I found Vanessa Otero’s Complex vs, Clickbait, Liberal vs. Conservative Media Chart to be quite helpful.
Just the other day, I was listening to a pastor casually commenting on social issues, and underlying all his comments was the foundational belief that being Christian goes hand in hand with being conservative.
I have been uncomfortable with this attitude since I was in high school and have been arguing that on some issues, Christians ought to find themselves agreeing with the liberal positions. I was recently introduced to the work of Dr. Barry Johnson. I think he has provided me a way of communicating the dangers of believing that to be Christian is to be conservative or, if you want, Republican.
Johnson says that there are two basic kinds of arguments we find ourselves in.
There’s the kind where either you are right or you are wrong. Let’s call these either/or disagreements. In these instances, the purpose of the argument is to establish who is right and who is wrong. Theoretically, these arguments are resolved once the truth is established.
Sometimes we get into arguments where there isn’t a right or wrong answer–both/and disagreements.
- Is social media good or is social media bad?
- Shall we save or shall we spend?
- Is it better to development or to preservation?
- Action or Reflection
- “You are either with me, or against me!”
- Ford or Chevy
- Liberal or Conservative
It is vitally important that people understand which sort of discussion they are in. When you think you are in an either/or argument, but it’s really a both/and disagreement, you are essentially arguing that inhaling is better than exhaling.
If there is no right answer and people are really passionate about their position, how can we possibly navigate through this minefield?
Barry Johnson has come up with a useful tool he calls it Polarity Management.
Let me use the question, Liberal or Conservative? to illustrate how it works.
I know many people will disagree with me here, but this question has no clear right or wrong answer. It is a both/and discussion that many have made into an either/or argument. I’ve placed the Christian view of this question, as I see it, into Johnson’s Polarity Management model.
The questions we want to address with the model is, “Liberal or Conservative? How can Christians best be the salt of the world?” So in Johnson’s model we put the two neutral terms on the wings. Christ told us to be salt in the world; he told us that we are to season, preserve and heal the world. He also said that if we aren’t salt, we would be cast before swine. Serious stuff. On the model I have placed where we are headed, the “Higher Purpose” above and at the bottom, the “Deeper Fear,” or what lies in the opposite direction of the higher purpose. All Christians, both liberal and conservative, have the same higher purpose and the same deeper fear.
The boxes just above the neutral terms describe the positive side of both options respectively. On the liberal side we have collective responsibility and individual rights. These are good things. When Jesus calls us to be salt, he means that we must do what the law and the prophets have always told us to do: take care of the vulnerable. In Biblical times, this was the stranger, the widow and the orphan. If you translate this into contemporary terms it means we take care of the immigrant, the refugee, and the poor, for they are the vulnerable in our society. This collective responsibility is a Biblical injunction, and if we don’t do it we are in danger of being cast before swine. The reason we take care of the vulnerable is because of the Biblical view of humanity–everyone bears the Image of God. The poor and the refugee are dear to God. The liberal principle for the protection of individual rights comes right out of image bearing as well, so all Christians ought to be very interested in the protection of individual rights. These liberal principles are, then, biblical; they advocates loving one’s neighbour. The liberal position also takes into account the Fallenness of humanity; they predict we will naturally be selfish and so advocate the use of government to ensure that our neighbours are loved.
Conservative ideals are also aimed toward saltiness. Biblically, human freedom and individual responsibility are probably as foundational as bearing God’s image. These conservative principles are also based on true understanding of the human condition, we are good, but fallen.
The lower boxes illustrate the “downside” of over-focusing on one pole to the neglect of the other. If we neglect the good that we find in the conservative position we may end up in a bad place–as conservatives are very willing to point out. But if we neglect the liberal ideals we, as Christians, will also lose our saltiness and end up in the eternal pig pen.
What we have, both in the culture at large and in the church, are people on both side of the political spectrum treating the argument as an either/or. They fail to realize that their political opponents have an equally valid, alternate view of reality. They accept the principle that if I am right, the one who disagrees with me is necessarily wrong.
Consequently, there is disunity in the church. The first step to unity would involve understanding the legitimacy of the opponents position, but this is impossible when one is locked in the polarity paradigm. So they resist.
Both sides have an equally valid, alternate view of reality.
In a true either/or argument, clarity is an asset–once things are clear, we will be in agreement. In a both/and argument, simply communicating your position clearly will not result in your opponent changing their mind because it will be clearer to them that you are missing what’s right in front of you–their reality–and they are not wrong.
For Christians to be salt and light in the political sphere, they will have to abandon rigid adherence to just one side of the political spectrum. They will have to see that there are two legitimate–biblical–realities at play here. The conservative Christians need to adhere to the positives of conservatism, but they also need to respond with grace and generousity toward the liberal reality, even the negatives, for by doing so, they may also gain the benefits of that position. In possession of the strengths of both sides, the Christian impact on the world is potentially far saltier than we currently are.
I am not a Conservatyve because of three books.
Before I get to the books, let me just say that there are a lot of intelligent liberals and conservatives who hold their views because of careful thought and research. I’m not talking about those. I’m talking about cheap imitations. My wife refers to inferior derivations of good things as being “spelled with a ‘y’.” So cheap over-processed cheese, she’d call “cheese spelled with a ‘y’,” as in “cheyse.”
I don’t really like to use the terms “liberal” and “conservative” because they have become caricatures–Lyberil and Conservatyve. When I wrote a post about Why I am not a Liberal, people quite correctly took me to task for mischaracterizing what a liberal is, at least there version of it. The reason that people push back against these labels is exactly the reason I am writing this post–there really is no such thing as a Lyberal or a Conservatyve. The Lyberal exists only in the mind of the conservative, and vice-versa, but scratch beneath the surface and you will find all sorts of gradations. Having said this, I do have my doubts–when I hear what some people write in the comments section of blogs and Facebook posts, I wonder if the caricatures might actually be becoming descriptive.
