One of my teachers would frequently remind us that categorizing people by means of narrow labels is just another way of not having to think deeply about them. It happened to me a few years back as I was trying to make a case for why Bible believers should oppose the public display of Scriptures. I argued that public display cheapens the words by making them public domain. Sacred texts, I suggested, should be protected and cherished in sacred space.
My opponent simply smirked and said, “Aw, you’re just a liberal.” And that was it. No discussion, no further debate on the subject. My ideas could be dismissed without further consideration because I had been neatly placed in a pigeonhole.
Unfortunately, it’s a lot more complicated than that. No one who proclaims from week to week that Jesus is the incarnation can really be called a liberal. And it turns out I am not the only one.
According to a recent study by Public Research Religion in Washington D.C., there exists quite a bit of diversity of opinion and thought among clergy members normally described as “liberal.” Specifically in mind are clergy from the United Church of Christ (UCC), the Episcopal Church, and Presbyterian and Methodist denominations.
While not a huge bloc, this group does represent congregations that comprise roughly 18 percent of all Americans. If they were somehow all voting in lock step with some liberal agenda, they would constitute a formidable swing vote. Unfortunately, they don’t.
For instance, about 34 percent of this group of clergy rejects being described as liberal. They call themselves conservatives. About the same number also vote with the Republican Party most of the time.
Of mainline clergy, about 78 percent believe that government has a role to play in addressing social problems such as unemployment, poverty and poor housing. But that means that more than 20 percent holds a different view of the role of government.
Nearly 70 percent of mainline clergy believe that government should guarantee health insurance for all citizens even it means raising taxes. About the same number believe that more environmental protection is needed, even if it raises prices or costs jobs.
But that means that nearly 30 percent of mainline clergy think differently about both these issues.
Even on something as basic as separation of church and state, there is no unified position. About 65 percent of the so-called liberal clergy support maintaining “strict” separation of church and state. That means nearly a third of them think about it differently.
The only area that really approaches any sort of widespread agreement among this clergy group is the issue of poverty. Nearly 80 percent of these clergy members say they publicly expressed their views about hunger and poverty often in the last year. Nearly 75 percent of this group also says they addressed marriage and family issues often. Only about 26 percent say they spoke publicly about issues such as abortion or capital punishment.
All of which demonstrates the danger of labels. Confining someone to a conservative pigeonhole, or a liberal pigeonhole, without bothering to fully define what those terms mean is just another way of not having to think about things. Our world and the many issues we face as human beings are far too complicated for us find ways to not think about them.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.