Monday, May 20, 2013

Why The Old Labels No Longer Work (And Probably Never Did)

America is deeply divided along political lines. That is no surprise to anyone. While that has always been true in our two party, winner-takes-all system, it certainly has grown sharper and nastier over the last few decades. Old fashioned opposition has turned somehow more ugly, more personal. I usually point to the ridiculous "borking" of the late Robert Bork as the turning point but there is no credible doubt that we are a nation that is at war with itself, for now limited to rhetoric but I fear that in the future it may morph into something else.

I have started to see this dichotomy, once a critical part of my life, as entirely unhelpful both politically and doctrinally. I blame some of this on the two party, win take all system we exist in where it is natural and expedient to draw a line in the sand and then start appealing to lowest common denominator positions. What we are left with is a two party system loosely based on two ideologies that have little to do with the original meaning of their labels and I (and many others) find ourselves without a home in either party.

Modern "conservatism" is not terribly conservative at all. Rather than conserving it is about consuming. To protect our consuming, "conservatives" are willing to send young people to kill and die over and over, intervening in wars we have no business in and no real chance of "success", whatever that means. This means that the same people who complain about larger government when it comes in the form of food stamps are the first to freak out if we even suggest cutting back on military spending. Quaint notions like liberty are steamrolled by "security". Shameful though it may be to say it, the Republican party (the "conservative" party) is largely built to appeal to middle and upper class, mostly white, voters who are terrified of minorities and foreigners and angry at the poor.

Modern "liberalism"? Please. Unlike early liberalism what we call modern liberalism is simply replacing a hereditary elite ruling class with a bureaucratic elite ruling class. While homosexuals can "marry" and women can kill their unborn children, by virtually any other measure modern liberalism seeks to reduce liberty and make people less free. That is not liberalism, it is servitude and enslavement.  The Democrats take a different approach from their opposites in the GOP, rather than appealing to fear they appeal to envy, painting everyone who has more than you as your enemy, an enemy that needs to be punished. Dress it up all you like in the language of "fairness", what it really comes down to is stealing from some people to bribe others for their votes.

While the modern conservative movement is deeply, perhaps fatally flawed, it is less wrong than what passes for modern liberalism. That is faint praise indeed and intended as such. With these two "choices" that are not really choices at all, it is little wonder I am done with the whole dog-and-pony show that happens on the first Tuesday following the first Monday of November. The American electoral process is a farce and everyone that pays attention knows it but most people keep doing it out of some misguided notion of civic responsibility and virtue. That isn't my primary concern.

As clearly inadequate as the terms liberal and conservative are in a political context, they are both inaccurate and deeply harmful in a church context. I say inaccurate because the things that modern political liberalism and conservatism alike stand for, or at least advocate for, have no bearing on Christian discipleship and Kingdom living. Lower taxes, defending 2nd Amendment rights, a strong "national defense"? Um no. Abortion on demand, forced income redistribution and institutionalized generational poverty. Double no.

What about harmful? Indeed and even more so than inaccurate. When we use these terms within the context of church discussions we invariably divide ourselves into camps that are as much political as they are doctrinal and the differences between the two categories is lost. Just because someone is "conservative" from a theological standpoint it doesn't always follow that they are "conservative" from a political standpoint, especially on an issue by issue basis. For example as someone who fits most possible definitions of "conservative" theologically, I am also someone who is strongly opposed to war in all forms even when it allegedly serves the national interest of America. I oppose war for the same reason I support complementarian gender roles, namely a consistent and "literal" interpretation of Scripture.

A perfect case in point was an older article someone linked to that purported to prove that reading your Bible more makes you more "liberal": Survey: Frequent Bible Reading Can Turn You Liberal . Granted it in Christianity Today and as such was immediately suspect but as I read through the article what kept jumping out to me is that the way the article defined "liberal" didn't seem so much theological as it did political. For example one statement said: But the more someone reads the Bible, the more likely he or she is to believe science and religion are compatible. Well I am pretty conservative by any measure and I think they are compatible and would affirm that statement. Now if you start getting into the particulars we would find some major points of difference on issues like evolution and "climate change". Other examples included questions about the Patriot Act and social justice issues: Some of the most interesting findings relate to moral attitudes. "How important is it," the survey asked, "to actively seek social and economic justice in order to be a good person?" Who is against social justice? Now again when you start to define "social justice" in political terms it can become code for "forced income redistribution", something the Bible never supports. I am all for social and economic justice but I also don't think that a welfare state and a permanent dependency class does anything to alleviate injustice. So the flaw here is in methodology but the message is that reading the Bible more leads to voting for Democrats.

Our insistence on using political labels loaded with cultural baggage to divide from other Christians is enormously unhelpful to our mission and harmful to our witness as the church. It happens on both sides, many "conservatives" use "liberal" as a way to dismiss anything another believer says and likewise there are many "liberals" who sneeringly use terms like "fundie" to mock those who have a more literal view of the Bible. Both groups do it and both claim to be preserving the foundations of the church in doing so but what they are really doing is dividing us up based on our positions on tax policy and national security, issues that have no bearing on our universal call to be ambassadors of a King with no army, no taxes and no borders. Can we declare a moratorium on using this language to bite and devour one another? I will volunteer to try to start with my own writings and would call on anyone reading here to do the same.


Aussie John said...


"Both groups do it and both claim to be preserving the foundations of the church in doing so but what they are really doing is dividing us up based on our positions on tax policy and national security, issues that have no bearing on our universal call to be ambassadors of a King with no army, no taxes and no borders."

What are both groups doing if the following statement, which I read two minutes ago, is true?

" The United States government claims 100% ownership over all your DNA and reproductive rights. This astonishing revelation has emerged from the fact that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office claims the power to assign ownership of your DNA to private companies and universities who apply for patents on your genes.

To date, more than 4,000 genes have been assigned ownership to corporations and universities by the U.S. patent office."

J T Wheeler said...

In 2012, I helped organize a purely evangelistic outreach that was themed to the election (actually held during the Dem Nat Convention). I was astounded at the fear that immediately showed itself in many of my brethren, to the point of determinedly ignoring the effort. Others helped, but still with trepidation. But what was even more heartbreaking was the actual anger in some that saw such an effort as an attack on the Democratic Party. A simple evangelistic effort was considered targeting Democrats and insulting Christians!! What does that say? I am convinced it speaks to the moral bankruptcy of the Democratic leadership and yet the strong allegiance the Party is still able to engender in Christians, in spite of that deficit. This demands more talk, not less, but conversation that is focused and factual. As far as ignoring elections, I would say, if you care about freedom for your children, you want to be more involved with the process, not less.

Arthur Sido said...

JT I would say that if we are concerned about freedom for our children we should be more engaged in teaching them about Jesus, not engaging them in partisan secular politics. When the choice is between two statist organizations, I am choosing "none of the above"