The Distinctive Characteristic of Liberal Christians?

The Distinctive Characteristic of Liberal Christians? August 23, 2012

A recent comment got me thinking about what it means to be a progressive or liberal Christian, and in what ways it is fundamentally different than being a conservative.

I am not sure whether there is in fact more or less diversity among liberals than conservatives as far as beliefs and practices – I would expect there to be, but I don’t have data.

I suspect that liberal and progressive Christians will probably agree on at least some major things – the Golden Rule, for instance. But just as people may agree that the Bible is inerrant, and yet disagree on what it means and how to apply it, so too, even if one agrees on a core ethical principle, you will still find people disagreeing about how to best apply it.

But hopefully our conversations around our disagreements as liberal Christians are more fruitful, because we are hopefully not assuming that our attempt at application is simply “what the Bible says” with no interpretation or human fallibility involved.

And so hopefully that is the distinctive characteristic of being a liberal Christian: not mistaking our own perspective for divinely-ordained and eternal truth.

Whether you are an outsider or an insider to the category of “liberal/progressive Christians,” what would you say are the distinctive characteristics of those who self-identify in this way? What should they be? Is any one characteristic particularly definitive of the category?

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  • Zeno

    I think one of the differences between conservative
    Christians and those with more liberal predilections concerns the way various sources
    of knowledge are treated. All believers, whatever their political or social
    proclivities, have to coordinate the deliverances of tradition, experience,
    reason, revelation, testimony, etc. In my experience, conservatives and
    liberals differ in the way they do this. Conservative Christians tend to adopt
    a particular kind of hierarchical approach, granting their interpretation of the
    Bible the highest rank, and conferring upon it absolute veto power over the
    other sources of knowledge. In the case of any conflict, therefore,
    deliverances from other sources of knowledge must either be rejected or else
    harmonized. Liberals, on the other hand, adopt a more cooperative approach to
    the coordination problem. No source of knowledge is granted absolute veto power
    over any other. Instead, the various items delivered by distinct sources of
    knowledge are each recognized and negotiated against each other. The result is not
    one source of knowledge exerting itself in the fashion of a martinet against
    the others, but rather a compromise and artful coordinating of the deliverance
    of the various sources of knowledge into a single perspective.

  • Sherry Peyton

    When I think of a liberal Christian (myself) I think of a person who expects that our understanding of the Bible and God increase with time. Therefore I see nothing as perfectly understood as I think most Conservatives do. They think they understand the bible and “it means what it says”, not accepting that word usage changes, and the meanings are relative to the time in question. I see the bible as an evolving thing, as we learn new and better techniques for understanding meanings and who and when it was put together and by whom. Conservatives I think see it as written in stone. They are very sure about what God is and what God wants. I think we always see as through a glass darkly and that hopefully over time, as we evolve as humans, or understanding of God also does. I guess what I mean is that I’m always expecting and willing to rethink and come to a new conclusion. Conservatives seem to me to NEED to have it perfectly understandable so they can depend on it to never change.

    • Aaron

      As a conservative Christian I came here seeking knowledge on what liberal Christians think. I know that I do not understand everything about God or everything in particular (if I did understand, I would not have faith!)
      When I meet liberal Christians I try not to focus on our differences but on our similarities.
      I think that too many traditionalists are not willing to accept that people have real questions about God and that it is okay for that to be so and to find the real answers as long as they are really seeking (I dislike the poser seekers). That to me is free will.
      Good luck to everyone who is seeking the truth.

  • I cannot think of any liberal Christians who are political conservatives. Nor can I think of any conservative Christians who are political liberals. Is this your experience as well?

    And, if so, doesn’t the political liberal-conservative polarity really define the respective groups, with “Christian” just providing a sub-identity in each case?

    • Actually, it is not my experience that political liberalism or conservativism always lines up with theological liberalism or conservativism. Among theological conservatives, particularly when considered globally, I’d be hard pressed to figure out whether liberal or conservative politics dominates. I do think that political liberalism is much more common than political conservativism among theological liberals – although with plenty of exceptions in that group too.

