Thanks to everyone who has commented so far in this series; I’m glad to see that not everyone identifies all Christians with ultra-right, fundamentalist, conservative, evangelicals. But this brings me to another point that drives me crazy about public perception of Christianity: its identification with “right” or “conservative” labels, issues and agendas.
I’ve used the terms “right-wing”, “conservative”, and “fundamentalist” here a few times already, and “evangelical” is lumped together with all of those terms quite frequently as well, despite the fact that it’s possible to be an evangelical Christian (or even a Christian at all) without holding a conservative viewpoint. But I hate all of these terms, because they’re incredibly misleading, particularly when they’re used interchangeably, as though they all denote exactly the same thing. When I was looking for examples of literal hermeneutic the other day, I came across this blog post that (on a blog about hermeneutics, of all things!) equates liberal theology with liberal politics:
In his defense, at least this guy is giving an actual argument for the connection between liberal theology and liberal politics – but the point is, this term has several different meanings.
A “liberal” is one who is either 1) in favour of reform, whether political or religious, or 2) in favour of maximizing human freedoms, or 3) not literal, or 10 other definitions (found here). So in some senses, the term “liberal” might apply to both politics and religion; in others, it can be very confusing. For example, political “conservatives” are much more in favour of personal freedoms than today’s political “liberals”, even though a favourable stance toward personal freedoms is one of the very definitions of the term “liberal”. And if you don’t believe me, tell a Tea Party member that they can’t do something like…say, carry a gun. Yet many conservatives would say without qualification that they are against any and all things liberal. If you don’t believe me, spend a few minutes on Conservapedia – or better yet, check out their definition of “liberal.”
A big issue with this is that it pigeonholes people into one extreme or the other. If a self-proclaimed conservative calls you a liberal, he means that you support abortion, excessive taxation, pornography, and homosexuality and you are against prayer, the death penalty, creationism, and the Bible, among other things. The flipside is the polar opposite: a conservative must therefore be against abortion, taxation, pornography (and sex education other than abstinence-only), homosexuality (even practiced in private), and must be a full-on proponent of making prayer and creation mandatory school subjects, as well as instating (or continuing to use) the death penalty. Inevitably, it degrades down to single issues: liberals love “fags” and taxes, while conservatives love Jesus and war.
Perhaps an even bigger issue is that moral issues are thrown in there, right alongside legal and governance issues. And because Christianity is so often reduced to morals (which I wholeheartedly disagree with), it gains a certain type of logic to associate liberals with atheism and conservatives with Jesus. I had a friend in college whose family lives in the US, and when they put a John Kerry sign on their lawn back in the day they got a lot of flack from people in their church – because after all, George W. Bush is a Christian, and Christians always vote Republican! This is not only disastrous for politics (as the past decade proved) but also for Christianity, because it has become associated with a particular political party and their views, most of which have absolutely nothing to do with scripture. In fact, it also has an adverse affect on the way people read the Bible, because a good conservative Christian hates everything “leftist”, which usually includes things like helping the poor, the widow, the orphan, the sick, etc. – and these things are major, major issues in the Bible. Unfortunately, conservative Christians must somehow reconcile these Bible verses with their understanding of what’s wrong with lefties – which apparently means skipping large sections of scripture, or else twisting them to mean something other than the message of our corporate responsibility for the less fortunate. Just for example.
It works the other way, too: voting liberal is the common atheist’s choice, because conservatives (however well they can run the country) are all religious extremists who want to force religion on the country, right? It’s an asinine characterization, but there are enough religious extremists out there campaigning for just such a thing to give such thoughts credibility.
On the other hand, someone who is theologically “liberal” tends to be someone who does not hold to the “fundamentals” – usually, they don’t hold any doctrines strongly, mix religions together, etc. There are plenty, and they are particularly dominant in certain denominations or religions (Unitarian comes to mind, and often the United Church of Canada, and occasionally the Anglican Church of Canada, among others). Contrary to the conservative fundamentalism that reads all scripture literally, a theological liberal often will read all scripture allegorically, often interpreting scripture to go along with a pet project or interest or a particularized theology. Of course, this gets mixed up in and politicized by particular issues, usually homosexuality or something related to it, and the lack of better terms than “liberal” and “conservative” erases the difference between the theological issue and the political or ethical issue, and we’re back to pigeonholing people into one extreme or the other.
So, all of this to say that I, as a Christian and a citizen, apologize on behalf of Christians and politicians who have continually created and reinforced this system of polarization and oversimplification and competition. There’s no need for such factions, especially because by creating and adhering to them we really dumb down the issues and lose track of what we, really and individually, think about things. Was it Kierkegaard or Dick Van Patten who said “if you label me, you negate me?” (and if you get the pop culture reference there, you get a gold star)
My understanding of the world is heavily influenced by the Bible. That being said, I’m still a citizen. I have opinions about all sorts of issues, and I don’t need a particular party or camp to adhere to in order to hold those opinions. I think that the practice of abortion is despicable, but sometimes the alternatives are even worse; I advise abstinence to teens and the unmarried, but I think it’s dumb to deny people birth and disease control; I think that God created the world, but I don’t think he told us exactly how he did it and I’m all for real science of every kind being taught in schools; I think we need to take care of the earth, because God made us as his stewards; I am pro-life, and against the death penalty (who would have thought that this would be a controversial combination of opinions?!); I’m a Christian, and against war of all kinds, even wars against Muslims; I could go on and on. I don’t hold any of these views in spite of my Christian belief; I hold all of these views subsequent to and because of my Christian belief. Jesus doesn’t tell me how to vote, he shows me how to live.