Defining religious liberals

Recently, I was trying to explain to another person (this is someone who belongs to a liberal denomination) that some evangelical Christians are impossible to distinguish from religious liberals. This other person found my assertion difficult to believe. I realized that most of us tend to define religious liberalism by denominational boundaries: if you are in a United Church of Christ congregation, or a Reform Jewish congregation, you are a religious liberal; if you’re part of an evangelical congregation, you can’t possibly be a religious liberal. But denominational boundaries began eroding a long time ago, and that old definition no longer works particularly well.

Here’s another possible definition for religious liberal: A religious liberal is someone who is flexible about theological or ideological matters, who instead is more concerned with living out his or her values in the wider world, and who is willing to make adjustments to his or her theology in order to make the world a better place. By contrast, a religious conservative is someone who is most concerned with theological purity or purity of religious ideology, and not social justice.

By this definition, evangelical Christian Richard Ciszik, former staffer for the National Association of Evangelicals, is a religious liberal because he is more committed to “creation care” or environmentalism than he is to religious ideology. Richard Dawkins, by contrast, comes across as a religious conservative, a humanist who demands ideological purity even if he alienates other religious groups to the extent that he greatly reduces his chances of working with them to solve real-world problems.

Or to put it another way: I’d much rather work with Richard Cisik on social justice issues than with Richard Dawkins; actually, I suspect Richard Dawkins would never condescend to work with someone like me on anything because I wouldn’t pass his test of ideological purity.