      • Every rule, of course, has exceptions. However, your description of an unpredictable playing field is belied by experiences common to us all. For example, scroll to the bottom of this page and click on “Progressive Christianity.” Go through the posts there and make a count of how often a Republican person or cause is denigrated (or, conversely, extolled) versus how often a Democrat person or cause is denigrated (or, conversely, extolled).

        Perhaps restricting your focus momentarily to the U.S. will help you see the relative conformity of views that otherwise escapes you.

        Historically, Jim Wallis and Pat Robertson would be the poster children of their respective persuasions. No one in your reading audience would be surprised to learn which one you would rather have to your house for dinner. Nor would anyone be surprised at how the two of them vote in presidential elections.

        Sure there are variations as well as exceptions. No human being is completely predictable. However, the general tendencies, at least in America, for liberal Christians to vote liberal and conservative Christians to vote conservative seems undeniable – notwithstanding your denial.

        • But are those people defining themselves as “progressive Christians” in the sense that they are Christians who are theologically progressive, or ones who are politically and socially progressive, or both? If a group of self-proclaimed politically progressive Christians is critical of the Republican party, that is surely no surprise, is it? And that is the point. The terms conservative and liberal not only do not define clear points on a spectrum, but only a position relative to some other point. They also may refer to political, theological, and other spectrums.

          • As to your point about relativity, I agree. As to your point about there being different spectrums (or is it spectra) to plot, I agree as well.

            And if you were to tell me that you spent Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day standing in line to chow down in one of their restaurants at the behest of your fellow Christian Mike Huckabee then I’d say you have Exhibit A in your case for zero correlation between liberal Christians and political liberals.

          • Just curious, Mike … were you chowing down at Chick-Fil-A on that particular day?

          • No.

          • Is there a positive correlation between your lack of support for your Chick-Fil-A brethren and your support for marriage equality?

          • I don’t think spiritual battles can be won politically – regardless of which side of the political aisle one takes.

            As for this post, my comments are driven by my desire that both liberal and conservative Christians would think less about the “liberal” and “conservative” aspect of their identities and more about the “Christ” aspect.

            Alas, the term “Christian” has devolved greatly from its biblical usage when it referred to those who were associated with Christ. Thus my point that the “Christian” part of the identity label could be dropped with very little practical change in meaning.

            If we truly love Christ and die to ourselves as He taught, we will be much more concerned with our identity in His eyes than the social identities which we otherwise try so hard to achieve and improve.

          • angievandemerwe

            This is exactly what Islam believes they literally die for, their faith! For you, Mike Gatt, that would be your choice of value. Perhaps, you would like to see everyone “proving their faith” in such a way? I don’t think anything is won by physical death, though one might give their life by choice to something they believe in, whether that be God or some other value!
            Faith is symbolic, in “faith development”. Liturgy is the way the “high Church” worships “God” with symbol. Why give your life to the symbol of “Christ”? That seems irrational! But, we all know that the Church “demands a verdict” on faith issues, whether liberal or conservative! I’d much rather have what America has always affirmed, a nominal stance toward faith issues….not forbidding or furthering…

          • I am an American, and grateful to be so. However, this identity quickly fades into insignificance in the light of Christ and His values.

          • angievandemerwe

            No, Mike, we are to “own our own values”, at least that is what I have understood “liberty” to be about in America. One could live and move and have their being apart from over-riding Paternalistic manipulative, controlling and defining beauracracy!! Over regulation of thought and behavior is not liberty!
            That is not to say that we all need community, or social groups to be “human”, but it is to say that mutuality and equality is also of importance if “community is to be healthy”.

          • Christ teaches me to consider all people as equal – the only exception being that I should consider them all as more important than myself. I don’t see how the words “paternalistic,” “manipulative,” “controlling,” or “bureaucracy” have any place in that value system.

