challenging liberalism: why i am less liberal than conservative evangelicals

I’ve been mistakenly called a “liberal” Christian many times (I imagine many of my readers have had this same experience, rightly or wrongly).

One particular experience stands out for me. I remember several years ago visiting a sick friend. I had just attended a conference, and I was sharing my experience, lamenting the singular focus of this particular conference on “church growth”. My friend sought to correct my frustration – “Church growth is great,” he said, “because it means less people are going to Hell.”

No doubt this reasoning is common in Western Protestantism. I responded with a polite understatement: “Well, I think it’s a bit more complex than that.”

The retort came quickly – “Oh, but you’re a liberal.” In other words I am apparently a liberal Christian.

Interesting. So easy to say – “you are a liberal!” This of course begs the question – what exactly is a liberal Christian? This person, like many other conservatives, seemed to think that a liberal Christian is simply one who holds certain theological views, particularly about the Bible, Hell and salvation, that are not “orthodox” (i.e. conservative).

In the same conversation this friend told me that I was a “postmodernist”, but that he was a “staunch modernist”.

To me this represented a fundamental ignorance of what liberal Christianity actually is. While I don’t have the time or space to get into this now at any great length, I will say that one key reason why I don’t consider myself a liberal Christian is because I think true theological liberalism has too easily surrendered its Christian identity to the more general ideology of liberalism. This, however, is not limited to “liberal” Christians – conservatives have done exactly the same thing!

What is “liberalism” in this general sense? I would define it as a broad political and intellectual ideology that, in short, espouses individual freedom (yes, I realise this is a perverse simplification).

What is interesting is that it is not only “liberal” Christians who have incorporated liberalism into their faith systems – conservatives, having unquestioningly adopted political and intellectual liberalism, are just as liberal as the “liberals”! Their faith is, in fact, often far more individualistic.

I realise that this may not be very clear to some readers, since most critics of theological liberalism have never actually considered its connection with the political ideology of “liberalism”, or indeed their own subservience to this worldview.

Stanley Hauerwas puts it well:

My problem with liberal political arrangements is not that they are liberal, but rather that Christians confuse such arrangements with Christianity. … when I develop criticisms of liberalism using what I have learned from non-theological sources (Wolin, Coles, Connoly) I do so because I think liberalism is not only bad for Christians but also for liberals. It is so because the self that is formed by liberal practice lacks the substance to be virtuously habituated to acknowledge our character as ‘dependent rational animals’… (A Cross-Shattered Church, p. 148-149)

A core Christian conviction is our dependence on both God and each other; liberalism dispenses with this conviction. Thus a truly historic Christianity can never be permeated by liberal ideology whilst remaining intact. Such statements will no doubt be construed as completely blasphemous by Christians both “liberal” and “conservative”, precisely because both are under the spell of liberalism.

None of this is to say that every aspect of liberalism is inherently wrong—it is simply to say that as a collective ideology/worldview it is harmful for the world (as we have seen for the last few hundred years) and that it is not Christianity.

My friend, bless him, by identifying himself with modernism, surrenders himself to the doctrine of personal autonomy, of the ultimacy of  the ability to reason, judge, and act for oneself. He is well within his rights to choose this, but this is a liberal commitment, not a Christian one.

Not that I have worked this out, much less worked out my own worldview. I daily recognise my own liberal assumptions. I don’t intend this to be anything but a reflection – it is certainly not anything like a comprehensive statement. It is, however, a challenge for us to consider our own appropriation of the liberal worldview that so pervades our culture.

Can we even tell the difference between liberalism and Christianity anymore?

Given that I’ve just said a lot of things that will no doubt be misunderstood (you can’t say everything at once), I look forward to the conversations that will ensue.


Posted on July 31, 2012, in Politics, Theology, Uncategorised and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. I think the meaning of words and labels shift across time and between communities. So the problem is not the label (personally, I like it, it has a generous tone) but that it is used as a way of dismissing an argument.

    • I still remember you once making a joke, Shane, about how the word liberal is used, something along the lines of: “What is a liberal anyway? Someone who is less conservative than the person pointing the finger!”

