Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » A “Liberal” Label

A “Liberal” Label

By: Ardis E. Parshall - November 09, 2009

Richard L. Evans, “The Spoken” Word, 24 February 1952:

Someone once said: “We see things as we are, not as they are.” Certainly we see words as we are. And if we want to know what a word means to a man, we must know something about the man.

Look at the word liberal, for example. Dictionary definitions give it many coats and colors. In one sense it means “generous.” In another it means one who favors greater “freedom.” But another definition associates “liberal” with “licentious.” Apparently liberal means whatever we choose to think it means within wide limits.

Look at freedom, for example. Freedom doesn’t mean the same thing to all men. In some places people who think they have freedom can’t do many things that we do every day. But it doesn’t matter what we call a man who is in slavery, he is still a slave. And it doesn’t matter what we call a man who enslaves other men, he is still a tyrant.

To come again to the question: What is a “liberal”? A “liberal” may be an earnest champion of the rights of others, or he may be someone who doesn’t care whose rights he walks over. But whatever he is, just the wearing of the label doesn’t tell us what he is.

We need to look behind the label. We need to know what he is “liberal” with. Is he “liberal” with what belongs to him? Or is he “liberal” with what belongs to others? Does he want more power or less power? Does he want more control or less control? Does he favor more freedom or less freedom? The straight answers to a few such questions will often tell us what brand of “liberality” a label covers.

It isn’t a question only of names. We need to know what purpose a person pursues, what philosophy he follows, what way of life he would let other men live.

Sometimes it would seem that we give more weight to a word than we do the thing itself; for example: We are more likely to tolerate an “evil” if we call I by a glamorous or inviting name than if we call if by its right name.

Words have a way of being stealthily stolen, and it isn’t safe to place too much confidence in words unless we know the men who use them and what they mean when they use them. It isn’t safe to let words take the place of realities – for a thing is what it is, no matter what we choose to call it.

It isn’t safe to worship words.



  1. This is interesting. Thanks. Reminds me of the story (I may have some of the names wrong) where a young Robert Kennedy had heard his brothers and friends referring disparagingly to some “redneck.” Robert asked his father, “What’s a redneck”? Joe Sr. purportedly replied, “It’s a term for anyone you don’t like.”

    I bemoan the way the term “liberal” has been twisted in much of the popular culture to mean only one type of partisan politics. The tone of Richard L. Evans’ essay hints that “liberal” still had its original positive connotation (e.g., “the liberal arts”).

    Comment by Hunter — November 9, 2009 @ 2:08 pm

  2. A friend was recently accused of being a liberal — and the way it was said, it was an accusation.

    I’ve always thought of myself as a conservative. It’s hard for an historian to be otherwise, isn’t it? I mean, we’re always wanting to conserve the past, or at least favorite parts of it, in memory if not in practice. But these days I bristle at being called a conservative, thinking of what other kinds of people claim that label.

    Conservative or liberal. I think RLE is right. You have to know something about the user before you can guess what the label means.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 9, 2009 @ 2:18 pm

  3. Ardis:
    I thought historians preserved history. That would make us “preservatives” and not “conservatives.”

    I agree with Hunter about how “Liberal” has been twisted into something “evil.” I’m left of center. My wife is left of center. My parents-in-law are left of center. And we’re all devout Mormons.

    Comment by Steve C. — November 9, 2009 @ 7:10 pm

  4. The straight answers to a few such questions will often tell us what brand of “liberality” a label covers.

    And the questions themselves will tell us plenty about the questioner.

    Comment by Peter LLC — November 10, 2009 @ 5:05 am

  5. Both “liberal” and “conservative” have lost their meaning over my lifetime, certainly in respect to their histories and origins. “Liberal” has, to many of my friends, become a merely a catchall term for someone or something they don’t like, ala the quote above. Being old enough to remember when the Republican Party had both moderates and liberals in it, I always liked the term “Right Wing,” because it accurately described the right wing of the party. Most people I know don’t fit one or the other, anyway, but are an ever-changing mix of both and whatever is in between.

