I should start by pointing out that I largely reject the terms “liberal” and “conservative”. I think that they are terribly vague terms whose highly nuanced meanings evolve so quickly that most of the time when two people use them in discussion they each have very different assumptions about what they mean at all. But they’re also terribly common terms, and it’s difficult to avoid them. I’ll leave their precise meaning up to you, as most of the time I’ll be focusing on the many things in their semantic range that do not apply to me.
You see, I always thought that I was a conservative.
The first church I really remember was Baptist, I don’t know what kind for sure. Fellowship, maybe. Then I went to a Christian Missionary Alliance church, and eventually a Pentecostal church, all the while knowing very little about the differences between them (if there were any), but knowing that they were different from the “liberal” churches – you know, the United Church, and by association any liturgical churches that weren’t Catholic. (I didn’t know where the Catholics fit in the liberal-conservative divide, but I was pretty sure that they weren’t on the field at all.) Anyway, all of my music and movies had to be approved by Focus on the Family (Plugged In), liberals were undermining the moral foundations of society and didn’t even believe in Jesus (yes, even the Christian liberals didn’t believe in Jesus), and even though we didn’t use the term much I knew through and through that I was conservative.
When I was 18 I voted Conservative. I voted for Darrel Stinson, who wore a cowboy hat and sometimes yelled in the House of Commons. He was there to remind all of those Liberals back east that the West (with a capital W) wouldn’t be pushed around, or at least that’s how I saw it – he’d been my MP since I was 9, and all I really knew is that he stood up for us. I’d heard talk of the western provinces seceding, along with Washington and Oregon, and making a new country, and that sounded alright to me because by the time we even get to vote out here the Liberals in Ontario and Quebec have already decided the election.
Looking back, my family didn’t talk politics and rarely talked religion. We didn’t use the word “conservative” at all, but I remember other people talking about “liberals”, and I sure knew that wasn’t us (for all I knew of my parent’s politics or theology).
Then I went to a Pentecostal Bible college, and learned that there were two ways to apply the terms “liberal” and “conservative” – politically (which I knew) and theologically. There was a tremendous amount of overlap between those two realms, it seemed, but I became focused on theology, and it was more clear than ever that I was a conservative: liberals don’t believe that Jesus existed in a literal sense OR that God created the world in six days in a literal sense or even (or perhaps especially) in pre-tribulation, premillennial eschatology.
As I progressed in my studies I learned that there was a lot of nuance in all of these things, and my views around them shifted tremendously, gaining depth and changing in perspective. Some of them I discarded altogether, but I never doubted that I was a conservative; once again, my conservatism was assumed rather than stated. I had heard about an exciting theologian, whom some had labelled as a “liberal”, named Brian McLaren. When I asked the president of my school about him, he snorted: “he’s a heretic.” That was all. So while I now had nuanced views of eschatology (I was pretty close to fully adopting an amillennial perspective in spite of the premillennial views of my denomination), creation (I was an Intelligent Design guy at that point), and I wasn’t fully sure that Jonah was an actual guy, I knew I wasn’t a heretic, so therefore I couldn’t be a liberal. I had been wondering for a little while, but with that snort my status as a conservative was assured.
Then I went to an evangelical Seminary, where I was taught by Anglicans, Baptists, Anabaptists, Reformers, Pentecostals, and Evangelical-Free-ers, and talked theology around the water cooler with Pentecostals (even an American!), Evangelical Covenant-ers, Mennonites of several varieties, Anglicans, a Catholic, and even a Lutheran or two. I no longer had any assumptions about which denominations were conservative, because we were all at an evangelical Seminary – clearly we were all conservatives. Not that we used those terms, but again, this was part of my largely unexamined self-concept. I still knew that the United Church didn’t really believe in Jesus, and though I now had a stronger sense of the theological traditions that brought them there, I still knew that wasn’t for me. Though I was now certain that Jonah was a work of theatre, the primeval prologue of Genesis was written in the genre of myth and Adam and Eve were merely representative of early humanity and probably not real people, the conquest of Canaan probably didn’t happen anything like it was recorded in Joshua, Jesus wasn’t a teetotaler, Revelation is largely representative of the genre of apocalypse and is not predicting the future, and Hebrews wasn’t even written by Paul – still, I knew I was a conservative.
