A couple weeks ago, I argued that “toxic” was a weasel word that progressive Christians use too much. On my Facebook page,1 a reader2 pointed out that conservative Christians have their own weasel words. One in particular caught my attention: liberal. I think that’s spot-on. And yes, I have several specific points about why conservative Christians shouldn’t use it so much:
- Keep the terms distinct. I try to be careful about differentiating between someone who is conservative (or progressive) theologically, and someone who is conservative (or progressive) politically. This is partly because these beliefs don’t always go together. For instance, I go to a church with lots of congregants who are theologically conservative, but politically progressive.
Heck, both terms may not even apply to me. Theologically, I consider myself pretty darn conservative. At least in the sense of wanting to hold the faith the Church has always held.3 Politically, things are more complicated. I’m “conservative” in the Edmund Burke/Roger Scruton sense. But that’s not what conservative means anymore. In our post-Trump moonscape, “conservative” now means some amalgamation of Breitbart, Sean Hannity, and injecting liberal tears into your bloodstream for some reason. That’s….not me.
- Muddling the terms causes trouble. The main reason to keep the terms separate is that it’s waaaay too easy to mush them together. For too many people–especially on the Right–a “conservative” and a “liberal” refer to the exact same people whether you’re talking about theology or politics.
Several years back I heard a talk radio debate between Jerry Falwell (the original) and some progressive pastor. They were talking broadly about Christians in politics. After a couple rounds of back-and-forth, Falwell dropped the hammer: “Just admit it: you’re a liberal.4” He evidently thought this settled the issue. As soon as he proved his opponent is a liberal, he necessarily proved he was wrong. Any distinction of theology or political philosophy didn’t matter. Because he’s a liberal, he’s on the other team.
- It puts politics in the driver seat. The final consequence of muddling the terms is that it assumes any current “conservative” political position must therefore be the Christian position. And that creates some tortured exegesis. A recent(ish) example is theologian Wayne Grudem’s defense of a border wall. The whole article is an exercise in upside down thinking. It seems Grudem started with his conclusion (that the politically “conservative” position is correct) and worked backwards to find biblical cover. Lots of people who know more about the issue than me have given critiques of Grudem. And sure, his immigration argument may have failed as both an expounding of Scripture and an articulation of historic Christianity. But give Grudem’s argument this much: it definitely wasn’t liberal.
The lesson, of course, is that no matter your theology or philosophy, weasel words are bound to sneak in, so we should always be aware. The other lesson is that the word “conservative” has gotten really screwed up. But that’s a blog post for a different time…
1 While we’re on this subject, you should totally like my author page on Facebook.
2 Hey there, Julie Reither!
3 Yes, I’m sure there’s much more to being “theologically conservative” that I need to unpack. If somebody knows a more thorough treatment of the subject, please send it my way.
4 And yeeeees, this is approximation, not an exact quotation. I have no desire to go back over a decade to find the exact wording.