A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Liberals, Conservatives, and Progressives, Oh My! #1: The Problem with the Left/Right Continuum

"The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected. Even when the revolutionist might himself repent of his revolution, the traditionalist is already defending it as part of his tradition. Thus we have two great types -- the advanced person who rushes us into ruin, and the retrospective person who admires the ruins." (G.K. Chesterton)

I have spent a fair amount of time suggesting that the modern conservative/liberal continuum (with moderates being somewhere in the middle) is quite problematic for Christians to embrace, even though the vast majority do. I have certainly received some push-back on all of this which I welcome, of course. One friend of mine has suggested that the issue is not the labels per se, but the underlying problems that give rise to the labels. She is correct. The problem is that I know of no other way to attempt to bring this point home but to question the labels themselves, otherwise the discussion seems far too abstract.  I like to get to the heart of the matter and for me that heart is a complete rejection of the left/right continuum because that continuum continues to keep these problematic assumptions alive and well. At this point, I am half-tempted simply to refer to Stanley Hauerwas who says that the conservative/liberal continuum is sterile and uninteresting, but obviously more needs to be said because this way of looking at the world, even for Christians is so embedded into all of life, we can't seem to escape it, and for the church, this has been to our detriment.

One of the most valuable things I learned as Stanley's student many years ago was to question the questions, to question the assumptions, and to question the framework of the discussion. So while many simply assume the left/right continuum is the way important issues should be viewed, I was taught to question everything, including that which everyone unquestionably accepts. The first problem with the left/right continuum is that both are based on the questionable assumptions of modern Liberal Society. David F. Watson explains:
By "liberal," I’m not referring to a political position. I mean a society that presupposes autonomy, individuality, and agency on the part of its members. In this sense, both Democrats and Republicans are liberal, as are most forms of Protestantism. If our society places a high premium on autonomy, individuality, and agency, then people who are impaired with regard to their decision-making capacity occupy a very strange space, They are ostensibly people, though without full command of the capacities that define personhood and serve as ports of entry into the social world. They are outliers, and that is a dangerous way to live.
So, modern conservatives and liberals are all Liberals (with a capital L) who prize individual reasoning capacity above all things. The problem for Christians is that Liberal assumptions about autonomy, individuality, and agency fly in the face of the historic Christian tradition with its emphasis on community, accountability, and discipline. Thus, when the church takes the ecclesial issues it faces and distills them through the sieve of modern Liberalism, what is left in the bottom of the "bucket" of argument and debate looks quite unappetizing to those who truly desire to embrace the "faith once and for all entrusted to the saints" (Jude 1:3) Any Christianity that remains in "the bucket" is so light on Christian seasoning, it is palatable to anyone whatever they may believe.

So, how did the left/right continuum become so normative for Christians? That is the subject of the next post.


Eric Helms said...

I very much agree with you, but then again, we had the same teacher. I do find this a very helpful way to express the nature of the problem and why I, and perhaps others like me, find it difficult to get into the discussion.

I might add that beginning the argument, "I believe homosexuality is compatible/incompatible with Christian teaching because..." is itself problematic. It is not holy conversation unless the beginning of it is the open desire for holiness rather than convincing someone else to agree with me.

Allan R. Bevere said...


Thanks for your comments.

I certainly agree that openness to any issue is necessary for good Christian conferencing, but I think it is important that when the conversation begins we need to let each other know where we stand or in what direction we lean. Since none of us comes to an issue from a neutral point of view, we need to know where we differ. I think that is critical for any conversation.

Eric Helms said...

I agree with that in principle, except that it is my experience with regard to some of these hottest topics, many people are done listening once they hear where a person stands or leans. Perhaps what I mean is that we need to adjust our starting point to a place where authentic conversation can get started.

Craig L. Adams said...


Thanks for continuing to raise questions about the liberal vs. conservative dichotomy. I appreciate what you are saying.

Allan R. Bevere said...


You are right that many are done listening, once they know your position, but I frankly doubt that they will continue to listen once they know your opinion, and I am not sure they are people willing to sit down at the table and have a holy conferencing moment anyway.

Allan R. Bevere said...


Thanks for your comments. I doubt I am winning or will win many converts. For too many the liberal/conservative continuum is an ontological reality.

Willie Deuel said...

There are huge problems with the liberal/conservative spectrum. Among them, off the top of my head:

1. It promotes assumptions. If you identify as "liberal," then I can assume a, b, and c about you; same if you identify as "conservative." Without regard to whether you actually believe what I assume about you.

2. It divides us into "good guys" and "bad guys." The label creates walls that divide.

3. Both liberals and conservatives are quite happy to believe untruths about one another in order to reinforce their own stereotypes and ideologies.

4. It reduces religious faith to ideology. Self-giving love is pushed either to the back seat or out of the car entirely.