    Comment by Ray (2) — November 10, 2009 @ 7:21 am

  6. Ray (2), I’ve edited your moniker slightly. There is another Ray who blogs at Things of My Soul and is a long-time and frequent commenter (although he is taking a break right now), and it will be helpful to distinguish easily between you.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 10, 2009 @ 7:34 am

  7. Great quote, Ardis – and thanks for the change of moniker on the other comment.

    I would appreciate it, Ray, if you would use a last initial or some other way to distinguish yourself from me. That happens all the time in the Blogernacle and is a common courtesy so that others can know who is saying what.

    Comment by Ray — November 10, 2009 @ 7:48 am

  8. I was excited to see that Richard L. Evans is now blogging.

    Other members of the Church usually hope that I am not one of those “bad” liberals. You know, like Ted Kennedy. When they find out that I advocate for the redistribution of wealth and that I am pro-choice, they quickly realize that I might be worse.

    My work and teaching in political philosophy looks at different aspects of liberalism within political thought. It is a rich and diverse tradtion of thought. My view is more a European social democracy perspective, but it is still liberal. If anyone would like an accurate label let me know. It is sort of like an philosophical or ideological palm reading.

    Comment by Chris H. — November 10, 2009 @ 8:03 am

  9. Keepa maintains an illustrious stable of guest posters. Richard L. Evans joins such distinguished Mormons of the past as Evan Stephens and David O. McKay who have blogged here. Take that, ye paltry blogs who narrow-mindedly limit your guests to the temporarily mortal!

    I don’t even know what it means anymore when someone claims to be, or accuses someone else of being, a liberal, whether in politics or religion or anything else. When it’s hurled as an epithet, I understand that it is meant to be something destructive and contemptible. Even when the label is claimed as a badge of honor, it is often used as a barrier to set “me” apart from “thee.” So I guess I’m stuck with Richard L. Evans, believing it says more about the one who uses it than it does about anything else.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 10, 2009 @ 8:23 am

  10. Chris H: I agree with you. I think my views are more in line with a European social democracy perspective.

    In a previous ward I was in years ago, I heard a college student majoring in political science explaining Conservatism and Liberalism to someone else. He said, “Conservatives are good and Liberals are bad.” I about choked! Shortly thereafter he changed his major. I think it was a wise move on his part.

    Comment by Steve C. — November 10, 2009 @ 8:30 am

  11. Steve, such students have trouble understanding why, with such analytical skills, they only get C’s in the humanities and social sciences.

    Comment by Chris H — November 10, 2009 @ 8:46 am

  12. Chris H: LOL. Not wanting to threadjack, all I can say is I agree.

    Comment by Steve C. — November 10, 2009 @ 9:27 am

  13. There’s no such thing as a threadjack on this thread, except possibly stumping for a specific political candidate or policy. You two profs could no doubt exchange lots of amusing anecdotes about students!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 10, 2009 @ 9:54 am

  14. Ardis, I should say that for every student like the type mentioned above, there are dozens and dozens of thoughtful students who thrive in the intellectual climate (this includes both conservatives and liberals, of course). I do not give out many C’s.

    Steve: What do you teach?

    Comment by Chris H. — November 10, 2009 @ 10:31 am

  15. I do not think Brother Evans will mind the threadjack either.

    Comment by Chris H. — November 10, 2009 @ 10:32 am

  16. Ardis:
    I love reading your site because the posts and information always make me think.

    I’m also pleased to see Richard L. Evans quoted; it’s so rare to see quotes from him these days. I try and collect his work–I have a large folder filled with his talks.

    I had not seen this one before, however. Could you possibly tell me where you found it? I’d love to get some others from this time period.

    Thanks in advance. (and keep up the good work.)

