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The Spiritual Truths underlying Liberalism and Conservatism, Part I.

As my readers know, this column frequently has a political orientation.  Some people object a religious site should not have political content.  But historically spirituality has never been purely private except when viewed from a secular perspective that relegates it to the purely subjective, like preferring chocolate ice cream over vanilla. Interestingly, this secular outlook imports powerful monotheistic assumptions under the surface.

However to say that religion has unavoidable political implications is not to make the next jump and say that religion leads to One Right Way politically. This totalitarian conclusion has roots in religions dominating societies and also claiming there is only One Right Way. Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism are tragic examples. By contrast, religions emphasizing sacred immanence, that divinity is within the world wherever else it might be, generally recognize many valid spiritual paths, and more easily live at peace with a diverse political landscape. 

I want to explore how these Pagan observations shed new light on the great ideological conflicts rending America today: conflicts usually described as liberalism vs. conservatism. I will argue both liberalism and conservatism have important spiritual insights and both are transformed in a good way when viewed from a Pagan perspective rather than from their original Christian origins, or attempts to ground them in secularized reasoning rooted in transcendental monotheism.

But to understand this we need to get clear just what liberalism and conservatism are.

Historically Liberalism came first

Modern liberalism and conservatism arose when traditional aristocratic and monarchical societies were first becoming what we now call “modern.” Perhaps ironically, conservatism is the newer perspective, being developed in response to liberalism’s challenge to traditional society, and so forcing its defenders to think rationally in its defense.

Both liberalism and conservatism have since been espoused by brilliant thinkers and resulted in hundreds of books, but two men and two books stand at their respective origins. Liberalism became an ideology that would change the world through the writings of John Locke, particularly his Two Treatises of Government  which appeared in 1689. As a self-aware way of thinking about politics and society conservatism began about 100 years later in the work of Edmund Burke, especially his 1790 Reflections on the Revolution in France  Both are rightly regarded as foundational works, identifying the key elements of their respective positions.

The Core of Liberalism

A classic statement of liberal principles is the opening of America’s Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson and agreed to by the revolution’s leaders,

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Every idea here is present in Locke’s Second Treatise. The dominant ideology of the American revolution was Lockean liberalism.

Liberalism’s fundamental principle is that all people are equal, not in talents but in rights, or moral standing.  Given that inequality is the inevitable result of free men and women acting for themselves, liberals have always grappled with how real world inequalities relate to the more basic moral equality that exists between all people. 

Locke and Jefferson wrote before urbanization, industrialization, mass democracy, and modern science had transformed the world.  Their descendents coped with the challenges arising from these changes in different ways.  Today the liberalism of our founding era has fragmented into three broad approaches which I term ‘classical’, ‘managerial’, and ‘egalitarian’.  Classical liberals such as libertarians support a ‘free market’ and oppose ‘the state.’ Managerial liberals, exemplified by Roosevelt’s New Deal, believe in strong bureaucratic regulations of markets and administering of social programs to protect people from misfortune. Egalitarian liberals also support regulation  and social programs but distrust bureaucracies and want greater over sight by voters and greater equality in resources among citizens. They were strongest when allied with managerial liberals in the Progressive Era, and have given us primaries, the initiative and recall, and more recently, efforts at campaign finance reform.

ALL support private property, but define what it should include in different ways. ALL support the ideal of the rule of law applying equally to everyone, but disagree as to what should fall under its oversight. ALL support a market economy although some regard it as more in need of regulation than do others.

NONE support abolishing private property. NONE believe power alone should determine what is lawful. NONE want to create a centrally planned economy. Over 200 years American liberals have divided on how to interpret their basic principles, but those principles and a commitment towards individuals as society’s fundamental moral unit remain true for them all.

Conservatism explained

Conservatism arose in reaction to the failure of liberal ideas during the French Revolution. Edmund Burke lived during the time of the American Revolution and supported the colonists against the English crown. But he did so for reasons that were not liberal. Two quotations from Burke, one long, one short, capture this distinction. 

Speaking in Parliament, Burke said:

leave America, if she has taxable matter in her, to tax herself. I am not here going into the distinctions of rights, nor attempting to mark their boundaries. I do not enter into these metaphysical distinctions . . . Leave the Americans as they anciently stood, and these distinctions, born of our unhappy contest, will die along with it. . . . Be content to bind America by laws of trade; you have always done it.... Do not burthen them with taxes. . . . But if [you] poison the very source of government by urging subtle deductions, and consequences odious to those you govern, from the unlimited and illimitable nature of supreme sovereignty, you will teach them . . .  to call that sovereignty itself in question.... If that sovereignty and their freedom cannot be reconciled . . . [they] will cast your sovereignty in your face.

He also argued: “...the people of the colonies are descendants of Englishmen.... They are therefore not only devoted to liberty, but to liberty according to English ideas and on English principles. The people are Protestants... a persuasion not only favourable to liberty, but built upon it....”

