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I've previously stated:

Liberal is not a very helpful term, as it tends to have no clear meaning, often only referring to someone who I deem to be less conservative than [some subjective standard]. See the problem? It's the same problem with the word 'fundamentalist' (i.e. someone who takes something more seriously than [some subjective standard]). Even 'conservative' isn't all that helpful, as there is again a subjective standard of measurement. It is best to clearly define what you mean, i.e. "Those who identify as Christians yet do not believe in [specific things]."

Let's look at an extremely unhelpful chart that I've made as an illustration of this principle:

Unhelpful chart

If you belong to any of the above-listed faith tribes, you may disagree with where I've placed you on this spectrum. That alone is a sign of the problem, because it is an unhelpful classification. But even if you agree with it—it is still unhelpful and non-constructive. Many folks will consider everyone on their left to be 'liberal' and everyone on their 'right' to be more 'conservative' (and may even self-identify as one or the other).

But who fits into which camp changes depending on where you're standing. A Southern Baptist may consider almost all of these groups to be 'liberal,' while a Methodist might consider only Unitarians to be 'liberal'.

Where you fall in the spectrum depends on the criteria. Roman Catholics are well-represented at pro-life rallies around the globe, while many Reformed Christians are not. Does this mean Roman Catholics are more conservative than Calvinists? Of course not. Some value social justice issues greater than well-defined dogmatic statements, while others value having theology penned on paper in clear statements more than anything else. The issue(s) being used to compare groups on the spectrum matter greatly. If the criteria were views concerning the (in)errancy of the Bible, the unhelpful chart above might be an accurate indicator, but who's to say everyone on the chart agrees that this is the most important criteria?

Christians vary widely on social and theological issues, and there are folks all over the imaginary spectrum within most faith groups. People don't generally fit into neat categories. Much less large groups of people. Some groups don't dictate what their adherents' views should be on social or theological issues, and even in those groups that do, the actual percentage of people 'toeing the line' is very small.

Outside of the USA, these terms and the underlying spectrum are often inapplicable. 'Liberal' theology refers to a specific school of thought in many other places in the world, and is not synonymous with how it is generally used in the USA. This limits the usefulness of this language and increases the likelihood of being misunderstood. This site is not specifically for American Christians.

The terms are often used pejoratively. A person who proudly self-identifies as a Christian 'liberal' may demonize 'those conservatives' for being more concerned with writing books and building mega-churches than feeding the homeless and visiting the sick. Conversely, a person who proudly self-identifies as a Christian 'conservative' may lambast 'those liberals' for wasting their time building wells in Africa without sharing 'living water' with the villagers.

Allow me to quote from the Help Page for this site, in response to the question, "Who are considered Christians here?"

As far as the scope of this site is concerned, any group that identifies themselves as Christian are to be considered on-topic and allowed to label themselves Christian.

Given this definition, can we move forward without using this unhelpful spectrum? Instead, can we use descriptive language? For instance:

  • NO: Group A is liberal.
  • YES: Group A does not believe in the inerrancy of scripture.

  • NO: The ESV is a fairly conservative translation.
  • YES: The ESV follows the LXX as well as New Testament prophecy and early Christian tradition when translating Isaiah 7:14, where the LXX has παρθένος (parthénos, 'virgin'), while the Hebrew עלמה (almah) only conveys the idea of a 'young woman.'

  • NO: Group B tends to be theologically conservative, but can be quite liberal concerning social issues.
  • YES: Group B adheres to Nicene Christianity and salvation by faith alone, but they are pro-choice and also recently marched in support of same-sex marriage at the Gay Pride Parade in Chicago, IL.

Avoiding undefined language concerning the liberal vs. conservative spectrum will encourage better communication and foster a greater understanding of questions and answers on C.SE. Can we move forward without using this unhelpful spectrum?

  • You say you are an Orthodox Christian. Where would that fit in? – Double U May 21 '14 at 23:44
  • @Anonymous we span the entire spectrum. – Dan May 22 '14 at 3:55
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I respectfully disagree on the blanket statement that "liberal" and "conservative" have no meaning.