I don’t know where the truth lies between the extremes on the continuum, but I am confident that for most issues it lies somewhere in between and my instinct tells me it’s usually toward the centre. How do we discover where truth lies? Dialogue is one of the best ways. Sadly in a world of Lyberals and Conservatyves, there can be no dialogue, only diatribe. So this post is an attempt to drag one or two issues toward the centre.
I am not a Conservatyve because of three books.
The first book is the Bible. I believe that the Bible is the world of God. When I read the Bible, Old and New Testaments, I see a pretty clear and consistent message that He wants all people, but especially his chosen ones, to think more about how they can bless other people rather than to grab for money and power so as to gratify their own needs. There are regular injunctions to take care of the poor and, for those in power, to make sure there is justice for the poor. It is also apparent from the Holy Scriptures that God is an environmentalist and that He wishes, in some respects, Americans were more like the French. The Conservatyve seems to be against these things.
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck changed my life. It’s about people who are poor. They are poor to begin with, but things get a lot worse when the big banks and big business turn them off the land, leaving them with no means to feed themselves or their families. Beginning with the used-car salesmen who sell them junk vehicles, their journey from Oklahoma to California is filled with people abusing them, ignoring their desperation or taking advantage of their plight. It’s been a long time since I read it so I might have the details wrong, but in one rare act of kindness the family on whose journey the narrative is focused received a bit of beef fat. The mother mixed the rendered fat with flour and made some dumplings. In the context of their desperate condition, this meagre meal was a feast. Ever since, I have never looked at discarded fat, bone and gristle the same way. Importantly, these people were not in this condition because they were lazy, they were in this condition because of vast forces like government policies, climate, geography, economics, and (not insignificantly) human greed and corruption.
I have just finished reading A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. If I hadn’t read The Grapes of Wrath, this novel would have saved me from Conservatysm. The setting of A Fine Balance is India, and it too explores the life of the poor which is not really all that different than that of the Joad family in Steinbeck’s novel. It’s frustrating at times to experience vicariously what it is like to live between hope and despair–with despair usually in the ascendant. Here again, the Conservatyve myth that the poor are poor because they are lazy is shown as the lie that it is.
People are usually poor, for the same reason people are rich–not because they did or didn’t work hard, not because they made good decisions or not, not because they had initiative or not. People are rich or poor because of government policies, climate, geography, economics, and human greed. The only difference between the rich and the poor is into which circumstance one was born.
I found myself responding to these novels in two ways–compassion and gratitude. Conservatyves aren’t very compassionate and that’s because they aren’t very grateful.
These two novels are great works of literature. One of the functions of literature is to broaden and deepen our understanding–I am a Canadian in 2016–I don’t know what it’s like to be poor; I didn’t live in the 1930s, or in India. I get enough of a glimpse of what it might be like through these novels–and they changed me. They move me toward an understanding of others and their lives and, consequently, bring me closer to dialogue.
I don’t think Conservatyves read–or they don’t read the right things.
Please read these books.
The main reason I am not a liberal is because liberalism leans toward naturalism. This is not to say that one who identifies with liberalism always rejects a supernatural explanation for anything, but the idea of freedom is so fundamental in liberalism that it often means freedom from most external authority, and this almost always includes the authority of tradition and religion, and often the authority of a transcendent (supernatural) God.
If there is a rejection of all things transcendent, the naturalist liberal will have some difficulty finding an ultimate purpose to life.
This is not to say that they find no purpose to life. Life can have lots of purpose and meaning within naturalism: Enjoying family and friends (and our animal companions), sports and recreation, the arts and culture, seeking beauty and working hard to make the world a better place.
Purpose, is not the same as ultimate purpose. Many naturalists will accept that their philosophy does not offer an ultimate purpose or meaning to life.
Having no ultimate purpose does not mean living in profound despair. Some live with a defiant courage in the face of oblivion. Others embrace humanity’s natural desire for meaning as a bit of a cosmic joke and just delight in the irony of it all. Many focus on the process and not how it’s all going to end; the process can be a lot of fun. Making cookies with a friend can be very meaningful without the final reward of eating the finished product. For the honest naturalist, these and other approaches are preferable to believing in a supernatural source of meaning.
The least acceptable philosophically, but probably the most common way of avoiding existential despair is to borrow meaning from our Christian heritage. Like the neighbour who borrows our leaf blower then stores it in his garage so long he thinks its his.
These “liberal” ideals borrowed from Christianity can include:
Attending to the needs of the sick and the poor,
Taking care of the environment,
Being hospitable to people who are different than we are,
Fighting for justice for the oppressed,
And freedom for the enslaved,
Recognizing dignity and of all human beings.
There really is no philosophical foundation for these ideals in naturalism. This critique of liberalism is not just mine, actually, it’s Nietzsche’s–so if you really disagree with what I am saying, you might want to take it up with him.
One might ask, “If these are Christian ideals, why does it seem like so many Christians oppose them?”
I suggest there are a couple of things going on here.
For one thing, it “seems” as if Christians oppose Christian ideals, but in actuality lots of Christians and Christian organizations work very hard in all these areas. These things don’t receive as much attention as the those, who work contrary to these Biblical ideals, especially if they are religious.
But unfortunately it is not just a misconception. Some Christians are obviously working against what I have called Christian ideals. But, just as there are many naturalists do not live lives consistent with a naturalist worldview, there are many Christians who do not live lives consistent with Christian ideals.
In the first instance I would call it common sense, in the second, sin.