Liberal or Conservative?: The Way Forward


We have all grown up surrounded by terms like ‘liberal,’ ‘conservative,’ ‘left-wing,’ ‘right-wing,’ ‘progressive,’ and ‘traditional.’ Even for the many who can neither defend or even define them, we instinctually know that our worldview is coloured by them. Famous people and issues have also been framed by these terms.

Traditionally, the liberals and left-wingers—along with their extreme version called ‘communist,’ represented issues of ‘social justice’ and more government involvement to make such justice happen. Government control of the economy is also a feature. In midst of the emergency of the Great Depression of the 1930s, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt represented government intervention at its peak—experimenting with a variety of schemes to try to lift the economy out of the pit. Keep your eye of current US President Barack Obama, who is also leading an activist government trying to revive the US economy in a time of meltdown.

Conservatives take a more literal view of constitutional issues, seeking to preserve or ‘conserve’ the present order. Its extreme version ‘fascism’ is adept at bringing ultra-order before degenerating into disorder. Conservatives like to keep the government to a minimum, allowing the economy and business maximum latitude for job creation and prosperity.

Christians who are concerned for social justice issues, the plight of the poor, and the state of the environment, tend to lean towards the ‘liberals.’ Those Christians who adhere to traditional morality, also known as Biblical morality, tend to lean to the ‘conservative’ side. Their favored moral issues include the sanctity of life and marriage, and are anti-abortion and gay rights. In US politics, the Democratic Party tends to be ‘liberal’ and the Republicans ‘conservative;’ in Australian politics it is the Australian Labor Party (ALP) that is called ‘liberal’ and the ‘Liberal Party,’ ironically, that is deemed conservative.

US President Lyndon Johnson (1963-1969), a Democrat and liberal, declared a ‘war on poverty’ and championed civil rights. President Ronald Reagan (1981-1989), a classic conservative, was against big government and government intrusion in the economy, yet was strong on defense and traditional moral values. He was famously ‘pro-life.’

Classic versions are giving way to new ones. For example, US President Bill Clinton (1993-2001), a Democrat, declared that the days of ‘big government’ were over. His successor, George W. Bush, a Republican, who campaigned in 2000 on a platform of ‘Compassionate Conservatism,’ presided over a major expansion of government and government spending. He was labeled a ‘big government’ conservative, which for many would seem like an oxymoron. Bush was very strong on traditional moral issues. In the Australian state of Victoria, the former premier Steve Bracks (1999-2007) of the ALP was probably more conservative—at least in moral issues-- than the opposition leader Ted Bailleau, from the Liberal party.

Yet, what few people realize, is that in this ‘postmodern’ age, that terminology that has been around for a long time has been under rigorous redefinition. For example, in Christendom itself, we know – or should know – what ‘born again,’ ‘evangelical,’ ‘charismatic,’ and ‘Pentecostal,’ mean? But what we do not realize is that all of these terms, and the people who represent them, are under pressure to depart from their classic form and undergo a progressive make-over, if not transformation.’ Let’s take a look:

‘Classic’ Born Again: someone who makes a commitment to Christ after an intense spiritual experience and undergoes a change for the better;

Born Again Today: may include the definition above, someone who may have had an experience with Christ but is also open to other spiritual options outside of Christianity. The term is so over used that even carpet cleaners boast that after they blown through your home the carpets become ‘born again.’

‘Classic’ Evangelical: a person who believes in salvation through faith in the atoning death of Christ, views the Bible as the highest source of faith and practice and adheres to the primacy of preaching the Gospel. Billy Graham is a classic evangelical whose most famous phrase is ‘The Bible says,’ which is tantamount to ‘God says.’

Evangelical Today: still has a connection to the above, attends a church that is labeled evangelical, but who may not be aware of what either the Bible or God is saying. They are much more affected by the prevailing culture than by the Scriptures, and want to be viewed as ‘tolerant,’ ‘environmentally friendly,’ and ‘inclusive.’ For example, a famous evangelical author had only five references to Scripture in nearly 300 pages of his best-selling book, yet had a detailed apologetic in defense of a homosexual minister who came out of the closet. Dr. Tony Campolo, who considers himself ‘evangelical,’ has stated on his radio program ‘Across the Pond’ that evangelicals are increasingly identified with the ‘religious right,’ who are right-wing Christian activists. He has coined the phrase ‘red-letter Christians’ as a new alternative to the label ‘evangelical.’

‘Classic’ Pentecostal: Believes in an end-time outpouring of the Holy Spirit, Baptism in the Spirit with the initial evidence of speaking in tongues and necessity of a continuous Spirit-filling and exercise of the Gifts of the Spirit (I Corinthians 12);

Pentecostal Today:
Attends a Pentecostal church; may or may not speak in tongues; may or may not be ‘filled with the Spirit.’

In one sense, redefinition can be good in that it keeps us from being predictable and ‘pigeon-holed.’ The Family First Party in Australia is a good example. This party was founded by Andrew Evans and his son Ashley, both who have serve and currently serve as the Senior Pastor of the large Paradise Community Church in Adelaide, South Australia. Andrew was also the former General Superintendent of the Assemblies of God in Australia from 1977 to 1997. Wanting to avoid the stigma of the ‘religious right’ in America, Family First presented itself as not just strictly an Evangelical/Pentecostal or mainstream Christian party. After all, Jews, Muslims, Catholics, Mormons, and moral humanists, are all interested in family issues, too. While they defend traditional values on marriage, family, and life, they have departed from the religious right on issues like the Iraq war (they are ‘anti’) and the environment (they are ‘pro’). This ‘breaking the mold’ stance does project moderation, tolerance, and common sense, which, until now, has helped ensure that Family First has representation in the South Australian Parliament and the Australian Federal Senate.

Yet, on the other hand, if by submitting to re-definition, it causes us to depart from the very tenets that made us great, it would be a very serious loss indeed. It would even make a mockery of the label we still hold: like a Baptist who is unbaptized, an evangelical who did not read or believe the Bible, and a Pentecostal who does not speak in tongues (according to the Pew Forum, 40% of people who attend Pentecostal churches do not speak in tongues).

What is the way forward? The Apostle Paul gives some very cogent advice. In I Thessalonians 5:21 (KJV), he says, ‘Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.’ Whatever comes your way, put it to the test. If it is old, traditional, and good, then hold on to it, no matter what the culture and trends say. If it is obsolete, useless, or harmful, reject it, no matter how long established it may be.

In so doing, we show ourselves to be above politics and labels. It is not a matter of being liberal or conservative, progressive or traditional—but of being wise, mature, discerning, and godly. In these change-filled, crisis-riddled, challenge-heavy times, Paul’s advice is wisdom from above. It really is the ‘way forward.’

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