By DC Coetsee
In the prevailing popular culture, liberal/liberalism is considered a positive concept – as opposed to conservative/conservatism, which often carries a negative connotation: “right-wing”, “cramped”, “Paleo-Christian”.
In Latin it means “liber” basically freedom. Liberalism in the modern context is usually associated with seventeenth and eighteenth century philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau (“man is born free, but is everywhere in chains”), John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Immanuel Kant and others who especially saw logical and free thinking as the key to enlightenment or liberation of man.
The concept was developed especially in the areas of minimal government, free enterprise, guaranteed property rights, individual freedom of speech and opinion, personal choices regarding value and moral systems. The freedom and rights of the individual are the central value.
Conservatism (from the Latin “preserve”, to retain, preserve) has to do with the preservation and development of concepts, norms, values, ideas and practices from the past because they “worked well” and are considered to be basically unchangeable – and therefore as corrective on an ongoing basis changing culture must serve.
Dilemmas of liberalism
Absolute individual freedom is a figment of the imagination as the concept of freedom varies from person to person. For some, free enterprise is, as an example, the recipe for oppression of the weak by the powerful (for example, capitalists) – as are concepts such as guaranteed property rights and every one of the other areas in which liberalism wants to be free.
The solution then is for liberal individuals to agree on how they will operate in each of these areas, but this inherently means sacrificing individual freedoms for the sake of consensus.
Honest libertarians (the most consistent form of liberalism) simply reduce their freedom to the negative. The freedom not to be robbed, wronged, slandered, “hurt” – but then violent people will have to sacrifice their tendencies. History teaches from the French Revolution that the revolution “to greater freedom” eventually “eats its own children” and, as in Animal Farmis the end “some are more free than others“.
Why these dilemmas? Because the human mind and will from the fall are no longer free, but polluted, limited and darkened – and this is an ongoing process (Romans 1:18-25) which culminates in “the fool thinks in his heart there is no God not” (Psalm 53:2) – with very bad consequences.
Jesus defined true freedom in John 8:31,32 (as a God-given gift): “If you keep my words, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free”.
The “words of truth” that Jesus preached were that the God who reveals Himself in the Bible and creation is God and Lord in an absolute sense (Matthew 4:23,24) and is the guarantee for life (also in freedom) : “strive first for the kingdom of God and for the will of God, then he will give you all these things” (Matthew 6:33). He himself was the embodiment of the truth (John 14:6-9).
People who are in the kingdom of God are therefore “liberals”, freed from worry about life and death, because “whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord” (Romans 14:7-9). And yet not in the absolute sense either, for they are subject to the two great laws of the kingdom (which they must keep in their hearts, “preserve” and live out): “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second that is equal to this is: You must love your neighbor as yourself. In these two commandments the whole law and the prophets are summed up” (Matthew 22:37-40).
Paul explains: “love does no harm to its neighbor” (Romans 13:10) and even drives out the fear of God’s judgment (1 John 4:17). Where the law of love is experienced, there is therefore freedom.
Conservative liberals (liberals) are therefore people who have accepted and live out these timeless God-given truths.
And yet God and these freedmen know that they cannot – and still less can liberals. That is why God graciously established authorities to combat violations of the law of love: “the authority is a servant of God for your good (…) after all, he is also a servant of God in this to punish the evildoer” (Romans 13:4). These “authorities” for the protection of freedom begin already in the small circle of the household (Ephesians 5:21-6:4) and apply to every social relationship.
Liberalism’s answer to the miseries of humanity is a brainstorm because it wants to replace immutable God-given realities with unrealizable ideas and concepts that originate in the darkened minds of “smart” people. Those realities are the foundations of Christian Western civilization which has contributed more to the liberation of mankind than any other civilization or culture.
- DC Coetsee is a native of the Kalahari. He worked as a missionary for 40 years and is currently engaged in biblical counseling and training.