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On Christianity and Liberalism

I am a Christian and I am a liberal.

As I’ve mentioned earlier, I’ve been reading a lot of feminist books lately, and learning a lot more about feminism.  It’s been really wonderful to feel like I OWN my feminism for the first time in my life.  But one of the things that I learnt, while reading those books, is how much I’ve grown accustomed to misogyny in the world, and how accepting I am of it.  I laugh off jokes about women in a way I’d never laugh off jokes that were similarly racist.  I see women depicted as shrewish, stupid or desperate, and don’t respond to the fact such woeful stereotypes are common.  Accordingly, since I’ve been reading these books, I’ve been offended a lot more.  Not because I’m overly sensitive, but because there are a lot of genuinely offensive things said about women.  It’s like my eyes are open to it for the first time.

It’s weird, though, because it’s had another effect.  I’ve also become newly aware of how much I similarly ignored insults of my Christianity, and how often I’ve not said anything while my faith was offended.  Just as I’d laugh off comments about women, I’d similarly laugh off comments about Christians, never stopping to say “wait, that’s offensive”.  In many cases, I don’t think it was deliberate or malicious on their part, but just as I’d started to be offended by a culture of misogyny that I saw more broadly in my life, I found a culture of anti-Christianism which was particularly noticeable amongst my fellow liberals.

And really, Christians are still one of the great targets of liberal scorn.  Yes, it is the majority religion in the US, and yes, they have a considerable about of political power, but that doesn’t mean it’s somehow ok to religiously profile them in a way that is utterly unacceptable when done to other religious groups.  Yes, some of them do it too, and yes, sometimes “they start it”. But that doesn’t make it acceptable or justifiable or in any way ok.  Doing the same thing just exacerbates the problem.

It came to a head recently after a conversation with a friend recently in which I felt my faith was insulted.  It wasn’t deliberate or malicious… it just was.  He didn’t realise he was being offensive.  The truth is, for a long time, I didn’t even realize I was being offended.  Then, all at once, I did.  Just like the misogyny, anti-Christianism was suddenly everywhere in the liberal world.  Previously blind to it, I could now see it everywhere I went.  And more than that, I realised how much my faith informed what I believe about a whole range of things, and the degree to which I’d been self-censoring any acknowledgment of that because I felt uncomfortable as a Christian who is very much a liberal.

Liberalism is poorer for the way it often regards Christianity.  We cede this vast swath of society to conservatives, and don’t even bother to engage with it.  And if we do, we almost delight in offending it much of the time.  We aren’t culturally sensitive, we don’t think about how to speak their language.  We often assume they are bigots.  Even as a Christian, I find myself doing this on occasion.  We are happy for them to agree with us, but only on our terms.  Mostly, though, we’ve made the liberal world such an unpleasant and mocking place for the Christian that it’s easier to run back to conservatism, even if they don’t always agree with it, because at least they aren’t mean to them.

But here’s the thing:  we should be talking to them.  About many things.  Because there is common ground, and there are discussions to be had.  There’s certainly a Christian case for health care reform… is anyone making it?  What about a serious discussion about the role of government? We liberals need to rethink how we talk to and about Christians.  We’ve written them off as the great unwinnable.  Many of them probably are.  But it’s silly to just give up, and assume this from the start.  It’s almost a kind of ideological purification we so mock the conservatives for.

I’ve read feminist bloggers complaining about women saying “I’m pro-choice but I’d never have an abortion”, because if they’re pro-choice, they’re pro-choice.  And yes, that is true.  But that’s become a necessary statement because liberals frequently conflate public and private morality.  It’s as if agreeing with a political position is endorsing an action.  In our political culture, it’s become so automatic that the two are the same thing that people feel it necessary to make that statement.

