Blogs > Cliopatria > The New Liberal Vision -- with an Evangelical Twist

Apr 15, 2004 1:40 am

The New Liberal Vision -- with an Evangelical Twist

I thought I would make my first post a derivative one, building on Jonathan's below. The tough thing about being an evangelical and a liberal is always being aware of the worst tendencies of each. American evangelicalism has become so inextricably linked in our cultural imagination with ideological conservatism that it is difficult to separate the two. Liberalism, as many Christian scholars have pointed out (Stephen Carter in particular), has a"religion problem" that makes it doctrinally suspicious of all but the most innocuous expressions of faith. So here's my take on the"vision thing":

Values: Jonathan talks of civility, honesty, responsibility, humanity. I'd add"humility" and I would also add"reverence for life". The very term pro-life has been co-opted by the religious right in this country. Regardless of one's views on abortion, we must take the phrase"a culture of life" (John Paul II's words) and make it our own, explaining how liberal values do foster a commitment to non-violence in every arena of society. (Of course, like many religious progressives, I am pro-life, and I don't think the subject is a closed one on the left.)

Metrics: To Jonathan's"peace, justice, quality of life, sustainability", I would add" community". Contemporary liberalism, too often falls prey to its worst tendencies of individualism, concerned with the maximization of individual rights. Quality of life needs to be measured not only in terms of how well individuals thrive, but how well social and religious groups are able to maintain their cohesion and their identity and their unique and critical role in the culture.

Methods: To Jonathan's fine list, I would add a willingness to embrace a long-term vision. We must not be committed to gains that we will make in the next five to ten years, but gains that we will make in the next century or beyond. Evangelicals with a social conscience speak of"building the kingdom". It takes time. The church has been waiting for two millenia for Christ's return, we are willing to wait (but not idly) a bit longer.

I'm glad to be here. As an Anabaptist evangelical who teaches history and gender studies at a secular college, I don't know what (beyond curiosity) I can provoke in terms of discussion. But I am committed to the notion that"believer","scholar", and"progressive" are not all mutually exclusive terms in the current dialogue.

UPDATE: I need to reiterate that I am in near-full agreement with Jonathan's terrific statement. And I do think that we need to be honest and brave about facing our obvious and important differences over the exact meaning of"reverence for life."

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Ophelia Benson - 4/18/2004

Uh oh. Where am I? I seem to have accidentally stumbled into a Great Awakening. I'd rather not.

""We need to be less wary of institutionalized, organized religion, particularly when it sets itself in opposition to secular trends."


Uh oh. I'm very wary of institutionalized, organized religion, most especially when it sets itself in opposition to secular trends. I think secular trends are an excellent thing, and that institutionalized, organized religion should stay out of the secular political part of the world. I'm not a Stephen Carter fan. I'm also not a fan of prayer meetings, so I think I'd better go back to B&W and stay there.

Lawrence R Krubner - 4/16/2004

Love is the only basis for a sustainable progressive politics, and humility, compassion, good will and good faith are excellent values for a movement to hold at its core if it hopes to be socially progressive. I'm glad you thought to add "humility" - that's a very important addition. Historically periods of reform in America have started with liberals pushing a deeply moral agenda whose time has come (think of the civil rights movement in the 50s) but after a while nihlists from the far-left join up and corrupt the original mission (think of moderate student groups like SDS getting take over by Marxists in the 70s). Humility, then, is critical to the survival of reformist groups. Humility is the best tonic for both resisting (and hopefully converting) those nihilists who believe in a politics of rage.

However, I'm not so sure "community" is a good value for a progressive movement. As I said in my last comment, and also on my site, I hope you'll elaborate on that.

Lawrence R Krubner - 4/16/2004

What does the word community mean? I'd like to see this conversation continue and go deeper. So far we've only skimmed the surface. I'll take this up on my own site, but I'd really like you to come back and offer more on this subject. If we suppose that the foundation texts of liberalism are those of John Locke, Jeremy Bentham, Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill then the emphasis on individualism is obvious. Consider Smith's insistence that an individual, pursuing their own self-interest, often does more for society than the person who sets out to do good. If you have a way of reconciling liberalism to communitarianism, I'd like to hear it. That would, indeed, be very original, and clearly Jeff was hoping to hear some original thinking when he organized this thing. My reaction to your post is here:

Jonathan Dresner - 4/15/2004

The language of God's Kingship is a touchy one within Liberal Judaism as well. The Reconstructionist movement finds it incompatible with a modern faith situated in a democratic society, and has summarily removed (almost) all of it. That's particularly noticable during the High Holy days, when God's Kingship is the focus of roughly a third of the liturgy.

I find the disjunction between human democracy and divine monarchy to be more helpful, theologically and metaphorically, than troubling. Only God has the wisdom, the power, the right to claim monarchical privilege. Human rulers, however, are subject to human controls. Transcendance is not a problem for me.

And "building the Kingdom" is pretty well integrated into Jewish eschatology, though we use different language for it.

Anne Zook - 4/15/2004

Jonathan's post was excellent and while, as he said, your additions may have been "implicit" in his words, I think there's a real value in making these things explicit. Thank you for doing so and for adding your own words to the debate.

The addition of humility was, I think, an important one.

The need for community. I really should have included that since it's something I feel strongly about. What this country lost with the current overemphasis on self-sufficient individualism was more than just knowing your neighbor's name.

As individuals, a huge part of how we each identify and come to know ourselves is by measuring ourselves against our peers and coming to know our roles in our communities. Lose the community and you lose a significant percentage of your ability to know yourself.

And there's more than the self at risk. Society as a whole, even an entire country's existence, is endangered by the loss of community.

(But because you're new to the area :) I just this moment took pity on you and deleted the next ten paragraphs.)

I look foward to reading your future posts.

Hugo Schwyzer - 4/15/2004

Well, I am tattooed, and was pierced. I think that mutilation and decoration are worlds apart in intent, even if they differ little in practice.

Agreed, an environmental component is crucial.

Jonathan Dresner - 4/15/2004


I like the first quotation quite a bit, thanks. The second one is interesting theologically, but doesn't speak all that well to non-Christians.

I think our main points of disagreement are going to be about relative vs. absolute protection (e.g. abortion). I'm curious about "mutiliation": does that generally include self-mutilation like tatooing, piercing, elective cosmetic surgery?

I'd also include an environmental component: I don't think we can claim "reverence for life" even human life, if we ignore the health and balance of the biosphere. And I think that's quite in line with many religious teachings on the subject.

Ralph E. Luker - 4/15/2004

Jon, Hugo's update may be responding to my observation that "reverence for life" will, fairly obviously, mean different things to different people. It may not necessarily mean that he disagrees with your observation about its meaning.

Hugo Schwyzer - 4/15/2004

Well, when we use the term "reverence for life" in a Christian context we are indeed talking about more than just a desire for a healthier, happier, less violent world. This whole talk of the culture of life was introduced by Vatican II. Here's a quotation from Gaudium et Spes:

"Whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, or wilful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where people are treated as mere instruments of gain rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others like them are infamies indeed. They poison human society, and they do more harm to those who practise them than to those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are a supreme dishonour to the Creator".

The last sentence gives away the fact that for many religious folk, reverence for life is linked to an understanding of God's plan. John Paul II writes in"> Evangelium Vitae (1995):

The Gospel of life is at the heart of Jesus' message. Lovingly received day after day by the Church, it is to be preached with dauntless fidelity as "good news" to the people of every age and culture.

At the dawn of salvation, it is the Birth of a Child which is proclaimed as joyful news: "I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord" (Lk 2:10-11). The source of this "great joy" is the Birth of the Saviour; but Christmas also reveals the full meaning of every human birth, and the joy which accompanies the Birth of the Messiah is thus seen to be the foundation and fulfilment of joy at every child born into the world (cf. Jn 16:21).

When he presents the heart of his redemptive mission, Jesus says: "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly" (Jn 10:10). In truth, he is referring to that "new" and "eternal" life which consists in communion with the Father, to which every person is freely called in the Son by the power of the Sanctifying Spirit. It is precisely in this "life" that all the aspects and stages of human life achieve their full significance.

That's a start. I'm not a Catholic, but many evangelicals have been influenced by the church's development of a theology of life.

Jonathan Dresner - 4/15/2004

OK, I'll bite. Here's what I wrote in my earlier post:

" "Reverence for life," I think, should be a more positive than negative value: not just anti-abortion, anti-violence, etc, but pro-environment, pro-health, pro-freedom, advocating not just quantity of life but quality of life, both physical and inner (spiritual, intellectual, emotional) aspects. "

I'm inferring from your update comment that you disagree with my definition (from your standpoint, redefinition). I'm sure that you are using the term in the context of a religious discourse with which I am not really familiar: could you clarify?

Russell Arben Fox - 4/15/2004


"We need to be less wary of institutionalized, organized religion, particularly when it sets itself in opposition to secular trends."

