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Features

Faded labels: liberal

Theo Hobson

In an age of coalition, the old polarities of liberal and conservative seem increasingly blurred - so could the same be true in Christianity? Stephen Tomkins and then Theo Hobson scrutinize some popular stereotypes.

 

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Woolly Liberals

'Liberal' is a complex, contested word in secular discourse. But when it's applied to religion, the complexity is infinitely greater. In secular discourse, in this country at least, liberalism is basically agreed to be a good thing, though one variety of it, economic liberalism, is in very bad odour. In religious discourse, on the other hand, it is widely seen as a bad thing, the subtle enemy of Christian authenticity - and not just by conservatives warning against modern thought.

It is high time that Christians reflected on this, and attempted to reclaim this word. Maybe the strange turn of British politics will serve as a prompt. The Tories spent a few years trying to sound more liberal, but the electorate wasn't quite convinced. Only by forming a coalition with the Liberal Democrats can they try to convince us of their inner liberalism. In the political realm, this word seems to reassure, and inspire. One can imagine David Cameron thinking that if only his party had this word in its name, he might not need Liberals in his government.

So, if 'liberal' is a cheer-word rather than a boo-word, why is 'liberal Christianity' so deeply problematic? This will sound like a strange conspiracy theory (that's what they want you to think!), but it seems to me that conservative Christians have tricked the opposition into a state of deep confusion - all by means of poisoning this word.  

FAMILIAR TYPES
Imagine a Christian - you might not have to look very far - who is a bit detached, or very detached, from mainstream church, who rejects biblical literalism, who accepts homosexuality and feminism, who has leftish-progressive political instincts, who has been to Greenbelt, who reads the Guardian as well as Third Way, who likes U2, who is interested in the arts, and the alternative worship scene, who thinks the right to choose probably trumps the right to life, who is mistrustful of the concept of institutional orthodoxy, and of Christendom.

Now give him or her a label. In the past it was obvious. He or she is a liberal Christian. But most of those I know who more or less fit the above description are not just lukewarm about this label but actively hostile to it. 'Call me a radical-emergent-inclusive-post-denominational or whatever you want - what do labels matter? - but call me a liberal and I'll scream.' Of course when it comes to politics, s/he feels no such qualms about 'liberal.' What's going on?
The nub of the matter is that there has been a huge backlash against liberal theology in recent decades. Not only have liberals have been routed and scattered; they have become so demoralised that they have largely accepted the conservatives' demonization of the word 'liberal'.

SALVAGE WORK
What complicates the situation is that the backlash against liberal theology was partly justified. There is a bad and muddled side to theological liberalism. So the task for today's um, non-conservatives, is to make a careful distinction within religious liberalism, and to salvage only what is worth salvaging. We must reclaim 'liberal Christianity', but in doing so we must purge it of its errors.

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So what I am arguing is this: there are two Christian traditions, Good Liberalism and Dodgy Liberalism. Good Liberalism is all about freedom. It says that Christianity promotes freedom, of various sorts. It likes Jesus' soundbite: 'The truth shall set you free.' Luther, following Paul, emphasised the idea of freedom from moral and religious laws, the whole idea of a holy law that we have to obey to get in with God. And soon, some Protestants applied this principle more widely. Christianity is pro-toleration, they said; the idea of a coercive religious orthodoxy is a bad thing. We ought to be free to choose how to worship. This is the essence of liberal Christianity: the simple belief that a persecuting Church (or theocratic state) is a bad thing, an unchristian thing. It entails a political vision: the state should protect religious liberty, as far as is possible. This radical new position emerged amid the turmoil of England's civil war; its most eloquent advocate was the poet John Milton.

This ideology gradually gained influence, at least in Protestant nations - it underlies 'secular liberalism'. Now please don't be shocked by the following assertion. Secular liberalism is a good thing. A very good thing. Or perhaps you would rather live in a state ruled by a bossy Church, in which infidels are excluded from public life, in which bishops or ban books? This is the alternative to secular liberalism. In my view, Christians ought to affirm secular liberalism, thank God for it.  

