Humor me for a minute and allow me to make a significant number of generalizations and assumptions, most of which stem from my experience.

Theological liberals often tend to be political liberals as well.  In this, they often want the State to act as an agent of compassion along with the Church.  Political conservatives resist this on the grounds that it is not the State’s function or role.  At the same time, theological liberals often want the State to remove itself from the business of marrying people, as this is the proper role of the Church.

Compare that to theological conservatives, who often happen to also be political conservatives.  Typically, they wish to reduce the State’s role in acts of compassion as the State tends to be inept and such acts are the proper dominion of the Church.  At the same time, they argue that the State has an interest in preserving traditional marriage.

I do not think the positions are actually internally contradictory.  But framing them this way does expose the interesting tension between their understanding of the State’s role in society.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. Humored.

    I wonder if this tension doesn’t come from how we designate “liberal” and “conservative” politics and theology.

    I attend Marble Collegiate Church–part of the Collegiate Churches of NY, the oldest church in North America–we’re a part of the RCA denomination, the services are fairly formally structured, and scripture and tradition are central parts of the faith preached. Seems pretty conservative. It is because, not in spite, of these conservative convictions that the congregation prays over the soldiers lost in combat and hangs ribbons honoring them, honoring Iraqi civilians, and praying for peace outside of our church. Given today’s opinions, perhaps that’s moderate. These same religious convictions drive the church’s position to welcome gay and transgender people as full members of the faith community. Many people would call that liberal.

    Similarly, I personally believe that the more government programs there are, the more potential for mismanagement and even exploitation. States rights, individual liberty, and freedom to practice religion are important to me. Conservative. I also think that addressing poverty and homelessness, the way we take care (or neglect) our planet, and even the way animals are treated is important. Liberal?

    I find myself tempted to label groups and individuals as “liberal” or “conservative” and am almost always surprised that life doesn’t usually fit into such neat packages.


  2. Matthew Lee Anderson May 22, 2008 at 10:52 pm


    I appreciate you humoring me. I agree that the labels are nebulous, but I’m not ready to let go of them, as I think they have historically demarcated very different schools of thought and (hopefully) will continue to do so in the future. How likely that is, of course, depends upon the intellectual rigor that undergirds the political movements. There hasn’t been much on the left the last twenty years, and the right’s intellectual establishment has grown increasingly dilapidated as well. That is, I think, partly why such confusion is allowed to reign where individuals can support the government’s intrusion in some areas but not in others. I’m not sure either side has a really clear and compelling theory of government that they are consistently applying.


  3. There’s a third way…the libertarian way.

    It’s interesting to see many of those in my generation (under 30) don’t fit into these neat little political/theological boxes. I have friends that have vastly different theological views but they agree on one thing: the government that governs the least, governs the best.


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