Liberal and Conservative Christians

While at the conference in San Jose, I encountered a great deal of conversation about “liberal” and “conservative” Christians, discussion which treated these as polar opposites and if you fall behind one particular view that is “liberal” than whoops! everything you think is liberal. I went to a workshop entitled “Sticks and Stones: A conversation about our conversations” presented by Dale Schrag who took a cue from Gregory Boyd on the polarizing debate happening within congregations throughout America and the devastating effects of the “Moral Majority” and the “Religious Right”. The politicizing of the church – something which is evident in MCUSA too, with a lot of focus on political issues – has ripped it apart, to the point where political allegiances are dictating what church you go to and what gospel you hear (or, should I say, choose to hear).

Does anyone else find the terms “liberal” and “conservative” problematic as they are used in a Christian context? I smell CNN and Fox News all over that distinction.
A few rhetorical questions:
Are you a “liberal” Christian just because you strategize ways to assist the poor? Are you “conservative if you don’t? Are you “conservative” because you place such an emphasis on scripture? Are you “liberal” because you don’t?

Comments (9)

  1. Robert Wheeler

    I have reframed from posting here as I am anything but young (except at heart, I turn 48 next week) and this is a YAR blog. I have enjoyed lurking in the discussions. I would like to answer one of the questions that is asked on this post however.

    I am a liberal Mennonite (Christian) because I am most diffently NOT in favor of the Dobson, Moral Majority (majority?), Relegious Right agenda. I can’t find any common ground with thier view of scripture, people, politics, etc. If anything, I’ve moved more to the left under thier influence. So the sad fact is I’m am defined by being what they are not. I resisted being called liberal or left for a long time, but as thier influence grew I became more comfortable with the word liberal and now think of and declare myself “liberal”. Not the best situation, but it is my history. It took a long time to get here, but it’s where I am currently at. I am very excited by the introduction of Jim Wallis’ voice entering the arena and have enjoyed what I hear him saying. So maybe one day I’ll think of myself as a Christian again. For now, however, I am a liberal Christian. A Christian, but of a very different flavor then our current society thinks of when they hear the words “devote Christian”.

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  2. Sharon

    I have long been dissatisfied and indeed frustrated by the use of “conservative” and “liberal” in our everyday language. I feel the terms are unhelpful as neither are clearly defined in context and both bring significant cultural “baggage” with them which discourage clear communication on the subjects of politics, religion, and the like (often polarizing subjects). Many of my friends will disagree suggesting that these terms are helpful descriptors which will aid communication by not having to define our terms through lengthy explanations in casual conversation.

    I believe that for me, using these terms is an easy path towards labelling and determing who is “we” and who is “other.” That, for me, is the frustration with the terms.

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  3. Skylark

    When I attempt to define myself and my beliefs, “liberal” and “conservative” are virtually useless. Compared to many of the people I grew up around, I look “liberal” because I’m not a fundy or even an evangelical, I’m a vegetarian, pacifist, feminist and a believer in lgbtq equality. However, I look “conservative” compared to others because I refuse to worship Al Gore, my faith impacts my life, I’m pro-life, and a bit skeptical of things like organic farming and the porn industry.

    Like any labels, “liberal” and “conservative” can be used to wholly dismiss someone’s idea, even if it has value. I’d decry labeling, but I’m not sure unlabeling is necessarily better. I guess it just depends on how you use it. Putting ideas into boxes is one way we keep from going crazy from all the information that comes at us. It’s a coping mechanism. I’ve heard all the lovy-dovy stories about how Jesus calls each of us by name, not our demographic indicators… and that’s great, I’m all for getting to know people individually. I just don’t think complete unlabeling is realistic or a paradise.

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  4. eric

    The terms can have some use for self-labeling. I’ve actually had a problem with people who consider themselves better than the labels – but are happy to label you as one or the other to show how “political” and therefor “unchristian” you are.

    i.e. – “You’re just a liberal apologist, where I am a Christian who can transcend these political labels.”

    That sort of talk is entirely unhelpful. Since there is no clearly defined “conservative” or “liberal” (besides “things like organic farming and the porn industry” (*giggle*)) the terms are meaningless as dismissive categories. Everyone transcends the terms.

    But they can be helpful for self-description. Why should we be afraid of claiming “fairly liberal” or “more conservative” in approach any more than the meaningless vagueness of the term “Christian” (maybe we should be afraid of that one too?).

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  5. Skylark

    Eric, what are you saying? You seem to change your mind several times in the space of a comment. Yes, we all transcend labels, but some non-middle-ground people seem to love their titles.

    Is your problem with people who reject labels for themselves and all people, or with those who reject labels for themselves while using them for others? The latter is what I was referring to with dismissing ideas based on labels. And I didn’t say I AM liberal or conservative based on the positions I listed, only that some consider me to be so.

    Then you say the labels are not clearly defined, but we should embrace them for self description anyway. Why? Why embrace a term that doesn’t mean anything, or perhaps means too much? Is more precise language in order? What exactly are you (generic) trying to convey when calling yourself “fairly liberal” or “more conservative,” and why don’t you just say that instead of using a confusing term? If you don’t know what you mean, figure out what you’re trying to say, and then talk.

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  6. lukelm

    skylark-
    I think eric’s comments are pretty clear. We must recognize that such labels have a real but limited utility in staking out a general ideological territory. Like you said, it’s kind of a “coping mechanism” for dealing with lots of complicated ideas.

