Do you consider yourself a conservative? A liberal? If you’re serious about seeking the flourishing of all, you might consider being both.
As the Presidential campaign revs up we’re reminded that the US is increasingly divided between conservative and liberal camps. Our son Stephen experienced this as a student at the University of Maryland. One professor asked students to identify as conservative or liberal. Stephen felt uneasy about this either/or dichotomy. He asked for my advice. I suggested Christians ought to be both. Stephen coined a term—conserberal.
I don’t know what the prof made of Stephen’s paper. But I do feel this divide between conservative and liberal is not good. Both are necessary for human flourishing.
Look at what each word means. Conservative means preserve, maintain, protect. Conservatives believe some institutions and traditions ought to be preserved. They appreciate order. In fact, as Jonathan Haidt—a liberal—notes, the great conservative insight is that order is really hard to achieve, it’s precious, and it’s really easy to lose.
Our country’s framers recognized this. They were not all conservatives, but they all appreciated how liberty must be won, ordered, and preserved. They agreed that preserving our experiment in self-government is really easy to lose.
Liberal means generous, broad, open. A liberal arts education is broad (the humanities, arts, and the natural and social sciences). Princeton is a liberal arts college. In his 2013 installation as President, Christopher Eisgruber stated: “A liberal arts education is a vital foundation for both individual flourishing and the well-being of our society.”
It seems to me that a thoughtful Christian—or any thoughtful person for that matter—ought to be conservative and liberal, conserberal. I say this for a few reasons.
First, Christians are to be salt and light. Salt is a preservative. It conserves things worth preserving. Light illuminates. It ought to expose us to our true selves, as well as new ideas, insights, and perspectives on the world. Christians should be salt and light.
But how? Look at how the brain’s hemispheres operate. The left is biased toward conserving what it already knows it knows. That can be good. The right is open to whatever we experience, including new and disruptive ideas. That too can be good. Christians have to learn how to think in an ambidextrous fashion, right and left.
This requires practice. The church historically viewed take/eat as the most important practice. It’s the deepest reality of the created order. Adam and Eve disrupted life (taking a carrot out of the ground) to sustain life (eating it). From death comes life. Note that disrupt aligns with liberal, sustain with conservative. In the Eucharist, we practice both.
And we’re to practice take/eat in the wider world. It’s the dynamic driving innovation. Innovation is Latin for the Greek renew. The renewal of all things is the church’s mission (Col.1:18-20). She ought to be an expert in innovation. Harvard professor Clayton Christensen says innovation requires disruptive and sustaining technologies. Both/and. Take/eat is disrupt/renew in the wider world. Disrupt is liberal, sustain is conservative.
We see this disrupt/sustain dynamic in Asian religions. Yin and yang describe how seemingly opposite or contrary forces may actually be complementary. Hindu thought has Shiva, the destroyer, and Vishna, the Preserver. Both inhabit the same body.
So here’s the rub. Conservative Christians tend to read that last paragraph and think I’m going liberal. Liberal Christians read it and think I mean all religions are right. Both miss the point. As C. S. Lewis rightly noted, everyone is made in the image of God, so everyone—including every faith tradition—gets at least part of the story right.
This is true of our political parties. It ought to be true of the faith community. I don’t have any sway in our political culture, but I have a little in the faith community. My sense is the conservative faith community has preserved Enlightenment assumptions regarding the gospel and discipleship. They tend to resist the disruptive voice of prophets who point this out. Conservatives rarely think in an ambidextrous fashion.
Liberal faith communities tend to resist sustaining voices. As a result, they’ve failed to preserve traditions that ought to be conserved. The most recent example is Joe Biden. A professing Catholic, he now supports abortion, a flip that appears more informed by realpolitik than religion. Liberals rarely think in an ambidextrous fashion.
So what can be done? I grew up in a liberal Christian tradition. I came to faith through a conservative Christian tradition. Liberal traditions declined precipitously in the 60s. But in the public arenas, conservatives have been declining “over the last 175 years, especially in the realm of ideas and imagination.” I hope to help launch a new generation of believers who are serious about seeking the flourishing of all. Conserberals.
 James Davidson Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Oxford University Press, 2010), 19.