Beyond Stereotypes of 'Conservative' and 'Liberal' Christianity

In the middle of a two-hour chat about matters of faith, my conservative Christian friend told me she had no problem with evolution.

So much for that stereotype.

Amid all the hostility among people of faith, many of us reserve our most potent venom for people of our own faith: those who disagree with us, that is. "Conservatives," "moderates" and "liberals" within most faith traditions often find themselves at odds. (Words like these are fraught with trouble, so I am using them loosely.) Put together two devout Catholics on opposite sides of the abortion debate, or two Baptists with different views of scripture, and the conversation has the potential to get long, loud and angry.

If there is a conversation. In fact, precious few people actively seek out those who disagree with them. Unfortunately, that leads to a vicious cycle. The longer we avoid "them," the more space we create for caricatures and stereotypes to arise. Seeing our adversaries through the filter of those stereotypes -- which usually include the qualities we loathe about them -- just increases our anger, and so we avoid them even more.

Worst of all, the whole cycle runs counter to the Divine imperative at the core of most religions: compassion. Small wonder that people of no particular faith hear our words, watch our actions and give up on us.

What's a person of faith to do?

We can start by removing the stereotypes. Over the years, I've had the opportunity to spend time in traditionally opposing camps of the Christian faith: I have been a teenaged literalist conservative, a cerebral evangelical of sorts and (now) a moderate Episcopalian who admires Eastern faith traditions and aligns with the "heretics" on key points. Along the way, I have observed some stereotype-defying aspects of the people I've come to know. For example:

Not all religious conservatives take the scriptures literally. At least not in the way the stereotype runs: that every word of scripture is literally and factually true for all time. Most of my literalist friends understand that the Hebrew Psalms are poetry, that the Book of Job is literature, that St. Paul's opinions on hair length and celibacy might be messages to a specific church rather than universal truths. Most important, they think about these issues with a degree of reflection that goes far beyond the bumper sticker "God said it. I believe it. That settles it."

Many conservatives are good, gentle people. Without question, fundamentalism and zealotry have spawned violence, prejudice and hatred over the course of human history. This does not make all fundamentalists violent, prejudiced and hateful. Many of my conservative friends will tell you, for instance, that they are not homophobic -- in the sense of "afraid of gay and lesbian people" -- even as they uphold their stand that homosexuality is sin. Many of them strive to practice the virtues their scriptures require of them: gentleness, generosity, love. They give of themselves in the pursuit of good works. They get involved with the disenfranchised.

Many moderates are passionate about God. Political and religious moderates both suffer from this stereotype: that moderate means indecisive, apathetic, even spineless. They don't really have a dog in this hunt, so the story goes. Don't you believe it. I know moderate monks, priests and others who have changed their entire way of life to submit to their sense of God's calling. You don't do that without passion.

Many Christian liberals take the Bible seriously. I have heard conservatives dismiss the positions of liberals as mere attempts to fit in with the prevailing culture, regardless of what the Bible says. Yet some of the most thoughtful Bible thinkers I know are among the most progressive, and they search the scriptures to better grasp the Divine will. As with the point about passion above, you don't devote years of your life to the study of something you dismiss easily.

Not everyone in a given category believes the same thing. My conservative evolutionist friend is a case in point. So is my cousin, a gifted scientist and a person of faith: two categories thought to be diametrically opposed. So are many young evangelicals who rank environmental issues among their most pressing concerns. So are Catholics who vigorously oppose abortion and just as vigorously advocate for the poor.

The larger point is not the observations so much as how we arrive at them. I learned these things simply by spending time with the people in question. The more I listened, the more surprises I found, and the more the impact of the labels faded away. Yes, my friend is conservative, but suddenly I saw her more as human: the most fundamental common ground from which we can dialogue and care for each other.

What have you seen in people of faith that defies the stereotypes? Please share it here.