Liberalism – love it or hate it. Take it or leave it. Some churches cringe as if it is an insult, other churches lavish in it. So I’d like to unpack in this brief blog what a “liberal” is and whether it is a good or bad thing.
Simply put, a liberal is someone who freely expresses their views. Generally they are open-minded (although there are some close-minded liberals and also some open-minded conservatives). Generally they like equality, tend to be very interested in social justice, and tend to be a bit on the hipster side – going to protests, skate parks, and the pursuit of “feeling” rather than cold hard facts and dogma. Some liberals take it to the extreme, “What I believe is more important than what the Bible actually says.” – I am not that type of liberal. Some believe that they are the most important authority on any topic whatsoever – I cringe at that type of arrogance. What I am interested in, though, is genuine dialogue and discussion that seeks to improve upon the world that we already live in.
In some settings liberalism is almost a bad word. When I was going to an evangelical university several students turned their noses down at it. They thought that a liberal may as well not call themselves a Christian – they didn’t take the Bible at face value. I had one professor in particular who really was against liberal Christianity. Each class he went to great lengths to bash women in ministry, homosexuality, the United Church of Canada, and the notion of calling God “Mother”. He believed that women had no place other than to homeschool their children, that contraception was a grave sin, and that creation was a literal seven days. This professor got us to read J. Gresham Machen’s book “Liberalism and Christianity” in which Machen says that liberalism has ceased to be Christianity and is a different religion altogether. [I feel this book doesn’t show his viewpoints in the most positive light, though, I would highly recommend reading some of his other writings which explain what exactly he means by liberalism.] Needless to say, I didn’t always get along with him despite the fact that I did grow up in a conservative church and that since starting seminary I have realized that I am a whole lot more conservative than I once thought I was.
I also discovered that people sometimes get uptight if you call them “liberal”. I made the mistake once of calling a certain institution liberal, it didn’t go over so well. Later, I was talking to an American pastor and she explained to me that in the U.S. the word “liberal” is villianized. Then it made sense to me why some people were offended. I’m not an American, so try as I might to think as an American, I cannot. I am a Canadian through-and-through. In Canada, liberalism is seen as a largely positive, en-vogue thing by most people. Sure, there are people at Tyndale who sneer at liberalism (not everyone is like this, by the way, there are conservatives and liberals alike), but many churches see liberalism as being “with the times.” In Canada, almost all mainstream churches are considered liberal and almost all of them are okay with this. In fact, the mainstream churches often look down on conservatives. They find them to be “stuffy”, “arrogant”, and “proud” (I also do not think this is a fair representation). So when you say the United Church is the most liberal church in Canada they would probably take this as a compliment. Of course they are liberal – it is their goal to be welcoming and inclusive of everyone. They have accomplished what they set out to do.
In Canada, almost any church which accepts homosexuals, allows women to be in senior pastoral positions, allows for free interpretation of Scripture (including not thinking that heaven and hell are literal places), and that openly encourages the use of alcohol (including: pub theology) are considered liberal. While some may think that these things are sins, it doesn’t stop the fact that these types of churches are “mainstream” and most people are okay with that. Being liberal does not mean that you don’t believe the Bible. You may see it as more of a guidebook for moral living rather than an authoritarian source or you may read it along with the Qu’ran or a book on mindfulness, but that doesn’t make it any less important to you. That’s also not to say that all liberals are liberal on every point of debate. You might find someone who is very open towards the idea of homosexuality, but very closed to the idea of abortion. You might find someone who is welcoming of not taking the Bible literally, but who detests alcohol.
Personally, I see how both religious fundamentalism and liberalism can both be somewhat damaging to the church if taken to the extreme. So many liberal Christians that I know go to great lengths to bash conservatives – how could anyone be so barbaric as to think a woman needs to keep her child? So many conservative Christians I know bash liberals – don’t they know the Creation was literally 7 days? But I think that we all need to get along and learn to relate to each other without tearing each other apart.
Thankfully, there is a third way – Anabaptism (and perhaps other denominations, also). I define this Anabaptism as being a way that seeks to be devoid of the political connotations attached to the words “liberal” and “conservative”. Rather, we are seeking to become a faith that encompasses the best of both of these worlds. We seek to find a medium, especially as we consider how to live within the wider family of worldwide Anabaptists. One of the founding pillars of the Mennonite faith was a sharp separation of church and state so even though the words liberal and conservative have morphed into something completely different – especially in the American electoral system which does not have near as many parties as the Canadian parliament, I think Menno Simons might be rolling over in his grave. I can see now why Americans, especially, might be so hesitant for me to call them “liberals” – to them it is a marked difference. On the far right we have conservatism and on the far left – liberalism, with very little in between. For a Canadian, liberalism and conservatism are just parts of a wider spectrum that also includes NDP, Green Party, the Bloc Quebecois, and Marxists-Lennisist to name a few. So calling an American a liberal probably evokes more of a defensive attitude than it would in Canada, perhaps for that reason. I know I’m rambling…
It’s towards this third way that I constantly work towards. I don’t think God ever slammed God’s fist at liberals or conservatives, neither should we. Together we can just keep working towards an equilibrium.