    What eric was getting at, I think, is less the nature or usefulness of the labels (limited but real) and more the way in which they’re used. If they’re used to put unreflectingly put others into neat (and easily dismissable) ideological boxes, then they’re being used to dehumanize. Stereotypes are necessary for processing and discussing our world and society, yet they can become a dangerous and destructive habit of the mind, when through laziness and unawareness the words take on the power of dehumanization of others.

    We must be truly committed to Christ’s imperative against judging others. We can never fully know the background and complexity of another’s life and thoughts.

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  7. Nevin

    I think the biggest problem with the terms is that no one really knows what they mean any more. “Liberal” comes from the Latin “liber,” meaning free. Hence, “liberalism” was a political philosophy that emphasized individual freedom (or “liberty”). Today, however, political liberalism means something different in every different person’s mind. Is it “liberal” to support social welfare? What about the banning of “hate speech”? Or what about the protection of the environment? This last might even seem to fit in better with conservatism, given that conservation and conservatism share the same root. And since when does caring for the environment have to do with protecting the freedom and equality of individuals? With the strictest definition of political liberalism, it seems to me that perhaps environmentalism can only be supported on utilitarian premises, which are certainly not the ones I use to justify it. Plus, the most traditional societies tend to be pretty earth-friendly–although to be fair, this was the same kind of logic that led Pete Seeger to remark: “I like to say I’m more conservative than Goldwater. He just wanted to turn the clock back to when there was no income tax. I want to turn the clock back to when people lived in small villages and took care of each other.”

    All of this to say that nobody really knows what these two terms mean anymore. And I’ve only talked about them in political terms–they of course mean something completely different when we get into theology. One can be a political liberal and a theological conservative–that is, roughly, how one might describe Jim Wallis, for instance. But what being theologically liberal/conservative actually means again differs from person to person. To one person, theological conservatism might mean a belief in creationism, substitutionary atonement, the literal truth and plenary inspiration of Scripture, and the sinfulness of any number of “evils.” To others (likely theological “liberals” in the minds of the aforementioned conservatives), it might simply mean an affirmation of the basic principles of the Apostle’s Creed. These others would likely view theological liberalism as having to do with such things as a disbelief in the Trinity (or the deity of Jesus), the authority or inspiration of the Bible (in any sense), and the exclusive truth of the Christian message (as opposed to an inclusive view in which all, or most, religions are equally true).

    All that having been said, I still use the terms, and think they are useful terms. Language is ambiguous; it’s a fact of life. I think that we need to come up with some clearer definitions of the terms, and I think that people need to stop using them as pejoratives, but otherwise they can still be useful. I share eric’s annoyance with those who would rise above such labels themselves but are still content to label the rest of us. On Facebook, for example, I have my political views listed as Liberal. My political views are not liberal in every sense (or maybe even in most senses), but while it would be more accurate to put “Other,” the whole point of the terms is to give a general approximation, not an exact statement, of what our views are. To your average Joe on the street (at least, your average Christian Joe), I’m liberal. If you want to know my specific views on a subject, ask me. They might not align with the “liberal” view on everything, but they align even less with the “conservative” view. Same with theology–although placing myself on a continuum fails to do justice to my particular beliefs on any number of theological subjects, I generally say that I’m theologically moderate, leaning towards liberal. Of course, it’s all subjective, and so on this blog it might be more accurate for me to describe myself as a nominal theological (and political, even) conservative. But I agree with eric that the terms can still be useful, provided we use them properly.

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  8. Ron

    Maybe our Anabaptist ancestors had a point about not being involved in politics as part of their belief that we are not citizens of a worldly kingdom but of the heavenly kingdom. If we’re not citizens of this country, we don’t have the right to vote or run for office.
    Christianity has been hijacked by a political party for its own ends. This resulted in a public relations nightmare for Christianity. Many young people are so turned off by Christianity because it has been so connected in the media to the Republican Party and its policies of war, tax cuts for the rich, etc. On the other hand, if Christianity instead gets connected with the opposing party, the Democrats, it will be tainted by the non-Christian policies of the Democrats. So, wouldn’t it be better if we just stayed out of politics altogether? In politics, we are just given the choice of the lesser of two evils. So, regardless of which one we choose, we are choosing evil. After all, we don’t really have control over politics. It just makes us feel useless and powerless to engage in political action as opposed to changing things in the “little way” as advocated by Saint Therese de Lisieux and Mother Teresa.
    The media has emphasized divisions and opposing viewpoints and we have bought into that either-or mentality. We constantly consume secular media, and the “Christian” media is actually equally divisive, speaking of “spiritual warfare” and the culture wars in an effort to make our government into a theocracy.
    As Anabaptists, we may be the only ones out there that can remember that there is a third way, a way of reconciliation rather than division. An apolitical way of connecting with people regardless of their beliefs. A way of not judging others and of loving our enemies.
    Sometimes it seems that it is easier to love enemies in Iraq or Afghanistan than it is to love our enemies here at home- such as those self-righteous people who listen to Christian radio and quote James Dobson.
    Loving enemies doesn’t mean we agree with them. It is a challenge, but it is one we are called to work with, it appears.

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  9. michaeldanner

    I can appreciate your frustration. For me, it helps to remember that political involvement is much more than who you vote for.

    At the same time, are all Dem policies “non-Christian”? I’m sure the religious right would like us to think so, but is it true when you consider the whole gospel?

    I like the stance that Mar’s Hill takes (Rob Bell’s church http://www.marshill.org) They are politically engaged but “fiercly non-partisan”. We can be politically engaged with a commitment to Kingdom values.

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