It’s time we came to terms with terms. Monikers such as “conservative” or “liberal” can libel more than label.

Christian denominations and churches (other religions, too) divide left and right over matters of left and right. But what is left and right?

On a football-field continuum, we might find liberals toward the far left sideline and fundamentalists to the far right, with moderates and conservatives a hash mark in from each side.

Almost every group likes to claim the center, as if that is the Golden Mean. Even radicals, whom some would place off the field altogether, remind us that the Latin radix means “root.” Radicals claim to go to the origins of faith, to the core of things, which sounds more like the center than the fringe.

Consider the four main terms in turn, though, moving from right to left this time:

  • Fundamentalist. Popular use of the word comes from a series of tracts published in the 1920s called The Fundamentals. The authors reacted against modernists who accommodated faith to culture and science. The debate hit frenzied tone in the Scopes “monkey” trial over the teaching of evolution in schools. Fundamentalists elevate scripture above all else in authority. They find in it absolute truths that are unchanging in the face of culture, and they are unafraid to face down culture.
  • Conservatives. Ecology conservationists are considered liberals, but religious conservatives operate with similar convictions in the spiritual realm. Since God made all things, the world works best when we adhere to moral and spiritual rules upon which creation is founded. Chesterton likened this to Robinson Caruso combing the beach for relics from the shipwreck that might still be useful. Conservatives prefer to hold on to what is good and true and beautiful, even if those things have lost luster in the sinful course of history.
  • Moderates. Accused of being compromisers and lukewarm believers, moderates forge faith between the ideal and the real. Marriage is for keeps, but people get divorced; they should not be expelled from church for the failure. Peace is God’s will, but war is sometimes necessary; war should only be made in the interest of justice, never empire building. Moderates allow for diversity in interpreting scripture, but within certain boundaries.
  • Liberals. God made the world “in the beginning,” but enlisted humankind to bring it to fulfillment. While conservatives look for what’s worth saving of the past, liberals look for what’s worth creating of the future. Liberals long for the world to come to its intended goal, which will be an arrival at, rather than a return to, Eden. They believe God’s spirit works as much in the world as in the church.

People are hard to pigeonhole. Be it resolved this year to listen more and label less.

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