Apology: Liberals and Conservatives

 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.


4 thoughts on “Apology: Liberals and Conservatives

  1. The quote would be from Wayne’s World spoken in Wayne’s Cantonese conversation (and no, I didn’t use the net for that answer).

    I think both extremes of the church vs. state debate are naive. If it is extreme religious conservatives, it is virtually a belief in theocratic rule (though they still give democracy lip service). On the other hand, proponents of extreme church/state divide are naive enough to believe that faith can be entirely practiced within the confines of one’s one home and that their own worldview is somehow latently neutral(which it isn’t), or just “the way things are”.

    I’m not a card-carrying Conservative Party member, but some of the accusations directed towards them are ludicrous. Take the issue of using Canadian tax payer funds to be directed to abort babies in the developing world (I know they don’t put it that way, but that’s really how it lays out). The Conservatives are labelled as pushing a religious agenda and denying plain science (I guess ethics and science are separate?) for rejecting the plan. I don’t even think most of the Conservative party are actively religious, but even if they were, why shouldn’t they be afforded the chance in democracy to use their political power according to their convictions? Isn’t that what democracy is? Yet somehow the opponents view their own perspective as a foregone conclusion and amoral.

    As for the other side, what I found difficult regarding strong political social conservatives is the pressure to allow a single, or at least very few issues to determine your vote. I remember reading a response by Charles Colson to Brian Mclaren where McLaren wrote that Christians should also consider the quality of life for the living (namely the poor) when considering “pro-life” during an election. Colson though explained how abortion was life vs. death which ethically trumps the quality of life for the living. For me, Colson may have won on rules of logic, but it still doesn’t add up ethically. Further, if I followed that logic, than any other issue is inconsequential if one party is prolife and the other isn’t. (for what it’s worth, I don’t recall Reagan or either Bush repealing abortion during their tenures)

    As a Canadian, I should be glad we’re a multi-party democracy. That being said, it seems the Liberals are moving from centre-right, to centre-left which doesn’t afford much room for Christian polical moderates such as myself.

    • You’re bang on about the simplification of position down to a single issue; abortion and gay marriage are the issues that swing votes one way or another, particularly in the US (but let’s not kid ourselves, it happens here too). And when they’re done in the name of Christian morality, it amounts to a simple abuse of poor theology and public ignorance.

      I was going to write my thesis on basically the same issue you raised with these sentences: “I don’t even think most of the Conservative party are actively religious, but even if they were, why shouldn’t they be afforded the chance in democracy to use their political power according to their convictions? Isn’t that what democracy is?”


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