  2. Matt, when I was a young christian in an evangelical Presbyterian church, the definitions we were given were based on a view of the Bible. Catholics believed in the Bible plus church tradition, liberals believed in the Bible plus human reason, but evangelicals believed in the Bible alone.

    I’ve since come to see that those definitions are deeply flawed. Everyone uses reason to some degree (otherwise we couldn’t even think, analyse the text, etc) and everyone is influenced by those who’ve gone before. And the evangelicals certainly don’t believe the Bible alone, because they reinforce some passages and re-interpret some contradictory passages, all according to their own theological systems and statements.

    Nevertheless, one could say that a liberal christian has a more liberal view of the Bible than an evangelical – for example accepting without problem that there are errors, whereas an evangelical may hold to inerrancy.

    I think the main issue is what we do with these views. If our liberalism leads us to lose faith in Jesus and to follow him less, then it has hurt us. Likewise, if our evangelicalism leads us to be harsh and judgmental, we have lost something important. I think Jesus would be more concerned about our actions than our theological position.

    • Thanks for that Eric. I don’t disagree with you, but I would say that you may have missed hat I was trying to say in my post. This is not your fault, since as I mentioned there would be misunderstandings. As Shane said in his comment, the word “liberal” gets used in any number of ways. in this post, when I say “liberal”, I mean something like what Hauerwas means:

      “In the most general terms I understand liberalism to be that impulse deriving from the Enlightenment project to free all people from the chains of their historical particularity in the name of freedom. As an epistemological position liberalism is the attempt to defend a foundationalism in order to free reason from being determined by any particularistic tradition. Politically liberalism makes the individual the supreme unit of society, thus making the political task the securing of cooperation between arbitrary units of desire. While there is no strict logical entailment between these forms of liberalism I think it can be said that they often are interrelated” (“Against the Nations”, p.18)

      As I alluded to, I share many beliefs with so-called “liberal Christians” (in the way you have defined them) – use of higher criticism, lack of belief in the inerrancy of the Bible, suspicion of institutional authority.

      But my problem with liberals and conservatives alike is that they take liberalism (qua Hauerwas’ quote) for granted, adopting its ideological presuppositions into their worldviews. I am not interested in critiquing “theological liberals” for their theology, but for what is at the core of that theology: the acquiescence in liberal philosophy and politics more generally, as derived from the Enlightenment project.

      The irony is that conservatives acquiesce in this philosophy just as much as “liberals”!

      In sum: it’s not about particular theological commitments, but the philosophy, hermeneutics, epistemology etc. that underlies these commitments. It seems to me that liberals and conservatives share very similar foundations in this regard.



  3. I agree with Unklee, everyone filters the Bible through a tradition of some type. My Seventh Day Adventist brother in law will tell me they are the only Church that sticks to the Bible alone and then starts quoting things out of SDA tradition to help me interpret it. So I now accept that tradition guides all Christians because they exist in a context that has told them how to interpret it based on other peoples opinions.

  4. Thanks Matt. You’re right that, strictly speaking, one cannot be a postmodern liberal. I think you could expand your point about liberalism, and perhaps clarify it in the process, by explaining that liberalism is *inherently* an Enlightenment philosophy, bound by its parameters including the idea of human progress, rationality and materialism. Liberalism then adds individual freedom *from* social constraints (often for the better, sometimes for the worse).

    Perhaps the confusion comes, however, from a mixing of this use of ‘liberal’ with the rather different American use of ‘liberal’, with a meaning more akin to ‘a liberal dash of salt’. This latter group of ‘liberals’ are the kind unklee is thinking of when referring to liberals ‘accepting without problem there are errors [in the Bible]’. There is of course overlap between these two groups of ‘liberals’, of the sort identified by Matt in the original post. But many of the ‘American liberals’ are quite postmodern (eg. process theology comes to mind).

    One minor quibble: that Hauerwas quote contradicts itself. First he says “it’s not that they are liberal”, then later he says “liberalism is not only bad for Christians but also for liberals.”