What a false thing!  Being pro-choice doesn’t have to mean endorsing abortion, it can simply mean a belief that decisions about when life begins are so complicated and personal that they should not be made by the government.  Being pro-gay-rights doesn’t have to mean a personal belief that homosexuality is right, but that that decision is personal and not to be legislated.  We seem to have this belief in the liberal world that people have to not only agree with the outcome, but agree with how they got there.  We have a notion that the private lives of people must be fully reflective of their beliefs about public life.

But beliefs about society are not the same as beliefs about one’s own life.  I have several principles that guide me politically:  I believe governments are responsible to protect the physical security and wellbeing of their citizens to the greatest practical extent, and, after doing so, to ensure their maximum liberty.  Which is why I love socialized medicine, and I’m entirely pro-gay rights, and pro-choice.  I’m also a Christian. And my belief in who God is and what he’s done is real and true.  But I believe in democracy, not theocracy, and whatever my personal beliefs (aside from my Christianity, which you’ll notice is quite vaguely described, I have been very careful and specific to avoid mentioning ANY specific personal beliefs in this post, because it is not about that), I don’t think they should be informing the way my representatives govern.  I want a government that will protect individual liberties, because that is right, and because that will ensure I am always free to believe what I want.

And that is the conversation we should be having with Christians.  Not “what do you believe about abortion”, but more fundamentally: what is the purpose of government?  What are its limits?  What should it do?  Surely it’s not a stretch to believe there are many other Christians out there who believe government should protect and educate its people, and to preserve individual liberties.  And if there are, we should be talking to them, because there is a lot of room for them in liberalism.  But to do so, we probably also need to stop making fun of them, and assuming that because they live a certain way, they are inconvinceable. And we don’t need to convince them to change any of their personal beliefs… just to think about the way they think about government.

6 thoughts on “On Christianity and Liberalism

  1. I don’t know, I think religion needs to not have a place in politics. Because religion is about faith, faith in something intangible and in a being that can not be proven to be real. Perhaps some areas of Christianity may be positive in creating better policy, like you mentioned with health care, but if we give time to Christian values, what about Jewish or Muslim values?

    I was brought up Christian but I do not consider myself to be Christian. There are so many fundamental beliefs that I could never possibly share – not to mention one quite important facet of being Christian: I don’t believe that Jesus ever existed nor do I believe that the holy trinity continues too. I respect other peoples rights to believe that but I don’t respect their right to bring those beliefs into politics. Religion causes problems in areas such as gay rights, abortion rights, the right to euthanasia – just to name a few. It has the capacity to shadow judgment of otherwise intelligent men and women and allow them to make decisions based on a book that is not scientific and is only one version of ethical and moral truth. I know that there are many facets of Christianity but I really do firmly believe that we need to work towards a political system that is free from any religious affiliation or bias.

    I’m not saying that we should ignore Christians, we should absolutely hear them, converse with them, but as people, not as Christians. I don’t care what religion folk are, so long as a respectful relationship exists. The only time I pass judgment on Christians is when they are making decisions that will effect my life and the life of those around me – does our Christian leader want equal rights for the LGBT community? When the answer to that is based on a personal belief system, that’s when I’m going to judge you. (hypothetical question, not aimed at the leader of any country in particular)

    Otherwise, believe whatever makes your life manageable. I do. Just don’t bring it into parliament.

    I like the point you make about public and private morality. I think that’s super important, & perhaps if people were better at differentiating between the two, I might not feel the way I do about Christians in politics. I think if more people understand your point on gay rights: ‘Being pro-gay-rights doesn’t have to mean a personal belief that homosexuality is right, but that that decision is personal and not to be legislated.’ we’d be a society much better for it.

    I do agree that barriers need to be overcome in way of how some people view Christians, you are absolutely right, progress can’t be made while folk are ridiculed because of their religion. We see it with racism, can we move forward if we judge and ridicule people based on the difference between their skin colour and ours? Of course we can not.

