Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Ken Neal - Rotary Club Speech
Fall 1995

God Is A Liberal: She Told Me So

Ken Neal, Tulsa World (1953-2009)
I developed this ridiculous title line in the hope of grabbing your attention and also to suggest that linking God to any side in politics is as presumptuous as a football team praying for victory. 

I've often wondered at what God must think when two high school teams are praying at opposite ends of the field for opposite results.
The terms liberal and conservative change so much in relation to each other that it is only slightly sacrilegious
to wonder if God can tell which is which.

Broadly speaking, liberals have been described as those who want change while conservatives have been defined as those who are reluctant to change the status quo.

When Barry Goldwater launched the modern conservative movement in the early 1960s he in fact was sounding a rebellion against the orthodoxy that liberalism had become. In this sense, he was a liberal.

When the founding fathers broke away from the English crown and formulated a new government, it was not only considered to be liberal, but radical. It was the American Experiment.

Yet today, the Constitution and the government founded by those liberal thinkers is now considered to be the
conservative cornerstone of the Republic. We want - conservatives want - prospective members of the U.S.
Supreme Court to be strict constructionists, that is, conservative, in their approach to the Constitution.

Yet the conservatives in Congress today are anxious to change the Constitution. The Balanced Budget Amendment, the Line Item Veto and Term Limits are the basic litmus issues for the conservatives pushing, oddly, for radical change of the Constitution. Still others would amend the Constitution to ban abortion, return prayer to schools or protect the U.S. flag.

The changing meanings of liberal and conservative show up in religious movements, particularly in American protestantism. Time and again, sons reacted against fathers to upset the conservative view of the day, only to have their own sons react against the conservative view that only a generation ago was liberal. Often, grandfathers and grandsons held similar positions.

Even hairstyles show this kind of inter-generational reaction. Grandpa parted his hair in the middle and had a
mustache. His son parted his hair on the side and was smooth shaven. But his son parted his hair in the middle and had a mustache.

We have only to remember the 60s to know that hairstyles often get intermingled with other fads like music and passing social mores.

Today's Conservative Christians aren't the first to enlist God on their side.

William Jennings Bryan, the Great Commoner, the plains populist, thrilled the crowds at the turn of the century with his Cross of Gold speech. He was famous for his faith and he was a Democrat. Even God was not able to convince Bryan that free silver was not a good monetary policy, apparently.

Huey Long and Alfalfa Bill Murray, ostensibly Democrats but really populists, are other Democrat demagogues who come to mind.

Oddly enough, it was the liberal churchmen of the late 19th century who emphasized the Christian in politics, ushering in the Social Gospel. It was not enough, they said, for the church to worry about men's souls; it had to worry about their temporal welfare, thereby spawning many social programs that ultimately came under government direction.

Of course a lot of what passes for liberalism or conservatism actually is populism, fed by the public
passions of the moment.

The founding fathers and many political scientists since have worried over the effects of public opinion on
government. The fathers tried to protect the government from being pushed about by the fads of public opinion. The lower house - close to the people with elections every two years - was matched with a Senate elected every six years by the state legislatures. Federal officers were at first elected not by popular vote but by the electoral college.

Today, liberal and conservative alike are chained to public opinion polls, which, as we know, are terribly volatile. Very few members of Congress have any concept of representation beyond checking the latest polls and acting accordingly. It is, of course, a good way to get re-elected. Yet the leaders of history that we treasure almost uniformly went against the conventional wisdom to take their lonely stands. We call them statesmen.

When it comes to government control or intrusive government, we find liberalism and conservatism meeting in the same person. Radical environmentalists, whom most of us would regard as liberals, want government to strictly control who can do what in a wide variety of circumstances. These same people argue that government ought to stay completely out of the picture when it comes to abortion, but active in birth
control and in protecting individual rights.  Conservatives in general would like the government to butt out in
environmental measures, but take a firm hand in social matters, banning abortion and birth control.

The definitions get very fuzzy.

Yet the tide is running with those who define themselves as conservatives. Liberal is used as an epithet, almost in the way that calling someone a Communist once was used.

The attitude seems to be that since I am a conservative and I don't like what you are saying, you, therefore, are a liberal.

In this climate, all sorts of ideas get classified as conservative and people get classified.

Barry Goldwater, Mr. Conservative, is no longer conservative. He regularly drives the modern conservatives
nuts with a pro-choice stand on abortion and a tolerant stand on homosexuality. Bob Dole probably will not get the Republican nomination because he is too liberal for the right wing which controls the Republican party.

At home in Oklahoma, Henry Bellmon, the man who almost single-handedly built the GOP in Oklahoma, is viewed as a liberal renegade. He did work with Democrats, you know.

It is fashionable for conservatives to oppose the most conservative public institutions like the public school
system but embrace liberal operations like Social Security.

Conservatives fought fiercely with the liberals who devised Social Security. Time changes views.

A couple of points:

The radicals on both sides of the political spectrum deserve each other. The excesses of the Democrat left of the past 30 years have brought us the excesses of the Republican right. Militant homosexuals seeking acceptance and encouragement rather than tolerance; radical women's rights groups, extremists in the black movement and those who mocked traditional family values and spit on and burned the flag during the Vietnam war all but destroyed the Democratic party. Bill Clinton lies awake nights trying to figure out
how to put humpty dumpty back together. I doubt that it can be done, at least in the short term.

But we know have the extremists on the Right who would remake the country into a kind of theocracy that has little room for the diversity of religion and ethnicity that makes America unique. There is a near hatred of government, suspicion of anything foreign, an isolationist push in a world in which isolationism is impossible and an abiding intolerance for anyone or anything different. They are the "Love Jesus or I'll kill you" folks.

I don't know about you but my experience has been that the truth usually lies between the extremes and that of course is where the great majority of Americans reside.

While the political parties lurch right, then left, then right down the political highway, most of us are not
captured by the true believers on either side.

Most public issues do not involve any burning questions of political doctrine. Most can and should be decided on the facts and practicalities involved.

To paraphrase someone, we should simply try to do the right thing. It will confuse our friends and irritate our enemies.

In my business, I manage to do that often. Sometimes, in the same mail, I will be told how the Tulsa World is definitely a right of center newspaper and a flaming liberal, as my friend Frank Keating says, somewhere between the Boston Globe and Isvestia, as if he had ever read either one of them.

I don't want to take too much time talking about the role of newspapers, but I believe the editorial pages of a good newspaper should provide a wide range of opinion from columnists, special articles, letters to the editor and guest opinions. The newspaper's own editorial voice should be dictated by fact and circumstance and not political dogma. This should both confuse and irritate both friends and enemies at times. If this is the test, we are succeeding.

To read Ken's editorials from 1981-2007 follow this link:

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