Mary Barker: The recognition of privilege used to be a core conservative value

In my father’s generation, you weren’t privileged, you were blessed, and you were expected to share.

(Photo courtesy of Mary Barker) James L. Barker, then Salt Lake City police commissioner, and family in a July 4th parade in Salt Lake City in the mid-1960s.

Being from a different generation, my dad never used the word “privilege,” but he understood it better than most folks I know. He knew, for example, that he had been born into a comfortable family in the wealthiest country on earth, and he knew that he had a genius I.Q.

Armed with this knowledge, my dad didn’t feel guilty. He didn’t feel guilty because he had a deeply religious view of the world; one which told him that there was a reason, and that the reason was to bless others (Luke 12:48). He knew what his blessings were for, and so he used them like a sword and shield to fight for the vulnerable and oppressed; for those who didn’t yet enjoy them.

“Blessed” was his generations’ word for “privilege.” It once allowed conservatives like my dad to be social justice warriors, too.

My dad never mistook gratitude for his blessing as somehow diminishing his own hard work, as the two are not mutually exclusive. So, his blessings didn’t make him testy and defensive.

He was an elitist, but not in a mean sense. He just recognized that people were born with different gifts and that not everyone could be a neurosurgeon. He didn’t think that meant they should be punished.

As an old-style conservative (before the libertarian turn), he knew that capitalism wasn’t fair; that it didn’t give everyone what they deserved, and that we therefore had social obligations. He knew that his hard work had panned out but that others who had worked hard remained poor. He couldn’t have explained the theoretical reasons for it. He never read Locke or Rousseau. He understood it not in the abstract, but rather in the concrete. (We knew these people.)

This knowledge didn’t make my dad a radical. (Old-school conservatives didn’t expect the world to be perfect). Instead, he was committed to capitalism as the best available alternative he could see. His commitment, however, didn’t make him harsh and punitive. It went hand-in-hand with compassion and a willingness to tinker with the system to curb capitalism’s harmful excesses and make it better. He never glorified the wealthy or blamed the poor for their situation.

In my dad’s day, this still had a name – “noblesse oblige” – the flip side of which is, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Both once had a long pedigree and then became lost. Were he still alive, my dad would be on the side of a conservatism that could recover them.

Mary Barker

Mary Barker has a Ph.D. from Columbia University and is writing an LDS Church version of liberation theology, the popular explanation of which can be found on her website — www.be-1.org. Her father was James L. Barker, who was police commissioner of Salt Lake City for eight years and then worked in the Utah Attorney General’s office.