But in my first year of seminary I took a course in Christian Ethics, and was hooked. The course texts were by John Howard Yoder (The Politics of Jesus) and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Ethics), and they helped draw out my Pentecostal pragmatism: I realized just how important it was to me that theology mean something, and by mean something I mean take up space in the world. The rubber always has to meet the road if you want it to take you anywhere, and I wanted to ride good theology to the New Jerusalem – Jesus, B., and me on a road trip through life, the universe, and everything. So I became intensely interested in the texts that tell us what to do, and the implications of the texts that only hint at it: how should we then live? I became more and more politically engaged, and took a course in sociology. I started an annual social justice fair, debated about globalization and capitalism, and gradually became aware that although I was clearly still theologically conservative (but not a fundamentalist any longer), politically…
…I was a liberal. *Gasp* A flaming liberal! When did that happen?
Of course, I wasn’t a big L Liberal, as in the Liberal Party of Canada. I knew enough about political and economic history at this point to know that the LPC is both socially and economically liberal, while the Conservative Party of Canada has a reputation for being both socially and economically conservative but is actually economically neo-liberal and socially doing nothing at all. I was always attracted to the Green Party, probably because of their pragmatism and their refusal to play the liberal-conservative game. When I ran for the Greens in 2015 I maintained the line that we’re a fiscally conservative party, not only because it’s true and because the word “liberal” in my riding is a cussword (it’s a good Christian riding, after all), but also because I still have a self-concept that includes being conservative, for whatever reason, even though I no longer believe the term means much of anything at all.
Which is my point. How can it be that conservative Bible study led me to so many so-called liberal beliefs? I still believe in the Bible as being authoritative, though not handed down from the sky, and I believe that Jesus Christ is not only a real person but that he’s the son of God, a member of the holy trinity, and alive today. It is that belief and his teachings that inspire my interest in ethics and politics, and my so-called liberal political views stem directly from my understanding of Scripture and my pragmatic understanding of the best ways to go about accomplishing the ethical demands of Christ.
What does it mean that I can hold conservative and liberal views, both theologically and politically, at the same time – and even have them be inspired by each other? I’m fiscally conservative because I believe that the government needs to have its house in order if it’s going to be able to sustainably maintain the welfare state; and I believe in the welfare state because it is an effective way for us to collectively serve the poor and promote justice, which I learned to do from Jesus’ teachings and I take seriously because I believe he’s really real. Given the polarization between so-called conservatives and so-called liberals, both in the church and in politics, you’d think my head would explode.
The terms “liberal” and “conservative” have maintained their popularity because they’re handy umbrella terms: they cover a lot of ground. That makes them useful, so long as we don’t care about nuance or accuracy and don’t mind lumping things together. Mostly, they’re useful as umbrella terms for everything we disagree with someone else about; it’s tribalism in a neat package, and we’ve found ways to distort the meaning of those terms by throwing in all sorts of other things we don’t agree with, or finding a new sense of the word by applying it in a new or more nuanced way, which of course only makes the whole thing more confusing.
Let’s just stop. Rather than insisting on calling people, or ourselves, “liberals” or “conservatives”, let’s use words that are actually descriptive of what we do believe. We might discover that our views aren’t that different from others, or that the heroes we’ve claimed (e.g., Dietrich Bonhoeffer and C.S. Lewis are both often claimed by evangelicals) have many views that we would ordinarily dismiss. But perhaps more than anything else, we might discover that other people’s ideas are not as dangerous as the labels we place on them, and that maybe serving Jesus together is more important than agreeing with each other.