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Conservative and Liberal in Religion and Politics

Same Words; Different Meanings; Different Everything Else

I have been asked to address the use of words like liberal and conservative as they apply to religious beliefs. Are these words used in the same way in religion as they are used in politics? In particular, is criticism of theologically liberal beliefs and practices also a criticism of politically liberal beliefs and practices? On the other hand, is the endorsement of theological conservatism at the same time an endorsement of right-wing politics? These are important questions because most of us hear and use the words liberal and conservative primarily in reference to national politics.

Core Definitions

At their core, the terms liberal and conservative are best understood by considering the terms liberate and conserve. To liberate is to "release from control." An illustration of the definition of liberate is found near the end of World War II. When American soldiers liberated France or liberated concentration camps, they released people from control by Nazi Germany. Fighting with Patton's 3rd Army, my favorite uncle liberated a very nice Mauser rifle from its previous owner, but that is another story.

Maintaining and not releasing is the definition of conserve. To conserve is to "keep something from change; to preserve or safeguard." Our National Parks provide a great illustration. Instead of allowing wild places like Big Bend National Park to change into shopping malls, their natural environments are carefully preserved. This is actually called conservation and a great deal of effort is invested in safeguarding nature.

To release something or maintain something there must be a point of reference to conserve or to liberate from. In Politics, the status quo, or "the state or condition of affairs that already exists," is that point of reference. Political conservatives tend to want to keep things as they have been; political liberals tend to embrace change.

In contemporary U.S. politics, conservatives advocate "strict construction" of the Constitution as a point of reference while Liberals take a looser "living document" approach. Changing culture is another point of reference for political liberals and conservatives, the one seeks liberation from the past while the other seeks to preserve many things from the past.

Liberal and Conservative in Religious Studies

An entirely different point of reference defines the use of liberal and conservative in religious discussions. Instead of a society's status quo or a nation's constitution, the Bible and conventional approached to the Bible are the point of reference. No religious status quo or tradition has the right to be elevated so high.

With book, chapter and verse as the point of reference, the religious definitions of conservative and liberal come quickly into focus. Those who want to stick closely to the Bible are conservatives. Theological liberals are those for whom the Bible is no longer the last word and is just one more word among many other equal and competing words.

Preserving the standard of scripture, theological conservatives take a "Regulative" approach and occupy a fairly narrow band. Released from the biblical point of reference, religious liberals cover much wider band. Extreme religious liberals question the authenticity of the Bible as the word of God, doubt things like the virgin birth and the resurrection, and elevate psychological and sociological theories. Less extreme religious liberals take a "Normative" approach to scripture, allowing the changing norms of culture to modify orthodox Christian teachings and adapt them to the times.

Extra Credit: Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism

While struggling through all sorts of words and definitions, we should probably visit Fundamentalism. Unlike religious liberals and conservatives who are understood by their relationship to the Bible, Fundamentalists are defined by the issues they embrace. Fundamentalists typically cling to the King James Version as the only acceptable version of the Bible. Fundamentalists are also typically Dispensational Premillennialists (are we learning enough vocabulary?). The true heart of Fundamentalism is anti-modernist.

Protestant Fundamentalists in the U.S. also tend to be VERY LOUD social conservatives and to seek political solutions to spiritual problems. Some think that the Fundamentalist movement within American Protestantism coalesced as a reaction against the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that liberalized abortion laws.

Evangelicals, by the way, are the "in between" or moderate Protestants stretched between Fundamentalists on the right and extreme theological liberals on the left.

In the sharpest of all possible contrasts with Fundamentalists, in addition to other contrasts, the Churches of Christ in general and the Liberty Church of Christ in particular enforce a wall of separation between politics and religion. This is an excellent tradition. Strange bedfellows anyway, religion and politics do not mix well. Our podium should be neither Republican nor Democrat nor, for that matter, anything else.

I doubt that you know my political leanings; I hope that you know me to support religious conservatism. Please know this: my advocacy of religious conservatism is not advocacy for the RNC; my criticisms of liberal theology are not criticisms of the DNC. Hint about my politics: it does not end in any "NC."

