The Word You Are Looking for is “Moderate”

The Word You Are Looking for is “Moderate” July 3, 2014

Michael Patton shared the diagrams below. What strikes me about them is the attempt to define “Evangelical” as the stance between liberal and fundamentalist. The word that he is looking for, where there is a balance between the essential, important, and non-essential, is “moderate.” Some Evangelicals are moderates, but most are conservative, in between the moderates and the fundamentalists, with some closer to one or the other.

His attempt to pretend that “Evangelical” simply means “moderate-to-conservative” surprises me. The definition offered by the National Association of Evangelicals seems better-informed historically. Is anyone actually fooled by Patton's omission of “moderate” and “conservative” and insertion of Evangelical instead?

See also Allan Bevere's post about why today's conservatives are Liberals, his post about reformed fundamentalists, and one problematizing today's concepts of left and right.


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  • ChuckQueen101

    I agree with you James, “evangelical” is not the bridge word. “Moderate” is much better – and it leaves a lot of room for differences. I don’t like the word at all, though, because about the only thing it tells about a person or community is that it is not fundamentalist. One can self indentify as a moderate and be conservative about a whole bunch of stuff. Take for example the “moderate” Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Most CBF churches are anti-LGBTQ. See my post over at Faith Forward, “The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Is On the Wrong Side of History.”

  • Allan Bevere

    James, thanks for the shout-out. It seems to me that too-often we use labels as an attempt to frame the discussion as an attempt to force those to respond within our theological and/or political framework. I am not saying that labels cannot be useful, but they are subject to much manipulation.

  • Michael Pahl

    I used to think this way about “evangelical,” that it was the position between “liberal” and “fundamentalist.” In fact, there was (is?) a kind of idea among some evangelicals that “If a liberal calls you a fundamentalist and a fundamentalist calls you a liberal, you must be an evangelical.” Maybe there was some truth to the idea once upon a time, but no longer – at least in the US. “Evangelical” has been co-opted by the far right, and it is often now indistinguishable from “Fundamentalist.”

  • Bobby Nemeth

    Wait I might be mistaken, but in Bible College I was taught at least historically that Evangelicalism was the mediating position in the wake of the Scope’s Monkey Trial in the modernist and fundamentalist controversy. Would that not correlate? Or am I mistaken?

    • Did they provide any evidence for this claim? Ironically, the original “fundamentalists” were not consistently fundamentalists in the modern sense.

  • Evangelicalism is theologically fundamentalist. From this perspective there is little difference between Fred Phelps and Al Mohler. Many Evangelicals are also social fundamentalists. Social fundamentalists tend to be preoccupied with lifestyle and cultural issues. Many Evangelicals think if they distance themselves from social fundamentalism they are no longer fundamentalist. However, they are still theological fundamentalists.

    What complicates this issue is that there are a fair number of liberals/progressives that still (wrongly) identify as Evangelical. This is especially true in the emerging/emergent church where you find post modern progressives/liberals self identifying as Evangelical.

  • arcseconds

    The left/right spectrum certainly is an unhelpful way of thinking about politics, and it’s even more unhelpful if you try to extend it to anything else.

    I’m not sure that I find the Sartwell article, Bevere’s remarks, or the quote he gives of Wright’s very helpful, though. They all sound to me as though they’re people who have just discovered that the left/right spectrum isn’t very helpful, and are enthusiastically proclaiming this as a profound insight, but without going much further than that. Surely anyone who’s thought about this seriously has already realised this. I don’t even think the examples are all that illuminating, and there’s a fair degree of ‘both sides do it’ going on here. It’s easy for this sort of rhetoric to just turn into superior cynicism, and that’s certainly where Sartwell is ending up: authority everywhere.

    I’m not the most sophisticated political thinker either, but I think I can add one or two things that might be helpful.

    Firstly, check out The Political Compass. They have been promoting looking at both economic control and social control to present a two-factor way of thinking about the political landscape. This is still crude, of course, but at least the axes are well-defined and it makes distinctions that the left-right spectrum can’t. For example, Ron Paul is shown to be right (= laissez-faire economics) even by republican party standards, but not extremely so, he’s only marginally more right than Gringich. But he’s much, much more libertarian (= socially liberal) than any other Republican.

    Secondly, systems with a plurality voting system tend to end up with two major parties, and there’s even a ‘law’ to this effect (there’s some analysis as to how it happens given on that page). The reality of individuals’ political beliefs is very complex, but with only two parties, if you want any hope of enacting your policies the best you can do is choose the ‘best fit’. It’s only natural that this should make for some strange bedfellows.

    Also, how politics actually works itself out in society is often not a matter of rationally determining your political beliefs then finding the best way of enacting them (maybe by choosing a political party) at all, but rather a much more tribal process. Sometimes this even manifests itself by people determining their political beliefs by their party loyalties, which may themselves be determined by family tradition. Personal loyalties are particularly important for politicians, and under these circumstances it’s not really possible for ‘moderates’ of both parties to betray their fellows and form a new party, even though their ideologies may be more similar to one another than they are to other members of their own party. So fairly often the ‘best fit’ isn’t even what happens.

    Plus, of course, having two parties naturally feeds the left/right discourse, as that’s the most obvious feature of how the political system operates, and completely structures political discourse around the realities of the two parties.

    Thirdly, I’m grateful to a commenter here (I forget the name) who pointed me to the Wikipedia page on Right-wing politics, which points out there is in fact a common theme to right-wing ideologies: they are all accepting of some kind of social heirarchy, even though what heirarchy they want to accept and the basis for it can vary.

    The opposite is maintained for the left, of course, but I think there is some truth to the matter that left-wing parties frequently don’t have any issue with the hierarchy of the bureaucracy and the political apparatus itself.

  • stewart

    I don’t interpret those diagrams as showing evangelicals as moderates between liberals and conservatives; it’s nearer an attempt to claim that evangelicals fall in the happy medium between rudderless liberals and intolerant fundamentalists.

  • Alan Christensen

    This is just my shorthand, but I think of “evangelical” as a pretty broad tradition within Protestantism (emphasizing personal faith in Jesus, sola scriptura, etc.) and “fundamentalist” as the belligerent wing of evangelicalism. The opposite wing of the evangelical tradition I’d call “Jimmy Carter.” 🙂