Over the past couple of weeks folks in and out of the faith, mostly at the gym, have marveled to me how so many evangelical Christians support Donald Trump, America’s very own Banana Republic candidate.
‘That’s because they’re liberals,’ I’ve discovered I enjoy replying.
Pause for look of confusion.
Pause for further confusion.
‘Don’t look at me. I’m not one.’
What the term ‘liberal’ means in the theological world isn’t the same thing as political liberalism. The two can overlap in sensibilities and conclusions, but not all political liberals are theological liberals, for example. In fact, I would argue that evangelicals, most of whom are conservative when it comes to their politics, are liberal in the theological sense when it comes to their biblical interpretation.
So what’s theological liberalism?
Big picture: theological liberalism is how Christianity reacted to the challenge of modernity.
Specifically, it refers to how Christianity reacted to the Enlightenment discoveries regarding the origin of the universe, evolution of creatures etc. Suddenly with Darwin, Newton and the rest, the literal, biblical view of our world was cast into question. A rational, objective account of Christian faith was cast into question.
One branch of the Christian tree reacted by vigorously defending the ‘fundamentals’ of the faith and asserting how they could be rationally demonstrated as true.
This was the birth of modern evangelical fundamentalism- see it’s not that old a tradition. It’s younger than the 13th Amendment.
Another branch of the Christian family reacted by instead adapting traditional, orthodox Christianity to the culture of the Enlightenment. This branch redefined Christianity’s “essence” so that it no longer conflicted with the “best” of modern thought. Rather than worrying about demonstrating the rational truth of scripture and doctrine, this branch redefined Christianity as primarily about human experience.
That is, doctrines are nothing more than attempts to bring human experiences of God to speech.
This branch distinguished between ‘facts’ (Science) and ‘values’ (Religion), or a better way to put it: Science describes the world as it is and Religion describes it as it should be. Thus, Christianity became less about rationally demonstrable beliefs and more about ethics. Whereas Branch 1 reacted to modernity by trying to rationally prove, say, the Resurrection, this Branch reacted to modernity by interpreting the Resurrection as symbolic of a deeper rational ‘truth.’
No longer are the stories of Jesus literally true, they are moral lessons that are universally accessible through our faculty of reason.
If you want to know why most preaching in mainline churches is moralistic finger-wagging and why mainline Christians seem incapable of actually talking about God or their faith… this is why and whence it comes.
Notice what both branches above share:
1. The assumption there is something called ‘Truth’ that is universal, not contingent upon language or culture, and accessible to all.
2. The assumption that Truth is accessed by or through Reason.
3. The assumption that because Truth is mediated by universal Reason then scripture must be an objectively, factual text (Branch 1) or objectively, factually incorrect (Branch 2) thus requiring ‘adaptation’ to fit our modern worldview.
This leads Branch 1 to give scripture too much authority (inerrancy) and Branch 2 no authority beyond its practicality (say, the United Methodist Church )
In other words-
They both reacted to modernity’s challenges by assuming modernity’s premise was accurate: that Truth is mediated rationally and accessible to all regardless of language, culture or perspective.
That’s why or how most evangelicals (who fall into Branch 1) can be politically conservative (and, in Trump’s case, tribal) and still be theologically liberal. It’s how, for example, that evangelical preachers as disparate as Franklin Graham and Joel Osteen are, in fact, more liberal, theologically speaking, than Pope Francis. Liberalism is what makes it possible for Donald Trump to quote scripture out of context at Liberty University, completely removed from any participation in and submission to a community of interpretation.
Once you’ve bought into the dominant, underlying premise of your surrounding culture, its difficult to avoid having it shape your fundamental identity and form your ultimate loyalty no matter how much you rail against the culture and its elites.