    • Ha! Your comment with the extended Hauerwas quote at 10:19am was not showing when I wrote this. Incredibly, your (and Stan’s) explanation is better than my own 🙂

  5. Hi Matt,

    I’ve been helped by your thoughtful reflection in this article bro. I certainly still fit into the camp of finger-pointing conservatives. But at least now I’ll have a bit more insight into liberalism across disciplines. My two cents would be that liberalism politically in the sense of inalienable individualistic human rights has grown out of traditional/conservative (non-liberal) biblical theology via a belief in the imago dei. Makes me feel good about political liberalism while still not liking theological liberalism. Hope I’m conveying what I mean.

  6. I guess I did change the topic a little, I’m sorry, but I think both Biblical liberalism and cultural/political liberalism are well correlated. My thought is that cultural liberalism may once have been about freedom, but I think it is now at least as much about reason. (Perhaps that is a truism, because trusting reason is close to personal freedom to choose).

    For example, reason, rationalism, freethought, etc, are the catchcry of the so-called ‘new atheism’, which is also generally a strong supporter of liberal causes like anti-racism, anti-sexism, pro abortion choice, gay rights, environmental care – though not always as liberal on foreign policy and security (e.g. Hitchens, Harris).

    And of course reason is also the basis of theological liberalism. The question I guess is, does Biblical liberalism flow out of cultural liberalism, or vice versa? And can the links be cut?

    My inclination is to agree with you that liberalism is often an unexamined assumption, just as conservatism is. Neither of them are christianity, but I’m inclined to feel that cultural liberalism is closer to Jesus than conservatism is.

    I have probably skated past your point again, so perhaps I will now ‘cease and desist’! Best wishes.

  7. paulsomerville

    Hey Matt,

    Thanks for your thoughts. Definitely got me thinking.

    You talk about “a truly historical Christianity” and how it can never be permeated by an ideology while remaining in tact.

    If I could respond with a polite understatement: “Well, I think it’s a bit more complex than that.” 🙂

    I don’t think there is some kind of ‘pure’ Christianity beyond culture; at least, not one that is accessible by living, breathing human beings.

    Leaving aside the point that Christianity is (part of) culture, I have to put my hand up and admit that, as a Christian, a lot of my ideas about what is right and wrong, how to live a good life etc have come from culture (novels, media, film and TV, school, politics, social norms, and interacting with friends and family who are also formed by culture). Not only do I not think this is a bad thing, I don’t see how it could be otherwise.

    I think there should be a constant dialogue back and forth between Christianity and culture.

    One thing that really interests me is why so many liberal Christians are afraid of that term. (I suppose I’m using “liberal” in that fairly general American sense of “not conservative” ie. Christians who don’t consider the Bible to be inerrant, are progressive on social issues, support women in leadership in the church etc etc.)

    I take your point about Liberalism (John Locke et al) being highly individualistic in a way that has gone too far in our society. But it’s my basic view that Liberal ideas about individual freedoms, rights for women, justice for working class people etc etc, have themselves been hugely influenced by Christianity. Unfortunately, though, it wasn’t the medieval church that fought to give everyone an education, gave people a vote so they could participate in the way their society was run, allowed women to enter the public sphere including as leaders etc etc – it was the Enlightenment. As a gay Christian, who didn’t commit suicide at 16, I get a bit defensive about this stuff—I figure I have a lot to thank liberal Christianity for.


  8. Hope this isn’t too far off your original intent Matt…I’ve really enjoyed reading all the comments so far. It is interesting though, that care for creation, rights of women etc etc are classed as a ‘liberal’ theology and saying that The Bible is the word of God is ‘conservative’ theology.
    For example, we read the event of Jesus saying to the crowd to the woman about to be stoned “let him who has not sin cast the first stone”. Then we seek to live with this attitude of Jesus to people who have been marginalised.
    Are we being liberal (responding to social issues) or conservative (upholding The Word of God)? Perhaps we need to embrace a Christinaity that is ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ and live in such a way that people around us see us as all followers of Jesus rather than a liberal Christian or conservative Christian.

