The recent discussion of gay marriage (see my October 2 post and related comments) has reminded me once again how difficult it is to be both culturally liberal and morally conservative. It seems that today most folks fall into one of these categories but not the other. That is, people tend to be either culturally liberal or morally conservative. By culturally liberal I mean someone who readily recognizes and aggressively pursues truth, goodness, and beauty in culture-from politics and higher learning to art forms such as film, literature, and popular music. By contrast, a cultural conservative would be someone who does not share this inclination but rather is suspicious of culture and human creative expressions. A parallel distinction can be made regarding a person’s moral sensibilities. Moral liberals are those who readily embrace shifts in ethical standards, while moral conservatives are suspicious of such change.
Perhaps it is only natural that people tend to be liberal or conservative generally rather than according to context or subject matter. That is, our tendency to be liberal or conservative is not isolated to particular areas or issues. It’s no coincidence that the artistic centers of our culture, from Hollywood and Broadway to art institutes and MTV, are also the most morally liberal communities. And it’s also not coincidental that the most morally conservative communities tend to have little interest in the arts. Similarly, the press and media, as well as the most prestigious centers of learning tend to be liberal, while people from the most morally conservative faith traditions are those who are least likely to run in these cultural circles.
Now these are very general observations, I know. But these tendencies should be obvious enough to all of us. I consider it to be a tragic trend, as it is the timeless moral truths which made American culture possible in the first place and which will sustain it as long as it lasts. While it is appropriate to question or reject artistic norms and institutional conventions, moral verities such as the sanctity of human life and sexuality cannot be rejected without devastating repercussions, both in individual lives and culture at large.
So the noble challenge, as I see it, is to vigorously explore the arts and other aspects of contemporary culture while maintaining one’s ethical moorings; to remain committed to abiding ethical principles without sacrificing the will to eagerly pursue truth, goodness, and beauty in human creations-in short, to be a cultural liberal and a moral conservative. It’s a challenge because somehow, at least at this time in our history, it is unnatural. And it’s a noble challenge because it is for our own good-both as individuals and as a society.