In other words, Christians ought to see that there is a huge overlap between the religious and secular meanings of 'liberalism'. A form of Protestantism helped to launch the ideal of the freedom of the individual from coercive traditions, from arbitrary authority. When Christians affirm this tradition they are not just going with the secular flow; they are reaffirming a crucial aspect of their own tradition.

DODGY LIBERALS
OK, so what about the other side of liberal Christianity, what I call Dodgy Liberalism? This is a very different sort of tradition, though it superficially seems closely related to the first. Dodgy Liberalism is the attempt to turn Christianity into an ideology of rational progress. It arose at around the same time as Good Liberalism - it became known as Deism. From around 1700 it dominated European thought. The received idea is that, in the Enlightenment, thinkers abandoned religion and turned atheist. In fact most turned Deist: they rejected the irrational side of Christianity and presented it as fully compatible with reason.

This movement deeply infected modern Protestantism. Its major thinkers such as Kant and Hegel were keen to see Christianity as the essentially rational religion of modern progress. The problem with this tradition is that it misrepresents Christianity, which has a tense relationship with reason, to put it mildly. If you get rid of awkward ideas like revelation and sin, then you end up with some mushy moralism. This is what Karl Barth pointed out, from the 1920s on. The whole tradi­tion of liberal Protestantism is tainted by this desire to edit Christianity, to sideline the tricky stuff about God's au­thor­ity and our depravity, and the divinity of Jesus, and the intensely strange matter of 'eschatology' (it's easier to believe that history will improve than it is to believe that God will somehow transform the cosmos). It prefers to see Christianity as a matter of being a good modern citizen, who believes in the gradual triumph of the liberal state.

POSTMODERN SPRAWL
Barth's critique of liberal Protestantism was soon strengthened by the rise of postmodern thought, which raised further question-marks over the whole ideology of rational modern progress. Postmodern thinkers also pointed out that religion was based in communal practices, in the rituals of the church. Liberal Protestantism had always been a bit vague and evasive about this, and so its stock fell further.

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So for various reasons the theological consensus turned against liberal Protestantism; it was dismissed as soggy sub-Christian wishful thinking, out of touch with cutting-edge philosophy. A Barth-influenced 'post-liberal' movement emerged, and Catholic and Anglo-Catholic theology began to eclipse any form of Protestant theology (for a decade or two the neo-conservative Radical Orthodoxy movement has dominated British academic theology more or less unopposed).

The problem with this huge reaction against 'liberal Protestantism' was that it failed to distinguish between Dodgy Liberalism and Good Liberalism. It fell into the trap of assuming that any form of it was guilty by association. And so it is now common for theologians, and Christians who think themselves with-it, to denounce 'liberalism' as a bad thing, and to overlook the rise of Good Liberalism, and its enduring influence on western thought. To contest this is seen as dated 'whiggish' thinking.

CULTURAL DRIFT
The theological shift I've described was accompanied by a cultural one. Towards the end of the twentieth century the mainstream Protestant churches, open to secular liberal culture, went into sharp decline, and more fundamentalist styles gained in popularity. It began to seem that Christians were opting for a distinctive iden­tity that marked them off from the rest of culture. This was espe­cially so in America, where the religious right began to make 'liberal­ism' sound like irresponsibility, like a vote for chaos.

Over the last decade or two Britain has shown signs of imitating America's Christian-secular culture war, in which liberalism and Christianity seem opposed. The old assumption that we have a liberal established Church has been shaken. It is now more widely assumed that religion is illiberal, and liberalism is non-religious.

We must contest this assumption, but we cannot do so without reclaiming 'liberal'. If we turn away from this word in purist theological disdain, worrying that someone might think we don't get postmodernism, and that we believe in a gospel of rational progress, then we leave the field to the religious reactionaries. Maybe we have to redeem the word with a prefix, that acknowledges that the old Christian liberalism was flawed. Neo-liberalism, anyone?

Theo Hobson