Absolutely. Too often a thorough familiarity with the dangers and downsides of "establishment" involvements leads progressive thinkers to look askance at any attempt to organize resistance to or alternatives to the modern socio-economic order via the church, or even simply via religiously oriented arguments. Stephen L. Newman just wrote a fairly open-minded piece about this in Dissent, using the reluctance of some secular liberals to embrace Alabama Gov. Bob Riley's evangelically-motivated effort to make the state's tax code more progressive as an example. (I've written something about it on my blog.) Spiritual resistence to economically or socially oppressive trends will invariably be associated with churches; the almost instinctual negative reaction so many good liberals have to initiatives which link social agendas with faith is a great loss to the cause of the left.

Also, thanks for throwing "community" on to your list. My inner communitarian is grateful.

Hugo Schwyzer - 4/15/2004

Wow, thanks!

Ralph E. Luker - 4/15/2004

Hugo's response to Jonathan's original post is part of a dialogue initiated at">Notes on the Atrocities. The points made by Hugo are especially important in opening up the discussion among American progressives about religious values. That is a matter which Hugo commonly addresses at his fine blog and which Allen Brill also addresses at The Right Christians.
From the perspective of evangelicals like Hugo, Brill and me, the problem is really twofold: 1) how to frame our concerns in such a way that we are not automatically distanced, pigeonholed, or otherwise disconnected by the secular left; and 2) how to do that in a way that does not simply baptize a secular progressive vision as co-extensive with the gospel.
It does seem to me that Hugo makes a big contribution to managing those problems with his suggestions that we include "humility" and "reverence for life" as liberal values. There will undoubtedly be differences of opinion about what the latter means, but we must confront it because the alternative is irreverence about life.
So, too, adding the metric of "community" recognizes that a simplistic emphasis on the maximization of individual good can be extraordinarily destructive of human community.
"Long term vision," in terms of method, seems also important to me. Evangelicals would differ among ourselves about one can even speak of "building the kingdom" and such talk may undoubtedly seem quaint and make our more secular allies squirm (how democratic is a "kingdom"?!), but surely if progress is to mean anything, it cannot simply assume that it is achieved by maximizing consumption one day at a time.

Hugo Schwyzer - 4/15/2004

Thanks for such a nice reply, Jonathan. I do think the continuity of certain traditions is a crucial one. Most Christians interpret both Scripture and current events through varying versions of the Wesleyan quadrilateral of Scripture, Reason, Experience, and Tradition. It's axiomatic that that can't be done alone -- institutional memory has a depth to it that exceeds that of any individual. It's the churches that tell the same stories, over and over, and allow us to see how our particular generation fits into that larger story. We need to be less wary of institutionalized, organized religion, particularly when it sets itself in opposition to secular trends. I think the Catholics get something right with their notion of conciliarism and the magisterium, but that is heading out on a big ol' tangent.

Jonathan Dresner - 4/15/2004


My first reaction is that most of what you're adding is implicit in what I've already written. But that may be my particular reading, and there's nothing wrong with making some of these explicit. They're certainly consistent with what I wrote.

I think "humility" should come with "honesty", particularly if we are honest about ourselves. "Reverence for life," I think, should be a more positive than negative value: not just anti-abortion, anti-violence, etc, but pro-environment, pro-health, pro-freedom, advocating not just quantity of life but quality of life, both physical and inner (spiritual, intellectual, emotional) aspects. In that sense I absolutely agree, and I think we should be useing "pro-life" this way, rather than in the narrow abortive sense.

I did consider putting community on my list of values. I also considered putting a reference to the value of the individual on there. And I decided that I don't want to privilege either of them (though I agree, obviously, that the current bias towards individualism needs correction), but develop an understanding that there are many ways in which people might want to live, either as individuals, members of a community or, more likely, with a mix of relationships of varing depth. I'm not sure, though, about using the continuity of "social and religious groups ... cohesion and identity" as a metric of community or quality of life: things change, and sometimes that's the healthy thing.

And I wholeheartedly agree that longer-term and very long-term perspectives must be part of our calculations: actually, I think it should be the first order issue, and short-term considerations secondary (see sustainability).

Finally, I also agree that religious and political visions can mesh outside of the "conservative" realm. Clearly, some of the most radical economic and social visions have had a strong religious foundation, and I would be lying if I said that my politics and my religion (and my profession) were not mutually reinforcing. They are, and I'm very sympathetic to people who take political stands from religious conviction (as long as the political stand does not involve imposing religion on others), though I prefer to make my case on secular grounds as they are more likely to be convincing to undecideds.