“Liberalism” a sermon by Rev. Brian J. Kiely
Unitarian Church of Edmonton, September 13, 2014.
This sermon began taking shape in the most philosophical of all venues, a pub. John Pater and I were deep in convivial conversation accompanied by fine beers and excellent food. The discussion turned to politics – as it often does for middle-aged men in the hiatus between hockey and football seasons.
Because we were already sipping, perhaps, our second brews respectively – a confessional air descended on our section of the bar. I can’t remember who dared to say these dangerous words first (dangerous in Alberta, at least), and I would urge you to remember that neither of us was born in this province… but…one of us said, rather quietly, “Well, I have always been a Trudeau Liberal!” The other agreed conspiratorially.
I hope you won’t think less of us, and I probably had no right to ‘out’ John just now, but there you are.
Having discovered another level of kindred-spiritedness, we started to unpack what that idea of liberal meant to us. And here, I will leave John out of what follows, having already sorely damaged his reputation, and I will keep my interpretation personal.
Trudeau’s liberalism was grounded in a classical understanding:
“Liberalism is a political philosophy or worldview founded on ideas of liberty and equality. Liberals espouse a wide array of views depending on their understanding of these principles, but generally they support ideas such as free and fair elections, civil rights, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, free trade, and private property.
In our reading (Reclaiming liberalism- Aeon magazine) Edmund Fawcett defines four characteristics of liberalism: reasonable personal liberty, resistance to power, faith in human progress and civic respect for people.
At best liberalism…or conservatism or socialism or any other philosophy, is a theoretical construct that provides an approach, a set of guidelines to how decisions get made. Our Unitarian Universalist Principles function in much the same way. These are not rules, but rather a series of factors we have specifically chosen from a rather large philosophical menu to take into account when we make personal choices. The chosen menu of political liberalism, articulated earlier, rely on similar principles for grounding policy.
The thing is, there is an ongoing tension between and among the goals of liberalism. Using Fawcett’s categories, conflict in debate is sometimes hard to control and can spiral out of control, even become violent and certainly impinge on civil respect.
Political power must be controlled, but in times of crisis it may also need to be exerted as when the civic debate has spiralled into violence and criminal disorder.
Progress is great, but sometimes it needs to be slowed so that society can catch up and consider ethical implications or make incremental adjustments so that all impacted negatively by progress are compensated and remain included in the civic family.
Fawcett says that liberalism is a big tent. I might say that it is also a big amorphous blob, ever changing and adapting but seldom, if ever, having a simple focus or goal. That is its challenge and why it makes such an easy target for critics on both the far right and the far left.
Pierre Trudeau’s liberalism certainly gave rise to some specific policies that a number of groups found distasteful and even illiberal. His National Energy Policy was seen by Albertans as a resource grab, though it was explained to the Rest of Canada as a quite liberal interpretation of sharing resources for the good of all. Similarly, he was the only Prime Minister ever to invoke the War Measures Act in peacetime during Quebec’s October crisis. No one paying attention to this suspension of civil rights back then will ever forget the answer to Tim Raife’s question of how far he would go in suspending civil liberties: “Just watch me.”
And yet those policies and actions can be justified as making temporary sacrifices of some rights for a perceived greater good public safety or energy security. I’m not agreeing or disagreeing here, just observing.
Of course his personal arrogance didn’t exactly provide the spoonful of sugar needed to help the medicine go down. He was on his retirement the most unpopular Prime Minister in history. At that time I was eager to see him go, for he was well past his due date and his ideas had gone off. Almost regrettably, he has lost that unpopularity title since to some of his successors.
But however he interpreted his liberalism, everything Trudeau did was firmly grounded in that philosophy born of the Renaissance humanism and Enlightenment rationalism.
What do I mean by that?
The first expression of humanism had nothing to do with modern day atheism with which it has sadly become somewhat synonymous. Humanism began with people like Meister Eckhart as a celebration of human ability, human creativity and the powers of the human mind. The world where humanism was born was rigidly dominated by church theology. It supported a rigid hierarchy of structured social class and demanded strict obedience and public piety. In this climate, the first humanists, products of the first universities, began to celebrate our ability to think for ourselves. There was a rebellion of the mind against rigidity and the systematic theology that brooked no discussion and only allowed one approved answer.
