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:
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?