I had a fascinating exchange with an old college pal this week. I mentioned in an email that I self-identify as a Liberal Christian.
My friend responded, “So, what is a ‘Liberal Christian’? When I hear that, it makes me think it’s a code word for ‘Christians who think they’ve figured out how to be pro-choice Democrats, and still be in-line with the Bible’… Seems like they all listened to U2 also…”
While I’m not a registered member of any political party and my views on abortion do not conform to either pro-life or pro-choice platforms, I had to laugh at myself over the U2 comment. They just so happen to be my favorite band… I guess some stereotypes are true!
After that, I proceeded to this gentle-but-long-winded long-breezed history lecture on 20th century Christians and biblical interpretation. Unwittingly, I fell right into the two habits that most annoy me about Liberal Christianity: Negativity and Elitism.
Have you ever noticed that we Liberal Christians spend a lot of time talking about what we don’t believe? We don’t accept Young Earth Creationism. We don’t think the Bible is inerrant. We don’t believe eternal life depends on accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior. We read books with titles like Why Christianity Must Change or Die and Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally (both of which happen to be good books, by the way).
Along with our tendency to accentuate the negative, it’s also pretty obvious that our churches tend to be populated with college-educated, upper middle-class white folks. We Liberal Christians pride ourselves on being better educated, informed, and enlightened than our Evangelical counterparts. Just as some Evangelicals tend to hide behind walls of biblical literalism, Liberals tend to hide behind walls of intellectual superiority. Even though none of us would put it this way, we consider ourselves to be the “one true church” because we have risen above the naïve superstitions of Catholics and Evangelicals. Despite our claims to open-minded pluralism and tough-minded skepticism, we still claim to be the sole possessors of the “real truth” about Christianity. Despite our lip-service to diversity, our churches tend to be pretty monochromatic. Despite our passion for social justice, I once heard someone say about us, “They’ll bake a casserole for every cause but they won’t go to jail for any cause.” Is this really the legacy left by the Underground Railroad, the Suffragettes, and Martin Luther King?
In response to these tendencies toward Negativity and Elitism, I’d like to see us develop an Affirmative and Common Sense Liberalism.
What do we believe as Liberal Christians?
First of all, we believe in freedom. That’s what the word liberal means, after all. We are free to make full use of our minds and hearts as we grow in our faith. We are free to disagree. There should be no litmus test of doctrine among us. Sadly, this is not always the case in practice. There are just as many mean-spirited Liberals as there are Bible-thumping Fundamentalists. I once witnessed an Evangelical ministry candidate in my own denomination being publicly mocked in front of her colleagues by a Liberal pastor who asked whether she thought the Second Coming might involve Jesus returning to Earth “in a rocket ship.” If I am free to question traditional doctrine, others should be free to accept it. We should rejoice with those whose lives are changed, for example, by a charismatic “born again” experience. We have every reason to believe that they have truly encountered the Spirit of the Living God. The difference is that we also believe the same for Gandhi, Buddha, and anyone who has ever scored free swag from the Oprah Winfrey Show. The mark of a truly Christian Liberalism is when we leave room for those who would not leave room for us. Personally, I’m still working on that.
Second, Liberal Christians believe in grace. We are all created, connected, redeemed, and sustained by the absolutely unconditional love of God. No one is exempt from this Good News, regardless of time, place, religion, or sexual orientation. We are all equally God’s children. Full stop. There is no moral standard upon which God’s ultimate approval is based. This does not mean, however, that there are no moral standards. We believe in the fair and equal establishment of liberty and justice for all. It is sometimes necessary to act decisively in correcting behaviors, protecting the innocent, or redressing grievances, but this does not involve a final condemnation or an ultimate devaluing of the whole person. Human parents must enact discipline in order to shape a child’s character, but eternal punishment is inconsistent with God’s purposes as a loving parent. What could make you subject your child to eternal torture without relief? No one is irredeemable. In short, everybody gets into heaven (if there is such a place). Alas, Liberal Christians have often failed on this front as well. One friend of a friend commented that, after leaving her rather Conservative Mennonite church for the United Church of Canada (a prominent Liberal denomination in the Great White North), she was disappointed to find just as much hard-nosed legalism among Liberal Christians. The difference, she noted, was that Liberal Christians made her feel guilty about recycling rather than masturbation. Whenever we are overwhelmed by either unfounded humanistic optimism or righteous indignation, we Liberal Christians should remember to keep this song in our hearts: “’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, And grace will lead me home.”
Common Sense Liberalism
Watching certain candidates on the presidential campaign trail has reminded me how many people respond to folksy wisdom more than actual data. Conservatives seem to have cornered the market on common sense while Liberals cite academic facts and theories. I refuse to accept the necessity of this arrangement. We too can make pithy bumper stickers. We too can appeal to those beliefs and values that lie deep within the human heart and lead us toward a better world. We too can quote the Bible to support what we have to say. I’ll even do it in the good old King James Version:
- “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” – 1 John 4:16
- “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” – Matthew 25:40
- “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” – Matthew 7:1
- “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.” – Matthew 7:12
- “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” – Leviticus 19:18
Liberal Christians believe that God loves everyone. We believe that all people are created equal in one human family. We believe in fairness. We believe in freedom. We believe that God is a mystery so big that no one can fully understand. We believe in grace. We believe in justice. We believe that diversity makes us stronger.
The term Liberal has become a dirty word in recent years. It is used in the halls of Congress and churches to accuse, demean, and degrade. I want to reclaim the term Liberal, especially as it applies to Christian faith. There are no doubt others who will question my intellectual and moral integrity. That’s fine. They can do that. I’ll try not to argue back. This is just me trying to figure out what I believe and where I fit in the grand scheme of things. I am a Liberal Christian.
“Here I stand. I can do no other.” – Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms