Why We Need Liberals Back at Church

–Daniel S. Ferguson

One of my favorite church memories happened just a few years ago. I was hanging out with a friend of mine at the most sacred of meals: Wednesday night church dinner. His younger brother, then a freshman in high school, leaned over to my friend, looked around to make sure no one could hear, and whispered, “Did…did you know…that Daniel…is a Democrat?”

The way he said it, he might as well have been divulging that I was a terrorist. In the church he grew up in, in the family he grew up, and, seemingly, in the faith he grew up in, liberal Democrats were simply a thing that didn’t exist in the church. It was so strange and taboo that it was something to be whispered about.

When I moved from Tennessee to Maryland in 2009, I expected that I would finally meet some more liberal Christians. Maybe not full-tilt crazies like me, but at least generally more liberal. I mean, it’s Maryland, one of the bluest states out there. The Christians there had to be more liberal if the population itself was more liberal, right?

Wrong. Christians in Maryland, if anything, were more conservative, not less. How is that possible? Because church was one of the few places the state’s few Republicans hung out together.

Nashville was different. Everyone (literally everyone, it seemed) went to church, regardless of political affiliation, and the only real division was by race. (11am on Sunday is the most segregated hour in America to this day.) So, weirdly enough, churches in Tennessee were somewhat diverse politically.

But in Maryland, politics, not race, was the Sunday segregation of choice. Racially, churches were kaleidoscopes, and they touted themselves for being such. But ideologically, they had all the diversity of a Mayflower convention.

All that over the years got me to thinking: why isn’t there a Christian Left?

I mean, really. Christianity has tons of room for political liberalism. Christ’s commands about sharing are downright socialistic. His ministry was scandalously feminist and pro-taxation (or at least pro-tax-collector). He questioned tradition by openly defying it. He acknowledged the authority of the state as at least co-equal with religion. He took food from those who had it (even a child) to give to those who didn’t. And, above all, Jesus valued the individuality of human beings as intrinsically worth every sacrifice, even his own life.

That’s pretty darn liberal. So what gives? Why is Christian thought for the last half century dominated by political conservatism? Why, when someone discovers that I’m a Christian, the first assumption is that I’m also a Republican? Why are they shocked to learn the opposite?

That’s a great question with one fascinating answer: it’s because Christians were duped. Absolutely duped. Into one of the great cons in Christian history.

It’s not the first con of its kind. Christianity is a powerful force that, left unhindered, will inevitably fight for good and justice and mercy the world over. Its power is undeniable. And that’s exactly what makes it so tempting to certain leaders who would seek to wield it.

The best way to wield the church’s power is to get them to commit on one issue so that they don’t feel Christian without it. (Click to Tweet)

I call this the “Jesus + X = Salvation” paradigm.

Throughout American Christian history, the X’s have varied–from Manifest destiny (a conversion of the heathen) to imperialism (couched in terms of Christian missionalism), to immigration (“unequally yoked” was a common phrase there), to slavery (that one caused a civil war), to civil rights (we’ve not been so hot there), to women’s rights (not so hot here either), and then finally to abortion and LGBT issues–but the result has been largely the same:

If you can get Christians to attach their faith to a political issue, you can swing political wins for decades on end. (Click to Tweet)

It doesn’t matter one bit what the issue is or how moral it is. If it can sway even just 60 percent of Christians, that’s enough to turn an election. And that is a sweet, savory temptation for any political leader.

It’s not just conservatives who are at fault for doing this historically, but it is definitely conservatism that currently has the stranglehold on American Christianity, largely due to two issues: abortion and LGBT rights.

And make no mistake, that is bad for Christianity.

I’m not saying that abortion isn’t wrong. (I’ve written on that before.) Nor am I saying that the more current issue of LGBT rights isn’t important. (I’ve written on that, too.)

