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Fr Dwight Longenecker on ‘Liberal or Conservative?’

beliefnet fr dwight new.jpgI always give people the benefit of the doubt. Some of my friends think it is a vice and some think it is a virtue. I hope I’m not being naive, but I really do try to see the best of every idea and every person.

In this column More Christianity I’ve tried to share my philosophy that “a man is most often right in what he affirms and wrong in what he denies.” In other words, when confronted with a new idea or a new proposal I always want to see the opportunity, not the problem. I want to see how a difficulty can be a stepping stone to a new and creative possibility. I want to see what good ideal motivates a person rather than seeing the negativities. I want to give people the benefit of the doubt and I wish they’d do me the same courtesy too!


I’ve found this to be pretty effective in dealing with people. I don’t always succeed of course. Too often I fall back into a petty mindset. I blame people. I accuse them of bad motivations and gossip about them. That’s a waste of time. Instead I should see the best in them and try to bring out the best in them because that brings out the best in me too.

With this in mind I wonder if you are a conservative or a liberal? I confess that my own instincts and basic mindset are conservative. Therefore I often see the ‘liberals’ as the bad guys. I accept that liberals also see me and my friends as the bad guys. When you step out of this attitude, however, and give the other side the benefit of the doubt you will actually be free of your negativities and learn something.


The root idea of liberalism is actually good. The true liberal is open minded, accepting and tolerant. He wants justice and peace for all people. He wants to fight against cruelty, injustice and poverty. He wants to get rid of bigotry and bias and prejudice of all kinds. To be liberal is to have an open mind and an open heart to all. He has a pastoral heart and is concerned about people. He is often creative and up to date in his vision. He see what can be done in the future and is optimistic and wants to move forward. In that respect, I want to be a liberal, and all Christians should seek to be liberal in this way as well.

The root idea of conservatism, on the other hand, is to conserve what is good from the past. The conservative wants to retain the beauty, the wisdom, the learning and the truth that we have inherited from our ancestors. The conservative is cautious about new things because he would rather fix the old than get something new. The conservative treasures the good things of the past because he knows they are tried and true. They have stood the test of time and are therefore precious. The liberal seems up to date. The conservative seems out of date. The conservative often tends to be nostalgic about the past and pessimistic about the future. He values dogma and doctrine and ‘the right way to do things’, and feels the way to serve people is by calling them to the high values, beliefs and principles that have stood the test of time.


It should be obvious therefore, that ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’ both want what is beautiful, good and true. We should appreciate one another more.

It’s not because we are too liberal or too conservative, but because we aren’t liberal and conservative enough!  What I mean is that, too often, conservatives are not truly conservative in a positive and creative way and liberals are not liberal in a creative and positive way.

We’re too narrow in our thinking. We need More Christianity not Mere Christianity!

Conservatives become narrow and negative when they focus on retaining the past simply for its own sake. They become legalistic when they focus on retaining the order and structure of the past rather than re-activating the spirit of the tradition. They become negative and narrow by withdrawing into their own little enclaves and becoming suspicious and paranoid about everyone outside. Conservatives are narrow and negative when their love of the past makes them embalm the past rather than bring it to life in a new way. If conservatives were really conservative they would conserve all the beauty and truth and goodness of the wisdom of the past and live it in a simple and honest way today.


Liberals become narrow and negative in the same way. They hunker down into wounded little self righteous groups who blame everyone else for not dancing to their tune. They resort to name calling and petty attacks on ‘the vast right wing conspiracy’ they imagine is against them. Their instinct for liberty and tolerance turns into moral license and laziness all in the name of ‘being nice.’ Instead of being truly open minded, tolerant and accepting of others they gather in their campaign mode and declare war on all who they perceive to be their enemies. Although they are against bigotry and intolerance they become just as bigoted and intolerant of their perceived enemies as the conservatives they accuse of bigotry and intolerance!


A plague on both their houses!

The ‘More Christianity’ position is always ‘both and’ instead of ‘either or’. The true Christian who is fully Catholic in mentality will be both conservative and liberal at the same time. He will seek to conserve with creativity and a dynamic faith all that is good and beautiful and true from 2,000 years of the Holy Spirit’s work in the world. He will also be looking to the future with optimism and hope–reaching out to all with Christ’s words of forgiveness, peace and justice.

Standing on the faith conserved from the past, he will also be tolerant and positive about the future. As a conservative he will work to maintain the ‘faith once delivered to the saints’ but he will also work to apply it to the needs of modern man today. To be truly Catholic is to be ‘universal’. This means we have an expansive vision of our mission in the world and we seek to fulfill it with joy, in the power and the glory of the Holy Spirit.

Fr Dwight Longenecker is parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary in Greenville, South Carolina. Connect with his blog, purchase his books and read his archived articles at

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gustave verdult

posted March 29, 2011 at 8:11 am

That all sounds very nice but in the end you still have to deal with facts and the truth. The truth is this. that it is dangerous to “Follow Christ.” He is not some electric blanket to give us comfort away from pain. There is a right and a wrong, good and evil. And to follow God means you will be tested and persecuted by the evil ones. No matter if the evil one is liberal or consevative

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posted March 31, 2011 at 3:42 pm

Hasn’t the goal always been for a ‘moral conservative and social liberal’? Our church, when healthy, nourishes the faithful expressly along these lines. However, current ‘conservatism’ is too tied to ‘protestant ethics’, social and economic stratification. Conservation whether it be for the sake of music, art, the environment, jobs or family development, no longer suggests simply “retaining the past” or even preservation. It is neo-conservatism that is masterfully expressed in the article, all the while basic liberalism is lumped in with neo-liberalism (some progressives “follow Christ” in the secular humanistic, while giving the faithful short shrift). In the ultimate classical liberal view, the community nurtures each member to the point that ‘evil’ choices are rarely made, except by those who are looking actively to sin. If I bring you into my home, share my food, my clothes and offer hospitality, truly a liberal (and Christian) act of compassion and love, yet, while in my home there are rules that provide the foundation for the house that makes it a home. Father Dwight, one more thing about the ‘responses of liberals and conservatives’ Our church is, or used to be a ‘socially liberal church that brings Jesus’ timeless command to Love one another as a conservative (true retention of a absolute “historical” message from God to man ) value. Jesus and the Apostles did chastise those who just wanted to maintain their old conservative, pagan gods, sacrifices, monuments, economies and to the power structure of the time, they were possibly seen as to, ” hunker down into wounded little self righteous groups who blame everyone else for not dancing to their tune. They resort to name calling and petty attacks on ‘the vast right wing conspiracy’ they imagine is against them.” If not for the secularist nature of some liberals, they might very well be walking in the footsteps of the ‘faithful’.

Father Dwight, thank you for your words, they strengthen those of us who are listening and I pray I was respectful in this response.

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posted April 30, 2011 at 8:07 pm

I neither know nor care whether Fr.Dwight is liberal or conservative. However, I really enjoyed THE GARGOYLE CODES. It was spot on about many things and entertaining at the same time. I used it for my Lenten reflections last year, and my Dad used it this year.

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