My father calls himself a conservative. In 1964 he voted for Barry Goldwater, and these days his car sports a big blue bumper sticker: CAIN. He is a born-again Christian who believes in the Bible and doesn’t believe in evolution. He’s a teetotaler.
But I have to say, at nearly 93 my father is also a huge liberal. I have been visiting him here in Knoxville for a few days, and we have talked about everything under the sun—politics, religion, sports, gardening, music. About all we do is play Gin Rummy, drink coffee and talk by the big window in the kitchen. Dad cares about the issues of the day, and he has strong convictions, but the thing he cares most about is his family. And when it comes to family, Dad is a big liberal.
Dad has seven children, 23 grandchildren and 37 great-grandchildren. The love of his life died a dozen years ago after 55 years of marriage, so he is the lone parent. And this family of his is all over the map, geographically and philosophically. His seven children range broadly across that conservative-liberal spectrum, but his 23 grandchildren are off the charts. Among our number now are those of whom Dad would not have approved in, say, 1964. Unitarians, atheists, kids living together without being married, kids getting divorced, pacifists, socialists, U.N. lovers.
And here is the jaw-dropping fact: Dad loves every last one of those children, grand- and great-grandchildren, no matter what, period. And they all respond not merely with love but flat-out adoration.
How is this possible? I’ll tell you. As Jerry Anderson got older he got wiser. He did not waver from his own beliefs and convictions, but he understood very clearly that old truth: you can be right or you can be in relationship. Dad chose relationship. Every time.
Every parent should be a conservative. Conservatives conserve. They hold onto the great principles of hard work, personal responsibility, love of God and country. They hold for law and order in the face of do-as-you-please. They maintain that actions have consequences and that no one does you any favor who excuses you from those consequences. They hold for family and clan loyalty. They remind a wishy-washy world that if you don’t stand for something you’ll fall for anything. Every parent should give these values to their children.
But every parent should be a liberal. In a pinch, liberals put people over principle. They value community over individualism. They’re wary of unjust social structures, knowing that the world is not fair and not everybody has an equal chance. They love God and family and country, but they know God is bigger than any religion, and that we all belong to the great big human family. Liberals prefer mercy over justice. Every parent should give these values to their children.
Most parents begin conservative because what children need most is a sense of belonging inside a tight circle of love and security—with clear boundaries and rules. You’ve got to be a conservative. But as children grow up, leave home, find themselves, figure out what they believe and what they’re called to do, if your only parental response is conservative you will lose your kids. Now you must cut the ties, remove the boundaries, suspend the rules. And since every child and grandchild will play the Prodigal (if she is ever fully to live!), you must make room for a person you no longer shape or control. Now it is all about mercy, love and forgiveness.
This is what my father has managed to do. He will not be happy to be called a liberal, but when it comes to being the paterfamilias at 93, overseeing his clan of sixty-seven souls, he is a star to his children and a rock star to his grand- and great-grandchildren because he is a man who has learned to be both conservative and liberal.