Benjamin Franklin, not a Christian, answered a questioner about his religious beliefs thusly: "As to Jesus of Nazareth, my opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think his system of morals and his religion, as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting changes, and I have, with most of the present dissenters in England, some doubts as to his divinity; though it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble."
In the wake of two Supreme Court decisions generally characterized as favoring the "left" or "progressives," one interpreting a statute (the 2010 Health Care Reform Act) and the other on gay marriage expanding the reach of the Equal Protection Clause and Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, it is instructive to look back a bit at our nation's history to see where these decisions fall on the fault line of political ideology.
Since the founding of this country, the great events have almost always been forged by persons whom we in modern times would have no trouble distinguishing as "liberals." In 1776, it was "liberal" to espouse throwing off the yoke of monarchy in exchange for representative democratically elected government. The "conservatives" of the day were the Tories loyal to the British Crown, many of whom ended up emigrating to Canada when they lost the war.
And since then, throughout our nation's history, every major advance was because of an argument, a debate, a court case, won by "liberals," and every time, the self styled "conservatives" were on the wrong side of moral right and the wrong side of history, which inevitably traveled on the path of increased freedom and increased inclusion.
In 1787, the "liberals" forged a new Constitution for the infant republic. Many liberal ideas were included: a ban on "ex post facto" laws which had allowed governments to criminalize and punish past behavior, and a ban on "bills of attainder" which punished the descendants of criminals (both in Section 9 of Article I). And, most relevant to modern discourse, a ban on the establishment of religion (the First Amendment, in 1791) and on "religious tests" for holding public office. No government could require any candidate for public office to espouse any particular religion- or even a belief in a deity: "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States" is in Article VI of the Constitution. 228 years later, as we approach a presidential election, the vast majority of those self styled "conservatives" seeking the Republican nomination can't or won't admit that the Constitution bars their attempts to use the powers of the federal government to impose what they think is "God's will" or their Biblical interpretations of law on the American people.
By 1860, the liberal party in America was the then brand new (six years old) Republican Party, which wanted radical change, to wit: the eradication of slavery (or, more accurately, a beginning to its end by curtailing its expansion into the new Western territories destined to become States). The "conservatives" sided with the South, to preserve the "peculiar institution" which had existed for hundreds of years. The Democratic Party nominated a "conservative," Stephen Arnold Douglas, a supporter of the infamous 1857 Dred Scott decision in the United States Supreme Court which held that not only was Dred Scott not freed by moving to a free state, but went far beyond the issue before the Court to rule that no African slave or descendent of a slave could ever be a citizen of the United States. Douglas won the South but lost the election, thus igniting the Civil War. In 1860, shortly after the election, South Carolina, the first state to secede, put out a written statement of its reasons, led by the refusal of Northern States to enforce fugitive slave laws to return runaway slaves to their masters.
The 1865 argument in the Congress over the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to permanently abolish slavery was won by the "liberals," as the movie Lincoln, based on a portion of Doris Kearns Goodwin's book, Team of Rivals, portrayed. The conservatives who opposed the 13th Amendment used many of the same arguments-- appeals to "States' rights"-- made in modern times to oppose the expansion of civil rights, including voting rights, the rights of women, and the rights of gay people.
In 1920 women came to the fore with the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which banned discrimination in voting on account of sex. Thirty-four years later, in 1954, the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling outlawed racial discrimination in public schools and reversed the 1896 "separate but equal" doctrine of the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson. Ten years after Brown, in 1964 and 1965, the Republicans and Democrats had somewhat reverted to their 1860 roles, as Southern Democrats opposed Lyndon Johnson's historic Civil Rights legislation (ending discrimination in employment, accommodations, and voting) and many Republicans joined with the non-Southern Democrats to pass those momentous pieces of legislation.
In 1965 Ronald Reagan- Republican, father of the modern "conservative movement," and future California Governor and President- foretold the end of America as we knew it if Medicare was passed into law; he predicted we'd end up with a "socialist dictatorship" if the law passed, (it did and we didn't). The 1964 and 1965 Civil Rights laws driven through Congress by President Lyndon Johnson were opposed by bigots traveling under the fig leaf of the Constitution. The pernicious phrase "State's Rights" along with the concepts of "nullification" (that States could reject federal laws and portions of the Constitution with which they disagreed) and secession had come to life early in the history of our country, most notably by South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun circa 1830.
The phrase "State's rights" resonated with bigots in the 1960's and the Southern Senators, along with Republican allies such as Barry Goldwater, fought the landmark legislation. Fortunately for America, the "liberals" won those political and court battles, giving us legal bans on government and private discrimination on account of race, gender, religion, and national origin in voting, employment, accommodations, and housing by the end of the 1960's.
"States' rights" reared its ugly head again in 1980 with the kickoff of Ronald Reagan's campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the location of the infamous murders of three civil rights activists, Andrew Goodman, Michael Chaney and James Schwerner in 1964 by members of the KKK supported by the local Nashoba County law enforcement, including the Sheriff. At the Neshoba County Fair on August 3, 1980, Ronald Reagan's speech included the dog whistle phrase "I believe in states' rights" as part of the bedrock of his belief system. He won the Southern states, a continuation of their moving to the Republican column ever since Barry Goldwater, the 1964 losing nominee, opposed the 1964 Civil Rights legislation propounded by Democrat Lyndon Johnson. Reagan's election and his nomination of "conservative" federal judges and Supreme Court justices such as Antonin Scalia was intended to set back the civil rights advances of the 1960's. However, not all of Reagan's appointees toed his line, most notably Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony Kennedy, the latter of whom authored the June 26, 2015 landmark decision on gay marriage.
So why is it that for the past 35 years, since Reagan was elected president, that "liberal" is somehow a dirty word that most politicians- even many Democrats (who prefer "centrist" or "progressive" or "realist" or "pragmatic") flee at any cost?
Probably because propaganda works. In George Orwell's 1949 book Nineteen Eighty-four, the government propaganda machine could turn words into their opposites: "War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength." All of these word reversals and the deliberate distortions of fact and rewriting of American history by Fox News, right wing radio, the Tea Party, and Republican media machines have created a significant minority of not just ignorant but misinformed viewers and listeners. Ignorance can be cured- especially if the ignorant realize they have a lack of knowledge or understanding of an issue and a sincere desire to become informed. But people who are rigid, right wing, and misinformed-- who have been told over and over that our founding fathers were Christians who created a "Christian nation," that global climate change is a hoax, that The Affordable Care Act is a job-destroying law that drives up costs of medical care and takes away the right to choose one's doctor, that gay marriage somehow threatens marriages of heterosexuals or infringes on the rights of bakers (!) and religious congregations, that President Obama is a Kenyan born Socialist who hates America, that he's a tyrant overriding the rule of law with executive orders, that he's a weak President unwilling to stand up to Iran and who pulled out of Iraq-- will cling to their beliefs, no matter how self contradictory or how little they are based in fact. Ironically, the powerful media types who purvey misinformation also regularly attack the "liberal, mainstream media," another fiction created by their bloviators in chief.
And it is the cowardice of those in the media and in politics who know better but who lack convictions or any semblance of pride or courage that allows it to continue. It's time for our top mainstream media and for our nation's leaders, from the President on down, to embrace a word that describes the core beliefs of a majority of those Americans who live in the real world: liberal.