  9. I’ve been a bit slow in responding to the comments that have rolled in, so I apologise. The conversation has probably ended by now, but still worth commenting.

    As pointed out by a number of people, I have used “liberalism” in a fairly narrow way, referring to a more classical liberalism vis-a-vis American liberalism, which is one of a number of classical liberalism’s children (as is, I would argue, American conservatism).

    It is, of course, hard to deal with these issues in short comment form (I take paulsomerville’s jovial criticism as fair). I think, though, that Eric (unklee) was onto something when he said “I’m inclined to feel that cultural liberalism is closer to Jesus than conservatism is.” By “cultural liberalism” I understand him to mean liberalism as in America. I think he is right, so long as we are only given a choice between American liberalism and conservatism.

    Still, I think Christian’s give up a lot in taking on any form of liberalism, since all are derived from classical liberalism, in which, as Justin rightly pointed out, the idea of human progress, rationality and materialism are assumed. These are all, of course, huge topics in and of themselves (with materialism, for example, I have argued, a la William Cavanaugh, that we are both too materialistic and not materialistic enough!). Still, I think that liberalism, at its core, makes the human (arguably the man!) the centre of the world, rather than God on the one hand, and creation (as a whole) on the other. This is, obviously (at least for me), in conflict with basic Christian tenets.

    In this way it won’t do, as Tim has said, to revel in political liberalism while rejecting theological liberalism (I do sympathise with Tim’s comment, though, lest my criticism here be taken as a complete write off…). My problem with this kind of statement is two-fold: on the one hand it assumes a convenient distinction between political liberalism and theological liberalism that I think is overblown and; it creates a gulf between politics and theology that I think is destroying the Church. As Stanley Hauerwas recently argued (and I know I am in good company here with Justin), Christianity is not called to engage politics – it IS a politic, one that challenges the politics of this world. The use of theological language is, particularly in a world of secularisation, highly political because it makes certain claims about who is ultimately in charge and what the world should be like as a result.

    Christian deferral to democratic liberalism has, Hauerwas says, “presupposed a narrative that legitimates political arrangement that requires the privatization of Christian convictions. One of the consequences being the loss of any attempt to say what it might mean for the gospel of Jesus Christ to be true.” This is all complex, and is impossible to understand without knowing what Hauerwas means when he uses certain words (often very different to how they are commonly understood). Still, the article that this comes from is well worth reading, even if it is more difficult than the average –

    I take Paul’s point about the lack of a “pure” Christianity. I certainly hope I am not appearing to advocate for some naive-realist epistemology. But I don’t think it will do to simply say that Christianity is part of culture. Indeed, which culture? At what point do we resist culture, and on what basis? Our recognition that we are socialised by our culture is of course a necessity since we cannot escape it, but this should not lead us to be uncritical about this socialisation.

    Of course Christianity and culture should be in dialogue, but when culture (e.g. liberalism) robs Christianity of the fundamental assertion that Jesus is Lord of the whole world, then I think something has gone wrong.

    There is so much to say, but this will have to do for now.



  10. The labor movement of the early twentieth century was aided significantly when major Christian denominations got behind it. No average American would have a fair wage today if it weren’t for liberal Christians and labor activists. Liberal Christians and civil rights activists fought and still fight against conservative America for racial equality. Child labor laws were enacted because liberals fought for them. Medicare and Social Security exist today because of Liberalism. “Bleeding heart liberals” have long advocated for the homeless, the hungry, the less fortunate, and the disenfranchised. The women of America owe liberals a big thank you for their almost equal rights. “Tree hugging liberals” fight for clean air and water standards instead of favoring industrial polluters and short term profiteering that destroy God’s green earth.

    • No doubt, dieta. But note well I am not American, and I am not using the words ‘liberal’ or ‘liberalism’ in the same way as Americans do. Liberalism outside the US typically means something different to within the US. For me ‘liberal’ is not a synonym for a centre-leftist, but a reference to a political philosophy. This distinction is crucial. In the comments I did define liberalism according to Hauerwas’ definition.

Leave a Reply to unklee Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: