Problems with “Liberal” and “Conservative”

Ummm… yeah… demonization of liberals much?

Recently I shared how Christianity Today thinks that it is surprising how Bible reading turns you liberal. In it, I had a quick off-hand reference to how they defined liberal, but generally just stuck to their definition and made my point from that. Now I want to be clear, though, about those labels and a few problems that are almost always associated with them.

Problem 1: Used Primarily to Demonize

First, a quick but essential one to consider: labels are always a challenge but these are two particularly bad ones in that they are used at least as often to demonize those who disagree with you as they are to actually describe a position. Even if the people on the other end of the spectrum really are your sworn enemies, your job is to love them to the point that you’d die for them. If you claim to follow Jesus, that’s the most important thing: radical love and grace. If they agree with you on every single political and theological issue, your job is radical love and grace. If they disagree vehemently on every single political and theological issue, your job is radical love and grace. This is the primary reason I usually avoid these particular labels: it usually leads to angry us-vs-them attitudes instead of grace.

Problem 2: Politics != Theology

For the non-programmers (almost all of you), that != means not equals. I just didn’t know a shorter way to fit it nicely in a title. Moving on from my nerdiness.

Just because you might be on one end of the spectrum politically does not mean you have to be theologically. Just because you might be on one end of the spectrum theologically does not mean you have to be politically. I’m not saying there isn’t some interplay but there is no reason for the correlation to be nearly as strong as people in the U.S. like to make it seem. One does not in any way necessitate the other.

In fact, it’s only even been the past 50 years or so that these clear parallel battle lines between your political stance and your theological stance were drawn. Much of Christian history is characterized by being the political progressives and it was motivated precisely because of – not in spite of – their theological orthodoxy (ie conservativism). And of course there are many who operate the other way around, too, holding to conservative political views alongside liberal theology or no Christianity whatsoever.

The CT article very clearly equates the two, or at least doesn’t bother to differentiate them.

Problem 3: Ecclesial Ethics != Politics

A political liberal is assumed to be, in that article as well as other places, as:

  • Pro-abortion rights
  • Pro-same-sex-marriage
  • People who care about the poor
  • People who want to consume less

It is rarely this simple. Just because people want to help the poor or consume less  does not mean that they want their government to force everybody to act that way. Many vote Republican because they think that people should choose on their own to give to those in need. It does not mean that they care any less about the poor; it is just a different attitude to how to go about helping them. It also works the other direction of course: many think that granting same-sex marriage rights are the right thing for the government to do even if they personally think it is sinful for a Christian to do, and some even grant room for the government to allow abortions even if they don’t think it’s a good thing to do.

In other words, as we begin to see more and more of the post-Christendom mindset emerge, we’re realizing that just because Christians think something doesn’t mean that they have the right to control what everybody else does. It seems like the article is concerned with how the Christians in question interpret what they should do, as individual Christians or Christian communities, but as far as I can tell it isn’t saying anything about what they think the government should force non-Christians to do.

Problem 4: Most People Aren’t Either/Or

Finally, in case you haven’t caught on by now, I need to point out that most people aren’t either “conservative” on all issues or “liberal” on all issues. Lots of people want same-sex-marriage rights but don’t really care that much about consuming less. Lots of people are actively involved with helping the poor but don’t want abortion legalized. If you bought into the idea that everybody had to be one or the other, I know my own thought would be really problematic. The reality is that almost nobody is either a liberal or a conservative, by all definitions of both.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.