What Exactly is a Liberal and why is it a 4 Letter Word?

Despite my attempts to “tone it down” on Facebook, I opened my mouth again yesterday and got the “L” word thrown at me for stating a simple truth.

Frankly, I wasn’t going to get in a debate on the topic, but it did leave me with questions.

First and foremost, why is “sounding like a liberal” used as a pejorative?

I began looking for definitions, as I often do, because I believe language, as well as definitions, matter.

As a political historian, terms like “liberal,” “progressive,” “conservative” or “reactionary” have meaning.  They are placed in context of the eras they were formed, thus deconstructed, dissected, and understood.

I’ve always equated liberalism with its defined usage:

liberal (ˈlɪbərəl, ˈlɪbrəl) — adj

  1. relating to or having social and political views that favour progress and reform
  2. relating to or having policies or views advocating individual freedom
  3. giving and generous in temperament or behaviour
  4. tolerant of other people
  5. of or relating to an education that aims to develop general cultural interests and intellectual ability


I never understood the animosity and disdain associated with using the word “liberal” as a pejorative, until this morning.

I ran across Conservapedia.com.  In conservative parlance, the definition for “liberal” has morphed – well beyond the English definition of the term.  According to conservapedia:

“A liberal is someone who favors censorship of Christianity plus increased government spending and power, as in ObamaCare. Increasingly liberals side with the homosexual agenda, including same-sex marriage. Many liberals favor a welfare state where people receive endless entitlements without working. Liberals are often anti-Christian, or otherwise disagree with moral or social principles held by many American Christians. The liberal ideology has worsened over the years and degenerated into economically delusional views and intolerant ideology. Some liberals simply support, in knee-jerk fashion, the opposite of conservative principles without having any meaningful values of their own.”

I can certainly see how this definition breeds a certain hatred for liberals, and why some conservatives think liberals “are bad for America” and should be done away with.

And based on this definition, I would have to say I’m quite “liberal” given that I support the US Constitution’s separation of church and state – though I could never be accused of attempting to “censor” any religion (or free speech for that matter).  I do support the feared “homosexual agenda” as a basic constitutional right that should be afforded all citizens of this country.  I actually got my hands on the homosexual agenda and it is truly frightening!

As far as marriage equality goes, I’ve been more than outspoken on the topic, simply because I believe the denial of rights of citizens is antithetical to what this country is about, and it violates the 5th and 14th amendment of the constitution – which the Supreme Court will ultimately agree with as well.  Supporting marriage equality is not just a “liberal” issue – Ted Olsen, former Solicitor General under George Bush and Bush’s lead attorney in Bush v. Gore before the Supreme Court effectively ending the Florida recount, will be the lead attorney for marriage equality.

“Many liberals favor a welfare state where people receive endless entitlements without working.”

Um, that isn’t me.  Never been a fan of welfare; however, I do think the government has a role in ensuring prosperity and peace for its citizenry but that is not to say I’m for giveaways…

“Liberals are often anti-Christian, or otherwise disagree with moral or social principles held by many American Christians.”

So by not being a Christian, does that automatically equate to being anti-Christian?  What about hypocritical morals and social principles?  Take for example, one Newt Gingrich – a former contender for the Republican presidential nomination and a leading voice for “morality” in the party.

Leviticus, that book the Christian right is so fond of quoting, makes it pretty clear how adulterers are to be punished – in fact, God put the punishment for the crime of adultery higher in the pecking order than speaking out about gay sex:

20:10 And the man that committeth adultery with another man’s wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbour’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.

20:13 If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.

Of course, there’s all kinds of weird laws that we tend to just ignore in that crazy book, like eating pork or shellfish, or even having period sex – that’s enough to get you banned from your tribe!

20:18 And if a man shall lie with a woman having her sickness, and shall uncover her nakedness; he hath discovered her fountain, and she hath uncovered the fountain of her blood: and both of them shall be cut off from among their people.

So if pointing out absurdities or hypocrisy counts, then I could be considered anti-Christian I guess…

Here’s a great one:  “The liberal ideology has worsened over the years and degenerated into economically delusional views and intolerant ideology.”

I don’t even know what that means – but it sure sounds scary!

So what is a conservative today?

con·serv·a·tive    [kuhn-sur-vuh-tiv]  adjective

1.  disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc., or to restore traditional ones, and to limit change.

2.  cautiously moderate or purposefully low: a conservative estimate.

3.  traditional in style or manner; avoiding novelty or showiness: conservative suit.

4.  ( often initial capital letter ) of or pertaining to the Conservative party.

5.  ( initial capital letter ) of, pertaining to, or characteristic of Conservative Jews or Conservative Judaism.

Wikipedia offers a better definition:

Conservatism in the United States

The meaning of “conservatism” in America has little in common with the way the word is used elsewhere. As Ribuffo (2011) notes, “what Americans now call conservatism much of the world calls liberalism or neoliberalism.”[110] Since the 1950s conservatism in the United States has been chiefly associated with the Republican Party. However, during the era of segregation many Southern Democrats were conservatives, and they played a key role in the Conservative Coalition that controlled Congress from 1937 to 1963.[111]

Major movements within American conservatism include support for tradition, law-and-order, Christianity, anti-communism, and a defense of “Western civilization from the challenges of modernist culture and totalitarian governments.”[112] Economic conservatives and libertarians favor small government, low taxes, limited regulation, and free enterprise. Social conservatives see traditional social values as threatened by secularism, so they support school prayer and oppose abortion and homosexuality.[113] Other modern conservative beliefs include opposition to a world government and skepticism about the importance or validity of various environmental issues.[117]

By “definition” I’m more aligned to economic conservatism, but definitely anti-social conservatism – therefore, according to some conservatives, this makes me a de facto liberal (or at least liberal sounding…)

So if the antonym of conservative is liberal, what is the opposite of liberal? At least according to the dictionary:

– reactionary

– intolerant.

– niggardly.

Hmmm, I’ll stick with liberal – at least it has a closer meaning to my outlook than those opposites…It does, however, make Paul Ryan a conservative poster boy.

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One Response to What Exactly is a Liberal and why is it a 4 Letter Word?

  1. Frank says:

    “I’ll stick with liberal – at least it has a closer meaning to my outlook than those opposites”

    Sean, that’s all I ever wanted you to admit. I am glad you realized there is no real center and that “Middle America, if it exists, is simply apathetic (or numb) to the political kabuki dance that is the election cycle.”

    When you took the facebook political challenge you came out fiscally neutral and a couple clicks to the socially liberal side (believe it or not, I actually came out socially neutral and a couple of clicks to the conservative fiscal side).

    I am glad Wikipedia acknowledges that the term “conservative” and “liberal” have been switched in America.

    I embrace Classical Liberalism:

    A political ideology that advocates limited government, constitutionalism, rule of law, due process, individual liberties including freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and free markets.



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