          • angievandemerwe

            Mike, everyone tries to “impose” what they think is the best, as to policy. This is how it has to work, each thinking his way of thinking is the way it “ought to be”….
            Equality is not practically speaking realistic. There have to be leaders and followers, it is just that leaders are to earn the respect of their followers in the American way of understanding, which means that transparency in government is necessary for people to make informed choices, as well as to build trust and rapport. Leaders that act arrogantly as if they are “gods” on earth (Caesars) was not the “ideal” leader in America’s understanding. Equality before the law meant that we were to act civilly toward each other when there were differences of opinion. Leaders were to set the tone of how to act civilly, which certainly has grown less so recently!
            Leaders were to respect and obey the laws that held them accountable within the system of checks and balances, just as “the people” were to obey the common traffic laws. Executive orders were to be exceptions not common occurances. Laws were not a means to get away with “loopholes” that only those educated in the law could “get away with”. Laws were to maintain distinctions that made our country distinct from other countries.
            America did not believe that leadership was to be granted by birth right, but the potential was. Any American could be a leader in their chosen field. And any natural born citizen could have a vision to become the President, or a member of Congress. The ability to be self determining moral agents is one reason why people took the risks to develop new businesses, as these leaders knew that though they risked, there was also an opportunity to profit and build and expand their business.
            Today the fad is internationalism/globalism, which dissolves the distinctions of the nation state for the “whole”. I do not think this is wise as Islam also believes that the “Law” and a Global caliphate is what must transpire…and the humanist transnationalist is leaving the door wide open to such a vision, by their tolerance to these kinds of differences, and their openness to such a religious culture infilterating the United States government!

          • @angievandemerwe: Are you sure that Mike meant physical death when he wrote “to love Christ and die to ourselves as He taught”? Death to self seems to me the opposite of dying for one’s faith. In my understanding (and I may have misunderstood both Mike and you), the former has more to do with dealing with my own egoistic motives and letting go of them (thus remaining on a personal level of sanctification, or even mortification if you so want), whereas the latter is amenable to being abused for political purposes. Of course, both deaths are interpretable as in line with following Christ’s example (as He definitely exemplified both); still, the former (death to self) seems to me the safer route to choose – and maybe even one which both liberals/progressives and evangelicals/conservatives can agree on and encourage each other to follow together.

          • angievandemerwe

            My rejection of Christianity has been because of a “death to self” or mortification, as you call it! (I sought out the “lowly estate”, looked at correction as “teaching me humility and submission”, tried to understand or interpret my life as if “God” was interested in my personal development, as trials were to “perfect my faith”, ETC.!) Experience has not borne out that “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know for the Bible Tells Me So”…But, this is the conservative/liberal thrust; one wants a “trusting relationship” and the other wants to build “habit forming character” (instead of the survivalist mentality of evolutionary biology). Those that “kill” you think they are acting in your best interests, but are really acting for their own ends. ( their own self interests but will delude themselves by what they think “Christ” requires or what they want to do professionally in their particular discipline). But, survival in evolutionary biology means that only the fittest survive, therefore, competition that “puts you down” is for your own good! The fight is worth it in the end… a leadership development model, which perfects by the use of one’s “talents”.
            The Church is an organization that has to act like any other, (survival) if it is going to continue to perpetuate itself. And the Church uses people to get the job accomplished! The Church is not growing in North America or Europe, so leadership must be concerned about “growing the Church” and define what it means to be “in the Church” (as an organization). Just as any job has certain qualifications to be employed, the Church has qualifications to be a member. The difficulty is in the details when it comes to “faith”.
            The liberal Church can use people to promote a “testimony” or “living example” of Jesus life, by such “saints”, while the conservative is “gung ho” about “living a life for Jesus”! The atheist would just like to change the world into its own image of a humanitarian peace movement. And the atheistic social scientists can “make waves” (get their research projects accomplished) by understanding the dynamics to/about faith, religious cultures, personal identities in religious contexts, etc.!
            This is why I believe that America holds the greatest hope because it allows for the personal apart from the organizational. People have different experiences, interests and goals. America is big enough for one to find their place without conforming to particular group definitions. And as people seek after their own interests, they “give back” by pursuing those interests in whatever they choose to do. Organizations should not be in the business of absorbing the individual. Unions sought to protect the individual worker from the corporation, but now, the union has absorbed individual workers into the corporate union. All organizations become “fossilized” (beauracratic) after a period of time.

