Jesus was a Liberal …. it ain’t a dirty word

June 30, 2011
By admin

How did “liberal” get to be a dirty word? I know that seems to contradict the headline, but it frosts my grommet that the popular usage of an important word gets twisted around to mean something almost diametrically different than what the dictionary says.

A word that Merriam Webster and I agree denotes a vast assortment of really wonderful things about the human condition somehow ends up looking like something vastly different in normal usage. The connotation most prevalent for “liberal” these days is more akin to those icky words that the Federal Communications Commission once originally decreed were off limits for George Carlin and the rest of us.

So let’s go to the big book, Webster’s New College Dictionary. I have my suspicions that the guy (or gal) who wrote up this particular entry was actually a Liberal, but I can’t prove it.

Anyway, it starts out with a first definition of the adjective, stating: “Holding, expressing or following political views or policies that support civil liberties, democratic reforms and the use of governmental power to promote social progress.”

Hmmmm. I don’t see any particular problem there, though I concede that, employing the current misguided and distorted use of “Conservative,” there might be a lot of cringing at the idea of using governmental power for anything that hints at a social agenda. Government meddling with the so-called Culture War stuff, like flag burning, posting the Ten Commandments in the town hall or singling out a specific group of American citizens for a watered-down version of what is constitutionally guaranteed, that’s just peachy.

Still, I give Conservatives enough credit to suggest that they wouldn’t object to something that actually promotes social progress. I don’t know any group this side of the Klan that would take serious issue with the underlying premise of that.

The No. 2 definition talks about “holding, expressing or following views or policies that support the freedom of individuals to act or express themselves as they choose.” If we designate Rush Limbaugh as our representative “Conservative” here for discussion purposes, I am willing to venture a bet that he would find absolutely zero, zilch, nada, to object to in that definition.

I am not sure how much more of the dictionary I can reprint without paying royalties, but you get the idea. The other words used further on include: “characteristic of representational forms of government, tolerant of the ideas or behaviors of others, broad-minded, tending to give freely, generous,” and finally my favorite, “permissible or suitable for a freeborn man.”

I’ve hammered away at this enough. A word that gets used by so many in modern political discourse with the same inflection in one’s voice that you might customarily reserve for somebody who just backed over the family cat is actually one of the noblest words ever invented. Now that’s irony.

And so I say that Jesus was a Liberal. And as observations go, it’s unassailable, despite the curiosity that it’s typically the other side of the political spectrum that is the most zealous about embracing him as their own. You don’t have to be a theologian, trained or otherwise, to concede that nothing in the definition of the word “liberal” suggests that it wouldn’t have been one of Jesus’ favorite words, too. (The “trained” qualifier above is just a gag I can’t resist. I once saw a classified advertisement for a “trained audiologist,” which caused me to immediately wonder if that particular city had experienced a problem with “untrained audiologists” running around poking into people’s ears by offering their services to the unsuspecting.)

Under the equal time doctrine, I’ll look at the “Conservative” at another time, though I would hasten to add that the word doesn’t suffer from the problem of distorted connotations on anything close to the scale of “Liberal.” And I won’t go into quite as much detail, in part because the dictionary entry for that one is not nearly as extensive, saying essentially that the word means: “tending to oppose change, favoring traditional views, moderate, cautious.”

And that’s about it for the word “Conservative.” While some zealots might spit out the word as though it tasted like lima beans, the truth is that people who saddle it with ugly baggage are usually talking about individuals rather than offering a thoughtful interpretation of the word itself.

That’s a big part of the problem: as national politics has tended to polarize, often bitterly, over the past 40 years, well-intentioned people from all along the political spectrum have come to think of the two words as mutually exclusive in their definitions. That is hateful and destructive nonsense.

(I’ll conclude this in the next entry, conceding that this and other future entries are a bit longer than what one typically finds in a blog. Hell, I was writing essays long before there was such a thing as blogging, so I am probably more comfortable with the length. It’s also one of many reasons why I don’t twitter or tweet: 140 words simply aren’t enough for me.)

- T. S. O’Connell

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