By John D. Pierce

Labels serve a descriptive purpose but are rarely fully accurate or adequate. Often they are misapplied, redefined or refused.

Some people label themselves with ease as liberal, conservative or another tag — while many of us are less comfortable doing so. Primarily, we understand the relative and changing nature of such terms.

Even an attempt to find a suitable label between extremes is challenging. For example, “moderate” (which I generally embrace) has more than one meaning.

Some (usually those who prefer a conservative or liberal tag) describe and dismiss moderates as being wishy-washy or lukewarm. However, thinking literally, one should appreciate that a “moderate” embraces “moderation.”

And affirming moderation can be just as firmly convictional as staking one’s claim to the right or left.

Others seeking some solid middle ground choose the label “centrist.” Yet often the center seems to move around depending on the issue and one’s surroundings.

Once during a seminar I sat between a very liberal Unitarian-Universalist minister and a very conservative Pentecostal Bible college teacher. Literally and figuratively, I occupied the middle ground.

Comparatively, I could be deemed liberal or conservative depending on whether I was speaking with the person to my right or left.

Some labels are applied to others in dismissive ways. It’s a form of name-calling. And some labels with negative connotations are rejected even when accurate.

Labeling plays a regular role in religious and political circles — whether labeling oneself or others. It can be tiring although words, while inadequate, are all we have available to describe and delineate various perspectives.

The pejorative nature of labels makes it hard to settle on one without continually offering qualifications. For example, many who once warmly embraced “evangelical” now want no part of its sullied reputation.

As a writer who relies on words, including descriptive terms, I am careful in my necessary use of labeling.

For example, I find it fair to refer to denominational leaders who advance a clear form of religious fundamentalism as fundamentalists. However, I recognize such a label does not apply to every person in every pew of a church connected to that denomination.

The same applies to liberal church traditions as well. When possible, I choose relative terms such as “more conservative” or “more liberal” to make distinctions or to identify one’s politic or religious leaning or tradition.

All that said, I have been labeled everything from a fundamentalist to a liberal — along with a few descriptive terms not suitable for print. That comes with the territory of expressing one’s opinions publicly.

However, my own search for a label has come to an end. I’m not a conservative (though I’m for conserving much), or a moderate (though I believe in moderation), or a liberal (though I think grace abounds).

Label me a reductionist.

When reading the Gospels I’m struck by how much junk we’ve added on to what it means to be Christian. The church has tacked on all kinds of beliefs, values, practices, contradictions and downright cruelties to what it means to be faithful.

When Jesus saw that happening among the religiously pious of his day, he reduced it all down to a simple, two-fold command deemed “the greatest.”

Label me a reductionist — one who believes in what Jesus said and did in that moment of clear and concise reduction.

That all the laws and the prophetic teachings and other sources of truth rest on those two commandments: to love God with all our being and to love all others (our widely defined neighbors) as ourselves.

Any tag or term that dilutes or distracts from that primary commitment and focus is one I’m unwilling to wear.


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