    I liked this post Erin, I apologise if I sound a little harsh on the Christianity front, I hope you see what I’m saying, I don’t mean to attack or be preachy. You know, your writing voice in this post reminded me a lot of Chris Brogan’s (chrisbrogan.com), particularly with sentences like ‘There’s certainly a Christian case for health care reform… is anyone making it?’.

  2. Kate, I think you’ve misunderstood what I’m saying. I’m not saying that Christianity should be brought into politics. I’m saying that Liberals should be more careful about dismissing Christians and try to talk to them instead… There is much common ground and we should find it. The problem at present is that much of liberalism is actively hostile toward Christianity in a way it isn’t toward other faiths.

    I want a government that protects the wellbeing and rights of its citizens. I’m not saying Liberalism should ADOPT Christian values, but be more receptive to the idea that liberalism and Christianity are not mutually exclusive and have some common ground.

  3. You seem to be experiencing some sort of theistic hysteria. The medieval remedy was to flay the skin off your body with brands of fire. I have no idea what the current thinking is.

  4. If you haven’t read a little book called “God and Other Famous Liberals” by, um, Frank Church I think it was, from the early ’90s — I’d recommend it and can even loan you my copy.

    That said — I think it’s worth noting that there IS a difference between one’s religion and one’s race or gender. Not knowing what specific offense was given — in liberal western societies your religion is your choice. You choose to be a Christian in ways you do not choose to be a woman or white. Religions do have agreed upon points of theology which are, frankly, open to ridicule in a free society; that ridicule may be offensive and those offended should say so and defend their ground. But I honestly think that saying outrageous, critial, maybe even out-and-out wrong things about religion (in parts of the world where it is a choice) is completely differnt from saying outrageous things about gender or race. I’m just sayin’.

  5. Yep, I did kind of miss the point – shouldn’t read & comment on blogs at 2am when I’ve been awake for 20 hours :)

    I guess the problem is that it depends on how one defines Christianity (and too, Liberalism) because if you look at strict Roman Catholics, I would def. argue that a roman catholic could not consider themselves liberal (maybe that’s just me, but there are too many fundamentals that don’t mesh there). Perhaps this is the problem, there are so many facets of Christianity, do we have to discuss personal belief system to find the common ground? Can we not dismiss religion altogether, but in a positive way – disregard a person’s faith and just listen to them as a fellow human.

  6. Hello, I just stumbled across this article whilst reading a tennis blog (go figure). Anyway, I too am a Christian who is also liberal thinking in some ways but in others very conservative. What a lot of liberals do not get is that the Bible (which is the centerpiece of Christianity) answers all questions when it comes to life, politics, religion, foods, everything. The Bible specifically states that we must give unto Caesar what is Caesar and unto God what is God’s. In the Apostle Paul’s time he respected the rule of the Romans and did not go out of his way to offend. What he did was teach the early church to respect its leaders because at the end of the day that is what the Lord would require. On a more personal note, I used to like listening to Bill Maher, because apart from the vulgar use of language and curse words he made some really good points. However, I stopped listening and/or watching his show after his repeated offensive remarks against my belief. I also think a lot of people in his audience have grown quite tired of the constant bashing of the Bible as a fairy tale filled expose with stories rather than teachings which have endured for thousands of years. As you say perhaps if Christians and Liberals and Conservatives put their enmity aside and really sat down and had discussions they would realise how much they all have in common. As someone from the Caribbean who suffers from lack of good medical care in my country, I cannot understand why the American people are so afraid of having a health care system which provides health care to everyone, including those who cannot afford it. Their neighbour to the North, Canada has universal health care and as far as I know their politicans are not labelled socialists and/or communists. I left my home country and went to work in another Caribbean Island where the health care provisions were different from my own country as my host country’s health care system was based on the American system, and let me tell you, not even attorneys who are well learned were able to make head or tail of what benefits you could get and when you could get them. I think in the US, and indeed in most developed countries, people should be guaranteed at least 2 fundamental rights, the right to an education and the right to affordable health care, anything else is a travesty.

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