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Liberal conservatives

Many evangelicals are liberal when it comes to the church

Issue: "Africa: The new frontier," July 16, 2005

Liberals today prefer to be called "progressives." They want to escape the negative connotations that have risen around the name for their ideology. The irony is that "liberal" was itself a label to make them sound better.

The term comes from a Latin word meaning "freedom." Technically, a "liberal economic system" refers to free market, capitalist economics, as championed by today's "conservatives." The classical approach to teaching and learning favored by many conservatives today is technically "liberal education," referring to the equipping of a free citizen. Such an education specifically designed for freedom is in contrast to John Dewey's self-styled "progressive education," designed to form the socialist worker.

The term "progressive" does capture an important part of the liberals' worldview. They believe in progress, that what is new is better than what is old, and that we need to keep changing to get better. Liberals/progressives look to the future and look down on the past. "Tradition" is seen as a bad thing, as are "traditional values" and "old-fashioned ideas."

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Conservatives, on the other hand, want to "conserve" elements of the past. Cultural traditions-as in "our Western civilization" and "our American heritage"-are seen as good things. So are "traditional values" and the sense that basic institutions, such as the family, need protecting rather than changing. Conservatives too might work for changing society and challenging its evils, but the goal tends to be restoring a moral order, rather than the progressives' agenda of creating a society that is completely new.

Though "liberalism" has fallen into disrepute, "conservativism" has not been as effective politically or in influencing the culture as one might expect, given conservatives' political victories. Part of the reason is that conservatism has its own strains of "progressive" thought. Some people are conservative politically and economically, but liberal culturally, favoring abortion, sexual permissiveness, and other moral and cultural changes. Other hybrids include big-government conservatives, anti-American conservatives, and cultural conservatives who believe in progressive economics.

Todd Wilken, the Lutheran talk-show host, has identified another kind of liberal conservative. In an article titled "Bible-believing Liberals" in Issues, Etc. Journal, he observes that many Christians are conservative politically, economically, culturally, and in every other way except one: They are liberal/progressives when it comes to church.

"While they believe that the culture needs to return to its historic traditions, they think the church needs to abandon hers," Mr. Wilken writes. "While they believe men and women have defined roles in marriage and family, they don't see why a woman can't replace a man in the pulpit. . . . They want the Ten Commandments in the public square, but are unconcerned when those commandments are replaced with 'principles for living' from the pulpit. To the Bible-believing liberal, ceremonies of a presidential inauguration are meaningful and inspiring, but the Sunday morning liturgy is boring. For the Bible-believing liberal, the differences between political parties are serious, but the differences between Christian denominations are petty. While they insist on a strict literal interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, they play fast and loose with the Bible and its theology, even while maintaining its inerrancy and inspiration. These are the Bible-believing liberals."

In other words, many Christians reject the dogmas of progressivism-the old is bad, what's new is good, we should change along with the cultural trends-in the culture wars, while embracing them in church.

"By definition, Bible-believing liberals consider themselves conservative," Mr. Wilken told WORLD. "They are completely unaware that they have started thinking and speaking like old-line liberals. When it is pointed out to them, they are incredulous and usually offended. They fail to see that, just like the old-line liberals, they have allowed the culture to call the shots in their church's teaching and practice. Most evangelicals consider themselves loyal footsoldiers in the culture war. However, while they have fought the culture's influence in society, they have surrendered to it in their churches."

Christians who want to conserve traditional values might start by conserving their churches.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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