    Comment by Boric_J — November 10, 2009 @ 5:05 pm

  17. Boric, the Improvement Era used to publish all of his “sermonettes” for the month in each issue. I’m not sure when that practice started or stopped, but it was in effect in 1952 when I picked this one up from the Era.

    I’m with you — I love Richard L. Evans. He’s been gone so long now (since 1971) that many readers have probably never heard of him, except, perhaps, as the author of that popular quote book that their parents may have on the shelf.

    Thanks for your pleasant words about Keepa. I’m glad something finally lured you out of lurkdom! :)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 10, 2009 @ 5:29 pm

  18. “that many readers have probably never heard of him” I have heard of him, though I was born 5 years after he passed away.

    Comment by Chris H. — November 10, 2009 @ 6:09 pm

  19. The wheel spins again!

    I think of myself as liberal, but call myself a conservative. Why? I believe in liberal principles like self-control over government control, economic freedom over state-run enterprise, etc. I would call myself progressive, but I’m a Bull Moose progressive, not a “modern” progressive. Maybe I will have to call myself a whig.

    Comment by Eric Boysen — November 11, 2009 @ 8:38 am

  20. What a striking close: “It isn’t safe to worship words.”

    Comment by Jami — November 11, 2009 @ 1:16 pm

  21. GREAT POST!! I love RLE!

    Although I would define myself as mostly right of center, I love and respect my friends who identify themselves as left of center.

    I contemplated a similar post, though not with the power of a quote from RLE. I think the Bloggernacle is too often caught up in labels and labeling. Hard to have an intelligent discussion with that going on.

    Comment by Brian Duffin — November 12, 2009 @ 10:05 am

  22. Having said that, I do want to label you as an awesome blogger. :-)

    Comment by Brian Duffin — November 12, 2009 @ 10:06 am

  23. Paul Rolly is reporting that some Utah lawmakers are upset by the word “liberal.” As in “These rules shall be liberally construed to secure just, speedy and economic determination of all issues presented to the department” in the state agriculture department rules, and similar phrases in other rules and statutes. The state legislature’s Administrative Rules Review Committee agenda shows that the threat of this offensive partisanship is set for discussion at their Nov. 24 meeting.


    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 13, 2009 @ 12:42 pm

  24. That’s hilarious. Someone give those guys a dictionary!

    Comment by Researcher — November 13, 2009 @ 1:16 pm

  25. I’m hoping that when those legislators get caught up in the confusion and strife among the different political parties, and they find it impossible for persons as unacquainted with men and things as they are to come to any certain conclusion who is right and who is wrong, that they are able to retire to some private place, and seek direction from their God, who giveth to all men conservatively.

    Comment by Mark B. — November 13, 2009 @ 2:12 pm

  26. Bravo, Mark B.!

    (Round of applause. :) )

    Comment by Researcher — November 13, 2009 @ 2:24 pm

  27. That was awesome, Mark B. Still laughing . . .

    Comment by Hunter — November 13, 2009 @ 3:12 pm

  28. Yeah, if Mark B. and I weren’t Facebook friends so that he would instantly be aware of my plagiarism, I would totally steal his comment and post it as my status.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 13, 2009 @ 3:25 pm

  29. RE #23: Really?! Don’t they have anything better to do?! I also was thinking along the same lines as Mark B. How would they interpret James 1:5? Or would they also have that thrown out?

    Comment by Steve C. — November 13, 2009 @ 3:54 pm

  30. Running a check of my electronic scriptures, I see *zero* occurrences of any form of the word “conservative,” 1 each of “moderate” and “moderation,” and 17 occurrences of “liberal,” “liberally” and “liberality.”

    Just sayin’.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 13, 2009 @ 4:30 pm

  31. This is just as topical now, as it was when originally posted. I vote for a rerun of this whole series of posts in the middle of the muddle of political rhetoric!


    Comment by Julia — August 29, 2012 @ 10:46 am

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