What I am saying is that by allowing a political wing to dominate American Christian practice such that it is widely assumed that one cannot be Christian without being conservative, Christians have given away their real identity. By biting down on the abortion issue and the LGBT issue and by aligning our power with those who (at least seemingly) agree with us on those two issues, we’ve tied ourselves to those people’s other exploits: intentional environmental ignorance, anti-immigration policies, anti-Islamic rhetoric and action, racial strife, and the denial of governmental aid to the poor.

That sounds hyperbolic and exaggerated. It is. But such is how the world often perceives us, all because it equates Christianity with Conservatism, and not just any Conservatism, but the worst possible results of it. Because we clung to moral issues as essential to faith, we gave our power to men who have wielded them for political issues essential to their own victories. That has had the devastating impact of changing the world’s view of Christianity for the starkly negative.

No longer does the world around the church view us as Christ-followers. They view us as party hacks. (Click to Tweet)

And that’s a serious problem. It’d be a problem if the church were overrun by liberalism, too. Our formula can never be “Jesus + X = Salvation.” It can only be “Jesus = Salvation.” (Click to Tweet) There is no room for addition to or subtraction from that essential Gospel.

I went to Liberty University for graduation last year where Jerry Falwell, Jr., the son of one of the founders of the “Moral Majority,” spoke. He was touting a new program for the school, it’s online high school, which was having its first graduates. He spoke about this program with great pride, but not for the reason I expected.

I thought he would talk about the innovation of an online high school. After all, that’s relatively nascent technology and practice. But instead, Falwell said this: “I’m so glad these students are protected from the evils of modern education, like transgender bathrooms.”

There I was, at a Christian university with over 15,000 graduates that had been trained to change the world for Christ, and this was the issue of the day. Not spoken with irony, but with pride.

Others came on stage: Mel Gibson, who directed The Passion of the Christ. Okay, he maybe gets a pass for that, despite his anti-Semitic rantings. He’s overtly conservative, but I at least understand why he’s on stage.

Image result for mel gibson liberty university

But up next? Vince Vaughn. Why was he on stage? He’s certainly not produced a body of work that has elevated the church at all. His movies are all distinctly secular. Why is he speaking at Liberty during graduation as we commence these Christians to the mission field?

Image result for vince vaughn liberty university

Oh yeah…because he’s a conservative, particularly on gun rights issues.

Falwell and Liberty University have so confused Christianity with Conservatism that they think not only think that a Christian should be a Conservative, but they think that a Conservative is a Christian, or at the very least has the same moral authority. I mean, it’s Vince Vaughn, the guy who brought us Wedding Crashers and Old School. His body of work is not exactly a beacon of virtue, but he was still invited onto a distinctly Christian stage to speak with authority to those commissioned and educated to serve the world for Christ.

And that’s the problem. It would be a problem if it were liberals, too. We can’t let that happen to us. We need to be more than party hacks. We need to be Christ-followers first and everything else a distant 12th. People don’t get automatic authority within the church because they agree with us outside the church.

And, truth be told, we need liberals back inside the church. Not just for their sake, but for ours. We need their empathy. We need their environmentalism. We need their natural instinct to care for people, even if they don’t pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

Liberals aren’t delicate snowflakes, no matter how many times the internet calls them that. They’re dedicated people who believe that human-made problems can have human-made solutions. They believe that every human being is of infinite intrinsic worth. And they believe in doing all the good they can.

Liberals can learn a lot from conservatives about self-determination and discipline, and conservatives can learn a lot from liberals about empathy and humanism. The church needs BOTH.

So to all the liberals who left the church because you didn’t think you couldn’t be liberal there, I feel your pain. I’m one of you. But come back. I promise it’s not as bad as you fear. There is room for you here, even when it doesn’t look like it. We need you. We need your liberalism, no matter what Liberty University says or does. We need what you have to bring to the church, your side of the body of Christ, back because we can’t be just a power source for party hacks.

We need to be the church, and the power of grace is big enough even for people on opposite sides of the aisle to sit in the same pew. (Click to Tweet)


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