The Labels We Give Ourselves

January 10, 2004 — Leave a comment

I was pointed this morning to a post by Hugoboy on Ann Coulter’s recent article on Democrats and Religion. Hugo rightly skewers Coulter, who I frankly believe suffers from some sort of psychosis.

However, reading the article and commentary set me to thinking about these labels that we place on ourselves: Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative.

I was at a party a couple of years ago and was pointedly asked by a group if I was a liberal or a conservative. Now I confess that my first tendency, based on my upbringing and political leanings is to say that I am a liberal. But am I really? Yes, I believe in limited choice, but abhor abortion and think it should be the choice of last resort. I am against the death penalty and war, but believe that we’ve made divorce too easy. There are beliefs that I hold that could be called “liberal” and beliefs that I hold that are certainly “conservative.”

These labels are so unhelpful. They really say very little. Are Republican activists arguing for a particular social or economic agenda really “conserving,” that is, are they arguing for the status quo? Not usually. And are liberals really open to all points of view, including those with a vision that is different from their own? Again, not very often.

It seems to me that there ARE two competing philosophies in our land, but I wouldn’t call them liberal and conservative. They are a belief in what I call “radical individualism” and “communitarianism.”

The first, radical individualism, is a very American philosophy. It espouses that the individual (and the nuclear family of that individual) is the most important thing, and that persons should be able to choose what they want to do without concern for society as a whole. It is a philosophy which says “my way is the right way,” and minimizes the needs of others. The emphasis is on individual responsibility, on individual accomplishment. And so society is then ordered to allow the individual to compete in the marketplace with little concern for how the actions of that individual affect others.

The other philosophy is what I call “communitarianism,” that is, that folks have a responbility to the community. This philosophy agrees with the notion of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that “we are caught up in a web of mutuality . . . that I can never be what I’m supposed to be unless you are who you are supposed to be.” This group believes that we are interconnected and that individuals should be concerned with the well being of the community.

Now, these categories don’t conform to our modern breakdowns. In fact, there is a lot of overlap. “Conservatives” lobby for the marketplace, but argue for patriotism (the national concern for one another). Liberals focus on social justice, but want to leave individual choice as king in sexuality.

And that is why our world is so messy. We aren’t consistent. The categories don’t work. Frankly, we just don’t make any sense.

Which is why blanket categorizations by folks like Coulter (and Michael Moore on the other side) are wrong. Should we hold individuals accountable? Sure. But to try and categorize any group as a monolithic force with a single belief is to ignore that people are flawed, affected by sin and grace, and not easily categorized. It’s like trying to nail Jello to a wall. We’re bound to fail.

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