In a recent comment here on my blog, a reader insisted that he found at least some of my posts downright depressing, and more, that liberalism is essentially pessimistic.
I decline to try to refute his claim about myself; I leave that for others to judge. However, I reject his assertion regarding the core of liberalism.
The very thing that appeals to me about liberalism is that it is so optimistic. Liberals are optimistic that humanity doesn’t have to be as ugly as it is. We don’t have to tolerate war (with the atrocities which are virtually inevitable on all sides), violence, deprivation, squalor, intolerance, or oppression as acceptable and unavoidable conditions of society. We believe that through concerted effort—as individuals and as communities; through means secular and ecclesiastical; by efforts private and public—humanity can rise above its base nature and become truly magnificent. I find that liberalism appeals to the best in people.
But to do so, we cannot so casually accept things as they are. Conservatism all too often seems to accept and even embrace that natural man. Greed is good; war is necessary; crimes such as terrorism, assassination, and torture are legitimate—at least when we do them; poverty and deprivation are tough breaks—or the just desserts of a sinful nature. People are too evil to make proper sexual and religious choices on their own, so we must force them through governmental coercion, and we must harshly punish people who are “bad,” even unto death, to keep them from sinning again.
It sounds so base to me. And progress can never happen if we accept what is base and vulgar. For decades in the youth of our nation, the Southern planters insisted that slavery would dwindle out if left alone. Instead it continued to grow. It was only by direct challenge that the institution ended in the U.S. For decades following that, the white majority was all too willing to turn a blind eye to institutionalized racism. When organizers and reformers worked to rouse the public for change, they were told by many that they shouldn’t rock the boat so, that racial reform would come gradually if they just let the matter be. But reform didn’t come until increasing numbers of agitators raised the issue and forced America to confront its crimes. Whether you’re talking about women’s suffrage, the environmental movement, or even rights and liberty envisioned by Thomas Paine, John Adams, Jefferson, Madison, et al; its all the same. Change doesn’t come until people stand up for change, make their voices heard, pointing out flaws and injustices of the situation until enough people rally around to make the change happen.
The same pattern occurs within the Gospel. Many might call Isaiah despairing. Ezekial might well be considered depressing. And President Kimball, in his 1976 address “The False Gods We Worship,” might well be thought pessimistic about the U.S. A more mature perspective instead that he recognized frailties, shortcomings, and misperceptions that needed to addressed so that they could be corrected.
Maybe I’m too much an idealist (another accusation frequently hurled at the liberal). So be it. I find the Gospel to be idealistic. If we aren’t striving for more as individuals and as a community, continually acknowledging and improving upon our faults, we’ll never accomplish anything meaningful. But if we’re willing to change our perceptions and challenge conventional wisdom about what is possible, miracles may blossom around us.