  • Fredrich Schleiermacher proudly wore the label of Liberal. His understanding was that Scripture was best read using modern techniques of "Higher Criticism" and the like. Many more "mainline" Protestant denominations, including Episcopalians, certain Presbyterians and Methodists, and generally more "progressive" Baptists use this hermeneutic in interpreting Scripture. For them, reconciling Scripture with current attitudes takes precedence over historical tradition.

  • Carl Henry by contrast, following in the traditions of the Fundamentals interpret the Bible in stark contradiction and reaction to "liberal" theology. Inerrancy, Perspecuity, and reading that emphasizes the supremacy of the first church.

These viewpoints are easily lumped together, and from an academic point of view, the label has utility. From this simple starting point, a wide number of theological positions can be derived. If asked about the other, there would have vigorous debates from the parties about what constituted good doctrine.

Additionally, it is the vocabulary of experts. "Liberal" Churches tend to emphasize social Gospel and "progressive" attitudes. "Conservative" Churches emphasize different doctrines and come to different conclusions. A Jim Wallis approach to Scripture will differ greatly from a John Piper, and differentiating the two becomes a useful division point.

Generally, a Southern Baptist is going to care more about orthodoxy and a Unitarian about orthopraxy than the other way around. That is neither good nor bad - it is merely descriptive of what is important to each party. Having been both Episcopalian and Southern Baptist, trust me when I say the spectrum is instructive.

When it comes to preferred translations, the TNIV is a useful example here. Southern Baptists, tending to being more conservative, generally reject the gender inclusive translations, whereas other more "liberal" scholars, being less concerned about historical consistency, make the case that Greek pronouns aren't gender specific. It has nothing to do with the original texts, and everything to do with the modern usage of generic pronouns.

I'm not arguing that Liberals are bad and Conservatives are good, nor am I arguing the other way around. These terms simply denote a spectrum of beliefs that neatly arrange the theological outcomes of large groups. I don't see either label as perjorative - but I do view them as useful way of giving a starting point to my understanding of a given group.

  • I would think the age of a church would determine where it fits on the conservative/liberal spectrum. I automatically make the association that old churches are conservative, and young churches are liberal and deviate from tradition. – Double U May 22 '14 at 3:39
  • If defined as such, I have no problem with it. The problem is that in many cases there are a multitude of definitions being used. Hence undefined in italics in my final paragraph. But since liberal vs. conservative often is used subjectively and not in the academic sense, I'd like someone to make that clear when using it. Also, that only works in a Protestant spectrum. Christianity is much bigger than Protestantism. Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy have the full spectrum represented within their churches, and Mormons and JWs have unique spectrums as well. – Dan May 22 '14 at 3:54
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    While a lot of your examples work, there will be times when the terms are unhelpful generalisations. So I agree with @Daи that they'd be better avoided. Being explicit about what groups affirm and reject is better anyway - don't show your disagreements and disapproval of a group just with a label, go for their dangerous (in your opinion) doctrines directly! – curiousdannii May 22 '14 at 5:27
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    @Anonymous: Every conservative church was once new. So the age test clearly fails. – Flimzy May 22 '14 at 12:38
  • PS @AffableGeek, this post has my upvote, because if it's defined as such, the meaning is clear and all is fine and dandy. – Dan May 22 '14 at 13:51
  • @Flimzy I meant to refer to the age in the present from the date of creation of the particular church branch. – Double U May 25 '14 at 12:43
  • I should say what I've always said about stereotypes. They are a reasonable place to start, but a horrible place to end. My brain needs a broad generalizing starting place, if only to understand how a concrete specific is unique. – Affable Geek Jul 18 '14 at 2:33
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This strikes me as a well-written, well-thought-out response to … what? Why does this matter? Why does it matter now?

When I use the term 'liberal' or 'conservative' (in relation to religion, politics, or anything else), I do it so that the meaning is apparent in context. Was this spectrum abused somewhere that needs to be addressed? Is avoiding these terms really the best solution?

The terms exist because they do have meaning—albeit relative meaning. As long as the relation is evident in context, I have no problem using these terms.

'Big' and 'small' are also relative terms; I could draw a similar extremely unhelpful chart ranking churches (or cities, people, or any other thing), on a scale of 'small' to 'big' and its relevance would vary drastically depending on which criteria I use to measure size: Regular weekly attendance? Size of church building/property? Budget? Number of missionaries in the field? Geographical area of the parish? Etc.