Humanists sought the freedom to use reason to explore ideas, to explore the world around them, and the newly emerging sciences. “Why?” became the most important question. Questioning became the most important activity. Freedom to explore became the most important cause. Praising human ability (which was, of course God’s gift) took over from simply praising God.
After a couple of hundred years of this exploration, new sets of political and social ideas and questions developed. For one thing, intellectuals and even ordinary people began to realize that their worldly masters were not necessarily moral men, nor were some of them terribly smart. In the Age of the Enlightenment people began to question authority and liberalism was born given life by the likes of Locke and Hume. It’s best early expression was coined in the French Revolution: “liberté, egalité, fraternité”.
And that is the core of classic political liberalism.
The Gage Canadian Dictionary defines liberalism as a political philosophy that emphasizes a belief in progress, individual freedom and democratic government.
Indisputably liberalism brought us the kind of democratic framework for government we have today. It brought us Bills of Rights and constitutional law. It’s values were used by suffragettes and later by feminists to make the case for the equality of women and subsequently by the First Nations, French Canadians, various minorities, the LGBTQ community and immigrants. And there has been progress on all those fronts. Not success, but progress.
And exactly because it’s big and messy, there have been times when liberalism has been influenced by conservative and socialist views and arguments. Because of that, some people feel it is loose and sloppy and has no centre, that small ‘l’ liberals stand for nothing. Citing those factors they claim that liberalism is dead, has no future, cannot solve the problems of the 21st century.
I couldn’t disagree more. What’s missing from those arguments is a key understanding of how the liberal way functions. Liberals discuss. They listen. They weigh evidence. They grasp that the solutions they think will work might, in the end, not work and that the law of unintended consequences might rise up and show that what was done in the name of good actually did harm.
True liberalism is evidence-based and open to re-evaluation. It takes the best ideas and incorporates them whether those ideas come from the left or the right. The only real question of importance is will this course of action improve lives?… or perhaps I should rephrase and say will this course of action do significantly more good for more people than it will harm others who might think they lose under a given policy.
The same principles come into play when the discussion is about a liberal religion like ours. We are accused of having no centre, no focus, no creed, no God. But I say we busily apply all those same principles of liberalism to matters of faith and morality and look for answers that satisfy our curiosity and our reason as well as our hearts and souls. For Unitarians, religion must also be free and fair and directed towards the progress of all humankind.
Still there is a lot of work to do. Fawcett writes, “…liberals urgently need to rethink how those aims and ideals are to be pursued in bewilderingly novel conditions. How is market power to be tamed? Can ‘good enough’ replace ‘ever more’ as our gauge of progress? And how is respect for present and future people to be squared?”
These are great questions, questions critical to our survival. The incredible inequalities in income and wealth need to be rebalanced for the good of the greatest number. Our environmental future needs to be part of every discussion. Human rights, globally remains a seemingly insoluble problem.
The far right has no answers for they are not interested in curtailing wealth or promoting expanded human rights.
The far left often helps point the way, but I fear too many have become too entrenched in their own idealized absolutes to fairly weigh the consequences of too dramatic change. As an example I cite how many on the left became disenchanted with President Obama, or various provincial NDP governments who managed to get elected. The uniform accusation is that they have not moved fast enough or far enough and have somehow sold out on their values.
Well, I am bringing John back in for a moment in conclusion — because we liberals sometimes have to break our well-intended promises for the greater good. The morning after our convivial conversation, I posted a note on Facebook – as much meant as a reminder for this sermon as anything. I wrote:
We decided that the blessing and curse of liberalism – or at least our style of it – is that it really is a third way. It drives between the undeviating commitment of Ayn Rand – like conservatives and the equally problematic unrelenting chastising of dedicated activists. Freedom both allows and requires that liberals not get too sucked in by either side. Ours is the path of balancing science and faith (of any kind), balancing pragmatism with compassionate humanism, balancing (today) environmental concern with economic concern to name a few of the challenges. It is our task to look for meaningful solutions that can work, that can balance the needs of the many and the needs of the few. And here’s my conclusion: though often liberalism comes off as wishy washy because our quest for balance is unsatisfying to the folks with black and white views, it is ultimately the way forward…and has been for hundreds of years. Look around, folks, what good policy there is in the world is largely the work of liberals (of every political stripe.)