A Realistic Look At Liberalism
Some time ago we examined a few of the potential pitfalls of both liberalism and conservatism. As these ideologies are at the very center of contemporary political dialogue—particularly for the increasingly divided evangelical Church—it may be helpful to spend a little time better understanding the strengths and weakness of each of these ideologies. In our previous piece we argued that liberalism can tend to be utopian which can thereby lead to an unrealistic outlook on the possibilities of political action. On the other end of the spectrum, conservatism can be utilitarian and therefore slide into an acceptance of things that are unjust. Now, let’s begin by highlighting some of the various strengths of liberalism.
Rather than open up a discussion of the political philosophy of liberalism in general—which would be a much bigger task than space allows—we will focus on a particular bent of liberalism: evangelical liberalism. These progressives sometimes refer to themselves as “Red Letter Christians,” the “Christian Left,” or “New Evangelicals,” and generally speaking they fall into two age categories: Baby Boomers who came to maturity in the shadow of the Vietnam War (i.e. Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, Ron Sider), and Millennials who have reacted to the conservatism of their parents and evangelical culture, coming to care about issues of social justice (i.e. Shane Claiborne and our own esteemed Keane Fine).
There is much about their movement that is admirable, and much that the Body of Christ can learn from them no matter where one finds their political home. First and foremost, the leadership of these Christians has led evangelicalism into dramatic growth in the area of justice. The rediscovery of the prophetic texts on justice is a good balance for an American church that can tend to drift away from the Old Testament. In a similar vein, these evangelicals relish in Christ’s teaching on the Kingdom. For our purposes, it is important to note that a robust theology of the Kingdom of God is absolutely imperative as we seek to work out a political theology for the common good (more to come on building a biblical theology of the Kingdom in coming months).
The biggest strength of these Believers, though, comes not in their theology but in their action; it has less to do with orthodoxy (believing correctly) and more to do with orthopraxy (living correctly). If not for these Christians we would be missing many tangible examples of the Gospel in our world. Their emphasis on loving the least of these is a much longed for trait in our broken and hurting society.
Now, however, we reach the turn. And for my left-leaning Brothers and Sisters I ask for you to have the patience to hear my loving critique of a few areas of your political philosophy. The following weaknesses aren’t necessarily inherent within liberalism itself, but rather come to the forefront in this peculiar era we find ourselves in. First, and perhaps most troubling, is the fact that progressive evangelicals show very little love for Christ’s Church. This is probably due to the fact that they see it as being hijacked by the conservative movement (a largely accurate critique), but the tragedy is that the expression “liberal evangelical” is becoming synonymous with the expression “hates the Church.” A cursory reading of the Christian left’s publications (especially from younger authors) demonstrates a disdain for the Bride of Christ that is absolutely reprehensible. As members of the Body we are called to love the Church, even when She appears to be unlovable. This is not to say that there is no place for a call to renewal and a closer alignment with the example of Jesus, but this must not come at the expense of genuine Christian love for one another.
Similarly, there are many on the left who are all too quick to appoint themselves to the Old Testament position of prophet. The role of calling God’s people for a return to holiness and justice is indeed a sacred act within the Church, but it should not be taken on in the flippant, cavalier way that many are prone to do. Calling the Church to repent is chiefly the act of the Holy Spirit, and any partnership in this endeavor must be entered into with reverence and respect for the many God-fearing believers that you are bringing said call to.
Finally, the desire for many to distance themselves from the conservatism politically has unfortunately led them to reject conservative theology as well. In many cases the result is these left-leaning evangelicals abandoning the bounds of orthodoxy. Salvation in Jesus alone is derogatorily labeled “religious triumphalism,” and the very existence of hell is thrown to the side. Orthodox theology does not belong to the Religious Right or the Christian Left, rather, it belongs to those who submit their lives to Christ and embrace the historic doctrines of the faith. No political agenda should ever lead someone to reject the core tenets of Christianity.
There is much to be respected in the growing movement of the evangelical left, but there are also many cautions that need to be heeded. As these followers of Christ continue to wrestle with what it means to be a faithful witness to our Savior in the public square, let us pray that God will use their efforts to bring greater clarity to the Body, and more individuals into the Kingdom.
To read our reflection on evangelical conservatism click here.