That doesn't mean that talking about a 'big church' is inherently meaningless, though—it just means context is necessary to make the term meaningful. Likewise, while it may be true that in a vacuum the liberal and conservative titles may be meaningless, in many contexts they are meaningful.

I don't say this to suggest your post is bad or wrong—it just seems to be screaming to solve a problem that I haven't actually seen happen. Can you point to the problem?

  • It was meant to generate discussion/thought. I'm open to being wrong. The impetus was reading through posts I'd missed and seeing references to 'liberals' and whatnot. It should be kept in mind that this spectrum is largely confined to Protestantism (and this site is not) and often the terms are not used in the academic sense, but rather in the same way they are used in US politics (everyone to my left is liberal, everyone to my right is conservative). – Dan May 22 '14 at 13:55
  • @Daи: Indeed, they are often used that way... but not always. – Flimzy May 22 '14 at 14:52
  • hence the word 'undefined' in my last paragraph. When defined, it's useful terminology. – Dan May 22 '14 at 14:54
  • +1 Conservative and liberal don't really mean any universally, but within context they do, e.g. he is a conservative Republican. – Paul Draper May 26 '14 at 2:46
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Disclaimer: I am posting this to illustrate my own subjective point if view. If you don't agree with the way I define the terms "liberal" and "conservative" then good...my point has been made.

I'm glad I found this post. It draws attention to the fact that my "expertise" in defining these two terms is not as solid as I thought it was.

Just for reference: I was born into a "conservative" Episcopalian/Baptist family. I then followed my father into the Catholic church around the age of 10 (note: we left the church because it was becoming too "liberal"). I've been, for the most part, a pretty serious Catholic for roughly 20 twenty years.

What I mean by serious Catholic is that I've read through the Catechism a few times in its entirety...and I've spent the last decade defending the church's doctrine down here in the bible belt.

Recently, since last fall I've been attending Divine Liturgy at a local Greek Orthodox church, and I am also a catechumen.

Here is how I view Protestant world...

I usually associate Protestant doctrinal liberalism with progressivism. In other words A liberal protestant movement is open to branching out from its on conservative trunk. Methodists are more liberal than Anglicans...(Original) Church of God is more liberal than the MIssionary Baptist Church...and so on.

As far as social issues are concerned...I tend to look to the political arena for guidance (e.g. Pro life/pro choice, gay rights etc.).

My view of the Catholic world...

Doctrine for the most part is a non-factor. Private interpretation doesn't exist..

Social issues are kind of tricky because you have the church's social teaching set as the standard...but these standards seem to be disregarded when entering the voting booth.

In my mind...

Conservative:

  • Paul Ryan
  • Rick Santorum
  • Newt Gingrich

Liberal:

  • Joe Biden
  • Nancy Pelosi
  • Kathleen Sabelius

There is also the whole Vatican II scandal thingy...

My grandmother (was born Catholic and married an Episcopalian - recently went back to her roots) loathes the fact that priest faces the congregation while consecrating the host, as well as a host of other things like holding hands during the Lord's prayer and singing Cume by ya songs (I find myself moving into that group...).

On the other side of the aisle you have my younger sister who avoids anything older than 1986.

Orthodox world...

I'm still learning. All I know is that there seems to be a fuzzy divide between all of the bishops and priest as to how open we should be to ecumenical dialogue.

On this sliding doctrinal scale of mine, it seems as though Catholics and Orthodox pretty much set the bar for doctrinal conservatism. In other words...if a Non denominational mega church congregation were present at the council of Constantinople they probably wouldn't believe "they were in Kansas anymore."

My point is that, after reading this post I've decided to avoid using these 2 ambiguous terms...

It seems as though we are dealing with multiple planes:

If:

  • a=doctrinal conservatism
  • b=social conservatism
  • x=doctrinal liberalism
  • y=social liberalism
  • f=liturgical conservatism
  • g=liturgical liberalism

Then what does the term "conservative Christian" mean exactly?

  • A. C=axf
  • B. C=axg
  • C. C=ayg
  • D. All of the above

This is only compounded by the exponential growth if denominational.

I'm not posting this to say that these terms cannot be used effectively (as Affable Geek has done, as well as others).

I'm just gonna leave the usage of these terms up to the experts.

This will probably be more appropriate for newcomers to this site/Christianity.

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