Regarding religious conservatives and liberals, I make every effort to distinguish between people and their persuasions. I try not to call people by either descriptor, but sometimes I fail. Beliefs might be either liberal or conservative, but our members are just brethren. In fact, the liberal-conservative spectrum only considers ideal conditions. Individual brethren are, well, individuals. Many tend to pick and choose among this doctrine or that practice on the basis of what they like and dislike without regard to foundational reasons of theological liberalism or religious conservatism.

Among Churches of Christ

Among churches of Christ, extreme theological liberalism is rare. Very few of our brethren reject the inspiration of the Bible or its miraculous claims. Then again, less extreme religious liberalism is most surely present. As a leading light of our liberalism has said, "All teachings of scripture must pass the test of (his?) good sense."

The "Normative" approach to scripture argues that (1) what is not specifically forbidden by scripture is allowed, and (2) the changing norms of culture should be woven into our doctrine and practice. Instrumental music in worship (IM) is a case in point. Our liberal extreme argues that we should use IM because the Bible does not say anything against it and because folks today really like their pianos, organs, guitars and drums in worship. Discussed much, IM is the landmark case in point between liberalism and conservatism among us.

Taking a big step beyond our liberals are our Progressives (sorry, another vocabulary word). Rejecting conventional approaches to biblical interpretation, the Progressive Bible becomes little more than an engaging story of redemptive second chances through smiley-face Jesus with all references to doing right, self control and eternal judgment edited out. For my money, our progressives are not really separate from, but are an extension of liberalism nicely repackaged for the 21st century.

Just as Progressives have distanced themselves from liberals, they have also identified their own cutting-edge agenda. Beginning with IM, they want to expand the role of women, change our worship, and merge with Evangelical Protestantism. Progressivism is also characterized by too much ungracious condescension against brethren who object to their excesses.

The "Regulative" approach argues that inspired scripture makes us complete (see II Tim. 3:16-17) and is the first, last and always of religious decision making. We are authorized, in other words, only to do the things specifically warranted in Scripture. This strict-construction, conservative approach plays out as three characteristics among us:

1. The Bible is held in the highest esteem as the inspired, complete and sufficient revelation of God's will; conventional approaches to interpretation and application are employed.

2. Instead of being driven by man's changing tastes, worship is defined by book, chapter and verse to ensure that God is satisfied with what we offer.

3. Instead of being driven by culture, the church should reject the infringements of culture on doctrine and practice.

Just as there is a Fundamentalist fringe around Protestant conservatism, there is a traditionalist (this is the last vocabulary word) fringe around our brethren. We must be cautious about heedless and head-long abandonment of tradition because some traditions are very good. Like the "isms" that are the subject of this article, the quality of a tradition is determined by its point of reference. We are to "Stand fast, and hold the traditions which we have been taught (by) epistle" (II Thess. 2:15) and we are to "Withdraw ourselves from every brother that walks disorderly, and not after the tradition...received of" the apostles (II Thess. 3:6).

In contrast to the things handed down by God, Paul warned against the "spoiling" influences of "philosophy...vain deceit...the tradition of men (and) the rudiments of the world" (Col. 2:8). Traditions of men, things done or not done simply because they have always been done that way, are as contrary to godliness as the most radical religious liberalism. It was against the age-old traditions of the Jews that Jesus concluded, "Thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition" (Mt. 15:6).

A word of caution about the use of tradition - tradition explains why people believe and not what people believe. Dismissing someone's preference as merely traditional is a presumption into their mind and heart. We should not go there because we cannot go there. Curiously, folks can be just as traditionally liberal as they can be traditionally conservative.


With their definitions distinguished by different points of reference, political liberalism and conservatism and religious conservatism and liberalism only coincidently share the same syllables and letters. Political conservatives and liberals differ about Constitutional law and the changes of modernity. Religious liberals and conservatives differ about the use of the Bible.

With only accidental alikeness, finding unexpected combinations of liberalism and conservatism in politics and religion is not unexpected. Honestly, there are no expected combinations since there is really no connection between the uses of liberal and conservative in religions and politics (about the only connection is on social issues such as abortion and homosexuality, and even then the points of reference remain different). Politically liberal conservative brethren are just as common as politically conservative liberal brethren. There is nothing in either reason or philosophy that requires a conservative-conservative or liberal-liberal connection between religion and politics.