Tracy Nelson fails to make an important distinction with liberal Christians.

Tracy Nelson has written an essay that is percolating about the internet.  It’s written from the position of a liberal Christian upset at the fanatics because the fanatics give the liberal Christians a bad name.

To an extent, I’m inclined to agree with her.  Not every Christian votes against their interests and displays a Repulicanesque indifference to the suffering of others.  Even I, one of the most vehemently anti-religion people on the block, must happily concede that point.

However, this line about how the fanatics get religion wrong while the liberal believers get it right is just silly.  The liberal Christians use faith to claim god supports their position just the same as fundamentalist Christians, just the same as Muslims, etc.  It makes no sense to say that the fundamentalists are wrong while simultaneously saying that faith is a reliable means to truth.

Therein lies the problem with liberal Christians.  They are no more likely to be right about god’s existence or about his will because they’re using the same mechanism to get there as the fundamentalists.  They try to use “our beliefs are different and more kind” as a segue to “our beliefs are right” and it doesn’t work that way.  Most fundamentalists aren’t cruel because they lack empathy (otherwise, why would they even bother to say they love the sinner?).  They’re cruel because they believe god has commanded it, and that their cruel behavior will make for a better world.  Their sin is that they’re wrong.  But how can the faith of the liberal be used to correct them?

Faith can be used to defend any position from “god wants us to build houses” to “god wants us to kill people.”  Sure, I’m glad the liberals align with the former rather than the latter, but they’ve done nothing to establish that god truly backs them.  By citing faith, they keep alive the machinery of faith that sustains the beliefs of the fundamentalists.  The liberals cannot relinquish faith though, because then their beliefs about god would also crumble, leaving only their compassion motivating them to build houses (which, frankly, was what motivated them in the first place).

The only real way to effectively separate the liberal Christian from the fundamentalist in terms of credibility (after all, while the liberals are more compassionate they could be wholly wrong about god’s will) is to resort to facts and reasons.  Once those are examined honestly, it becomes overtly clear that nobody rose from the dead 2,000 years ago and that compassion naturally makes for a better world to live in, and only faith or ignorance could convince anyone otherwise.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • Art Vandelay

    Yup. Sorry “Liberal Christians.” As long as you consider faith to be the most virtuous quality one can have, you have no right to criticize the fundies, and in fact…they’re using you to execute their oppressive agenda. Find a new name, find a new book, find a new pathway to truth and morality…only then can you separate yourself from the fundies.

  • Peter N

    I agree that the true motivation of “nice” religious people is their compassion, not what their religion teaches. In the same way, the true motivation of “nasty” believers is their fear, pride, jealousy, ignorance, and tribalism, not what their preachers say. What the preachers say does, however, let them feel justified in such feelings, and it encourages them to stick together to shout down (or, if the situation arises, kill) anyone who says otherwise. Hence this insane devotion to purity of thought and word, their embrace of willful ignorance, and their outrage at those of us who aren’t shy about pointing out that their emperor is naked.

  • Baal

    I’m happy to see Tracy Nelson standing up to say that liberal xtians are in fact part of the same label as fundamentalist xtians (you own your neighbors). If you’re going to wear a label, you’re reasonably likely to be asked about the embarrassing folks who also wear the same label.

  • smrnda

    The problem is both liberal Christians and rigid fundamentalists can find scripture in support of their positions. Both sides just argue that the other side is reading the Bible or church tradition wrong. It makes it meaningless to speak of one side being right or wrong, but it does expose the foolishness of trying to base your life on a book that you have to go around apologizing for all the time.

  • The Consistent Atheist

    A few months ago I read a quote from our dear president that basically said that his religious faith guides him in every decision he makes related to his role as president. This statement starkly contrasts with a statement made by former Pres. Kennedy, in which said that his religious views should in no way influence his presidential judgment. What do any of you make of this? Also, are we to have the same sort of suspicion for the so-called liberal xtians as we do for the fundie hardliners? I mean, are we going to make any distinctions? Are both equally undesirable?

  • jaime wise

    I can see your point. As a Christian myself, I think it’s highly destructive to engage in in-fighting like this. I don’t simply mean destructive for the church, I mean destructive for ourselves and anyone around us. We get so caught up with the “true” believer mentality that we miss everything that needs to be done around us. We forget that there’s a whole world outside of the church walls. Really, how is it any less fascistic to claim that liberal Christianity is the ‘truth’? If you simply must engage in rhetorical exercises about someone’s interpretation, whether it’s of an ancient document or political stance, at least have the decency to acknowledge that your just as failable and subject to bias as they are.

  • The Consistent Atheist

    Jaime, I don’t really care who the “real” christian is; infight all you want. My question deals more with if a distinction between groups identifying themselves as christians is a necessary distinction at all. E.g., is one group more insidious to our secular and pluralistic society?

  • jaime wise

    I would say that the distinction is not needed at all. Any person who believes they have a right to make qualitative statements about people is very much a threat to the pluralistic and secular structure needed to protect individual rights. It doesn’t matter how they self-identify.

  • The Consistent Atheist

    Jamie, you’re going to have to spell out for me what you mean by make “qualitative statements about people.” I don’t see the inherent threat on discussing the quality of humans- quality of character, quality of worker, quality of citizen, quality of parent, etc. In fact, I might say it is more of a threat to believe that all people are inherently equal in their contribution to our society. From an objective point of view some humans in our society are benign, and others are cancerous, and still others are beneficial. The questions we are dealing with here are: which people belong to which group? Who should be tolerated? And who should be restricted? And who should be encouraged and advantaged?

  • jaime wise

    What I meant by “qualitative statement” was deeming someone as less of a human being because they aren’t part of your own group. Sorry if I was confusing about that. Of course, it’s a human reaction to prefer one’s own group, but the cancerous element happens when someone believes their preference entitles them to interfere in other people’s lives. There are ideologies, religious and otherwise, that tend to attract people with this attitude; But I don’t think that belonging to a group, in this case, divergent sub-types of Christianity, tells you enough about an individual person to assume that they have that attitude.
    On the other hand, religious groups do tend to speak as a group, or have representatives speak for them and present at least a general agreement of their beliefs and goals. Belonging to a group often does give you a general picture of what a person stands for.
    My personal opinion is that people should be restricted when they violate the rights of others. They should be advantaged if they stand up for the rights of others; especially if they effectively promote them. For example: I think JT does excellent work in promoting freedom of speech and expression. I was also highly impressed by his speech at Skepticon last year. People like JT, who advocate understanding and fair treatment, are the types of people who should be advantaged. In my opinion.