Why I Call Myself “Liberal” and not “Progressive”

My friend Tony Jones and some other folks over at Pathos are working out the implications of “Progressive Christianity” and what it means in today’s religious landscape. They’re also talking about the differences between labels like “progressive” as opposed to “liberal” and why certain labels are better than others. I’m not really all that bothered by the use of either word (progressive/liberal) but I do tend to prefer “liberal” to describe myself in the religious and political landscape.

The main reason is that I find the label “progressive” too dismissive of those who would not call themselves “progressives” in a religious or political sense. It implies that one way of thinking or believing is progressing while others ways are not. I find a lot that I’m not a fan of in conservative, traditional Christianity but one thing I don’t find is absolutely no one progressing, growing, moving forward within their conservative world-view. Sure, there are those that regress or remain static in their ways, but that’s certainly not as universal a condition as the word “progressive” would imply.

The main difference between liberal/progressives and conservative/traditionalists is the way each group approaches boundaries or limits. Traditionalists will typically tend to respect limits and boundaries while liberals will typically question or challenge them. If I call myself a “liberal,” I’m identifying the nature of my relationship to the conventional boundaries with which we all interact. If I say I’m not bound by what Paul writes in scripture about homosexuality or the role of women, then I’ve freed myself, liberated myself from what many believe is a healthy limit that the Bible sets. Conservatives fear that we all ultimately lose something when we cross these limits. Liberals fear that something is lost if these limits are not, at the very least, questioned and challenged. This doesn’t mean that conservatives cannot progress within their world-view. It just means that limits are typically respected and revered because their perception of tradition brings with it great authority.

I realize conservatives will say that, within their world-view, they are indeed “liberated” and I’m not trying to imply otherwise. It’s certainly not up to me to determine whether or not a person feels free. But if these labels are used to indicate our relationship to boundaries, then I feel like both descriptors, “liberal” and “conservative,” can be agreeable for both groups.


One thought on “Why I Call Myself “Liberal” and not “Progressive”

  1. I think the whole liberal-conservative continuum (in politics and religion) is set up on a faulty premise: that of the upward, progressive march of history. It assumes that there is an inevitable trajectory of history that is futile to resist. Both sides lose because this is a farce of modernism. The conservatives cling in melancholy fashion to the status quo. Liberals automatically assume that the Zeitgeist is liberating them, when in fact it is often only an imprisoning force. (Consider the fact that the works of most of the eminent philosophers of the 19th and 20th century are attempted responses to the impending nihilism brought about by the advent of radical autonomy.)
    If we are to break out of this morass we need an genuine conception of time and history, one that is not predicated on the bankrupt notion of progress. How will we break out of this? To co-opt Martin Heidegger’s assessment of modern society: “Only a God can save us now.”

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