          • I understand what you’re saying now. Thanks

  • Zeno

    Sherry Peyton seems right to me to point out the need for
    certainty (or at least a high degree of confidence) that is characteristic of
    the conservative evangelical mindset. This desire is so strong that it renders
    those it afflicts willing to cling tightly to the discredited doctrine of inerrancy
    just so that they can avoid being banished into the desert of uncertainty and
    doubt. It is also significant that, at least in my experience, Christian apologists
    are more typical of the conservative wing of the Christian community than the
    liberal wing. This is hardly surprising if it is characteristic of the
    conservative evangelical mindset to do whatever it can to acquire and maintain
    certainty with respect to highly uncertain religious questions. Doubts and
    uncertainties are not to be encouraged, but triumphantly answered. If answers
    are not ready at hand, then by all means do not scandalize the faithful by publicly
    raising the question.

  • Straw Man

    And of course “conservative” and “liberal” are the only two kinds of Christians there are…

  • spinkham

    The same thing that’s the defining factor of liberals and conservatives in general:
    Liberals rank higher on openness, and spend more time thinking about things before coming to conclusions, and they hold those conclusions with a more open hand. Conservatives rank lower on openness, and are on the other end of the scale which psychologists call “need for closure”. They tend to decide quickly and cling to ideas no matter what counter-evidence comes up.

    Different people have different need for closure at different times in their lives. When under stress or fear, people tend to have a high need for closure, which is why many conversions to high certainty beliefs happen at points of stress.

    Now, there’s also many people who rank more as psychological liberals who have been encultured into conservative beliefs, and people who tend towards psychological conservatism who are encultured into liberal beliefs. People and cultures both have different degrees of need for certainty, and both are constantly in flux. There are also particular kinds of fear like fear of death and fear of being poor that drive us to need closure in certain parts of our lives more than others.

    This episode of Point of Inquiry is an interview with a psychologist who explains this well, and terror management theory and the book “The Republican Brain” contain a lot more material that can give insight into this general divide.

  • angievandemerwe

    Personally, I like the political conservative who wants to make distinctions upon the nation state and Constitutional principles. As to the liberal/conservative divide in Christianity, both have drawbacks in my opinion. The liberal wants to “enlarge identity”, which practically means ignoring borders or limits, while the conservative, wants to define limits and definitions around either Tradition or Scripture. Both ways seek to argue for a reality beyond the political one and they are unrealistic.

  • Angela

    I think Open Mindedness is what sets most Liberal Christians apart from the Conservative set.

    • Dr, David Tee

      open minded to what? sin and false teaching?

      • Ken Gilmore

        Can you lay of the gratuitous insults, Dave. It became tiring a long time ago.

  • Guest

    From the cartoon that accompanies this post (I’m assuming that the “idiots” are the conservatives…? perhaps I misunderstood?), and from some of the comments in it, my first thought about “distinctive characteristics” of liberal/progressive Christians is a sense of superiority and disdain for their conservative counterparts. “Not mistaking our own perceptions for divinely-ordained truth”…? Ouch!! No one thinks they do that.
    I appreciate the effort to dialogue, and I hope that I am wrong in my perception of a superior attitude.

    • I assumed that some would think the cartoon means that liberals view conservatives as followers of Jesus whom Jesus thinks are idiots, while others would view liberals themselves as followers whom Jesus thinks are idiots. I hoped that not only would both come up in the comments, but that both would be problematized.

  • T. Webb

    Dr. McGrath,

    Well said, but perhaps more accurately, “skepticism about anything being able to find divinely-ordained and eternal truth.”

  • Ian

    Liberal Christians are much less distinct from their secular context than Conservative Christians.

    I’m sure that is a point of attack for many Conservative Christians, but to me it seems like an entirely good thing.

  • Taryn Fox

    Liberal Christians are less likely to be the victims or perpetrators of spiritual abuse.

    Liberal Christians worship Jesus instead of the Bible, a man of god, or a man of god’s interpretation of the Bible.

    Liberal Christians are more likely to love as Jesus loved, and to take joy in others’ love whether they’re inside or outside their church.

    Liberal Christians are more likely to have read the Bible, and to actually know what it says.

  • Susan Burns

    Liberal Christians understand evolution and Conservative Christians do not.