When war broke out, Burke’s sympathies were with the colonists, not the crown.

Here we see the differences between liberal and conservative reasoning.  Locke and the tradition he founded emphasize equal rights by virtue of being a person.  While little remembered today, Locke argued women’s right were equal to those of men, and that children had innate rights no parent could violate.  These were extraordinary views for the time and would make him an early feminist. Each person owned their labor and whatever they produced from what was unowned became their private property. People were basically social, but when disputes arose we tended to weigh our own views more heavily than those with whom we differed. Locke called these problems “inconveniences,” and governments were created to solve them. Legitimate governments arose when people came together and delegated them limited powers in order to protect the rights of all. This action was called the “social contract.” The ratification of our constitution is a real world example of applying Lockean reasoning.

Conservatism avoided talk of abstract rights and theoretical models, placing each of us within a historical and cultural context that defined the rights we already had.  Freedom was good, but secure freedom always existed within a cultural matrix that supported it against the efforts of those who would subvert it.  In other words, we are always social beings of our time and place. We shape our culture, but we are also shaped by it.  We can never stand outside it and create a new world. We can improve it through piece meal changes or alternatively run the risk of disaster either by opposing all change or by seeking to create a better world by imposing untried institutions, ideas, and methods.  In other words, rather than defending inalienable rights Burke argued the colonists were Englishmen fighting for the time honored rights of Englishmen, rights which the government was attacking.

To use contemporary terms, Burke’s conservatism is a ecological outlook.  Society and government are what they are largely without anyone planning them, They are too complex ever to fully understand. Customs that do no obvious harm should therefore be maintained because they possibly do a great deal of good we do not grasp.  Even customs that are harmful should be changed carefully and gradually because perhaps the harm they do is preferable to an even greater harm that would arise if they were simply abolished.

(Think of the harmful consequences for ecosystems of eliminating predators as an analogous example. Deer do not like predators, but if they voted to eliminate predators they would rapidly outgrow their sustenance leaving a degraded environment, starvation and disease, and ultimately fewer and weaker deer.)

The American Revolution built on established English customs and institutions, and applied liberal principles to defend and reform them.  By contrast the French Revolution sought to abolish France’s aristocratic and monarchical institutions and establish freedom, equality, and fraternity on the basis of abstract reason, a doctrine of universal rights, and institutions alien to French experience. The past was to be swept away. Burke predicted it would end in disaster. His predictions came true with the Terror, and the years of dictatorship and war that followed.

A more inclusive picture

To my mind conservatism and liberalism are not so much opposites as different approaches to politics and society, and illuminate different dimensions of them. That Burke supported the liberal American Revolution, and that both he and the revolutionaries saw the British government as the aggressor suggests a more interesting relationship between liberalism and conservatism than simple opposition. A third concept sheds light on what this relationship is.

Both liberalism and conservatism share a deep distrust of arbitrary power, or of extending power over others against their consent.  It was the British crown’s claims to expanded power that led to both the Declaration of Independence and Burke’s defense of the rights of Englishmen. Even the most traditional conservative is opposed, as Burke was, to the centralizing efforts of political power to bring more and more of life under central control, creating a kind of social monoculture.  Similarly, liberals have split over how power is defined and evaluated, but all are characterized by a hostility to arbitrary power in whatever way they define it.

We need to add a third pole to understand conservatism and liberalism’s relations to one another.  That pole is Power as domination,.  Power seeks to subordinate any and all principles, liberal or conservative, to its service.  This is why both traditions always warn us to be suspicious of those who seek to trim away any of these principles in order to enlarge their power.

Liberals talk of rights as limitations on Power, conservatives talk of tradition and prudence as limitations on power. Against these principles Power arrays will. Will is used to over come all limitations. The stronger the will the freer it is of any constraints.

Power continually threatens to turn both traditions into excuses for maintaining domination by some over others.  Historically conservatives and liberals have been sensitive to how power distorts the other perspective while too often being blind to its distortions and undermining of their own tradition. But I think it important to realize that both traditions distrust arbitrary power and institutions that acquire too much power vis-à-vis other institutions, and that both criticize the other often in terms of its using or threatening to use excessive power to get its way.

The American context

In the United States conservatives face a strange situation. While conservatives believe established institutions must be respected, and changed slowly if at all, America’s established institutions are fundamentally liberal and have been for over 200 years. Liberal institutions such as science and the market are unequalled in continually transforming their respective areas of influence, and liberal democracy is unequalled at providing a context where people can propose and accept or reject new political proposals. In addition, when knowledge and the economy are always changing, government is under continual pressure to respond to these changes. A conservative Burkean outlook seeks to preserve a very un-Burkean society.

