone else.

This political philosophy is called Classical Liberalism. It is the political philosophy of Jefferson and Washington. It is the political philosophy enshrined in the Constitution. It is the philosophy upon which American politics was founded.

Once the royalists were expelled from the new country, all political philosophy in America was rooted in the sovereign individual. Neither the Whigs nor the Democratic-Republicans questioned that the sovereign individual lay at the heart of societal liberty and political success. As those parties disappeared and were slowly replaced by what would become the modern day Democratic and Republican parties, this underlying assumption of the sovereign individual continued to provide the foundation for all political thinking.

As we move into the modern era this foundational assumption that the sovereign individual exists has never been seriously questioned. Socialist political systems assumed that these sovereign individuals were fundamentally virtuous and that a society could be built by appealing to their virtues. Fascist leaders recognized that sovereign individuals were fundamentally weak because they weren’t united. Fascist societies took advantage of this weakness and created authoritarian systems in which these individuals could be controlled and even manipulated. Democratic societies recognized that individuals weren’t virtuous, so the societies were designed to play one person’s vices off of another in order to bring a balance where everyone got a relatively fair deal. But all of these political theories (whether embodied in contemporary Socialist, Democratic, Republican, or Libertarian parties) assumed that the root reality was the sovereign individual.

It is in this historical sense that all American politics – whether Democrat or Republican, whether Socialist or Libertarian – is liberal politics. It all assumes, at some level, the reality of the sovereign individual.

What then is American political conservatism? It is the attempt to conserve a particular species of classical liberalism. Conversely, American political progressivism (or liberalism) is an attempt to expand the scope of classical liberalism. In spite of the nomenclature both movements are a species of classical liberalism and find their core logic in questions surrounding the sovereign individual.

This definition may seem, on the surface, to be obscurantist. But in a future essay I will consider the proper understanding of the person in Christian theology, and from that perspective, being clear that all American politics begins with the sovereign individual becomes an urgent concern.


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