Even so, for over 200 years conservative thought generally sought to preserve what they regarded as basic American constitutional traditions.  In doing so it frequently allied itself with classical liberalism, the liberal perspective that was least concerned with confronting the transformations in work, power, and organization brought about by the rise of industry and large corporations and most concerned about the bad impact of government expanding to regulate them. Both conservatism and classical liberalism shared a deep distrust of government whereas other liberal perspectives believed democratic procedures and civil liberties were sufficient to keep government under control.  A classic statement of the reasoning behind this alliance is Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative

My next installment discusses how spirituality and religion, especially Pagan spirituality, relate to these two basic themes of modern American thought. My final installment will discuss the crisis in each that is rendering them defenseless against their common enemy of unbridled power, again with attention to how Pagan spirituality can be important here beyond our numbers.


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Gus diZerega DiZerega combines a formal academic training in Political Science with decades of work in Wicca and shamanic healing. He is a Third Degree Elder in Gardnerian Wicca, studied closely with Timothy White who later founded Shaman’s Drum magazine, and also studied Brazilian Umbanda  for six years under Antonio Costa e Silva.

DiZerega holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from UC Berkeley, has taught and lectured in the US and internationally, and has organized international academic meetings.

His newest book is "Faultlines: the Sixties, the Culture Wars, and the Return of the Divine Feminine (Quest, 2013) received a 'silver' award by the Association of Independent Publishers for 2014. It puts both modern Pagan religion and the current cultural and political crisis in the US into historical context, and shows how they are connected.

His first book on Pagan subjects, "Pagans and Christians: The Personal Spiritual Experience," won the Best Nonfiction of 2001 award from  The Coalition of Visionary Resources. 

His second,"Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and a Christian in Dialogue" is what it sounds like. He coauthored it with Philip Johnson. DiZerega particularly like his discussion of polytheism in Burning Times, which in his view is an advance over the discussion in Pagans and Christians.

His third volume, "Faultlines: The Sixties, the Culture War, and the Return of the Divine Feminine," was published in 2013 and won a Silver award from the Association of Independent Publishers in 2014. The subject is obvious, and places it, and the rise of goddess oriented spiritual movements and our "cold civil war" in historical context.

His pen and ink artwork supported his academic research in graduate school and frequently appeared in Shaman’s Drum, and the ecological journals Wild Earth, and The Trumpeter. It now occasionally appears in this blog.


  • Molly
    Molly Wednesday, 28 August 2013

    Loved this! Excellent. Thank you. I look forward to future posts.

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Wednesday, 28 August 2013

    Thank you Molly. BB

  • Don Kraig
    Don Kraig Wednesday, 28 August 2013

    Gus, this was a great historical article. Thank you.

    It seems to me, though, that you have not yet covered how they have evolved. For example, many leaders of modern American conservatism seem to have drifted from the conservative ideals you summarized and now focus on their individual versions of what is allowed according to Christianity, excluding only those concepts that encourage the merging of business and state. Meanwhile, many leaders of modern American liberalism seem to embrace the concepts of traditional conservatism. Will you be discussing this and the impact of this evolution?

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Wednesday, 28 August 2013

    I will cover this issue never fear. But before it can be really understood I think we need to understand where liberalism and conservatism started to grasp why they ended up where they did. I will ultimately argue both views are truly dependent on the one another for their greatest truths to be realized and that both positions are in a condition of profound nihilistic decay that need Pagan style insights for recovery.

  • Jamie
    Jamie Wednesday, 28 August 2013

    So much has changed politically, even since the 1970s, that the U.S. mass media's notions of 'liberal' and 'conservative' don't even seem to mean what they used to.

    Criticize Islam in any way, and you're now a member of the "extreme right"...even if you're a gay-rights activist.

    Criticize 'free trade' or international banks, and you're now a member of the "extreme left"...even if you're a member of the American Republican Party.

    The times they are a changin'.

    Thanks for the great article. I really appreciated it.

  • Greybeard
    Greybeard Sunday, 01 September 2013

    We have come almost full circle about Liberalism over the past couple hundred years. Liberal started out as someone favoring Liberty or Freedom FROM government. Over the years Liberal has now come to mean someone who supports big government ownership and control of our entire lives and money. A person who supports freedom is now called Libertarian, and Conservatives now are those who oppose the ubiquitous growth of liberal government tyranny. Whenever religion gets involved in politics, whether pagan, Christian, Islam, or other; whenever government supports and implements religion, it invariably leads to more government oppression and less freedom. I don't see where pagans should be supporting anything but individual freedom from government. We don't need government monopoly health care. We don't need government licenses for every part of our lives. The Continental Congress once said, "Any government that takes one tenth part of a man's wealth, in total of all taxes, is tyranny and should be overthrown." I agree with that assertion. My local sales tax alone is now one tenth part. The rest is tyranny. Pagans need to support FREEDOM, not big government tyranny of any stripe.

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Monday, 02 September 2013

    You will never understand this or the following columns if you think of them treating liberalism and conservatism as a dichotomy, whether changing places or not. There are three poles essential to my framework, and unless you demonstrate the third, Power, is unneeded, you will never actually engage my argument here or in the pieces to come.

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