The political banter today constantly engages with the left and the right. It seems like there’s no middle ground anymore. When people talk about politics, they often interchange the words liberal and the left. And then when they speak about the right, they automatically think conservative, or worse, white nationalist.
The possibility of a middle ground seems impossible to imagine today. But there is one thing with which no one can disagree—and this may be the only thing we can agree upon today in terms of our political and cultural debates. That is that we are polarized, politicized, and estranged between the extremes on both sides of the political spectrum.
Understanding Our Terminology
It is important to understand our terminology. We must distinguish our political terms intelligently and accurately while keeping in mind historic Christian values.
Thus, the word conservative, while often cherished by people on the right, is itself an ambiguous term. If you were in the United Kingdom in the aftermath of Oliver Cromwell and the re-establishment of the crown after the English Civil War, and you said that you were a Republican, you would not be a conservative. That may seem surprising, but what was conservative in that era was the monarchy. Having a king ruling the nation was England’s long history. Having a parliament in charge was mainly due to Civil War. A purely parliamentary system without a king lasted for only 20 years. To be a Republican rather than a monarchist was actually to be a liberal.
Here in America, however, when we use the word conservative, we are thinking in terms of someone who wants to maintain the founding values of America. This means the principles of constitutional government, the abiding value of the Declaration of Independence with our rights coming from a transcendent divine being, and the value of self-responsibility, all shaped by our Federal Constitution. In this sense, conservativism is understood in a political sense. But it can also be used in a theological sense.
So, when we talk about conservativism, we need to make a distinction between political conservativism and theological conservativism. If we don’t, we will be unable to understand the great debate that is being fought today about the First Amendment and free speech.
Let me illustrate it this way: theological conservativism is a desire to maintain biblical Christianity rather than letting it be replaced by a religious system that uses Christian terminology but is committed to man-made doctrines that are inconsistent or even opposed to the truth of the Bible. This kind of theology has identified itself with Christianity. But this was challenged.
A century ago, J. Gresham Machen, a professor at Princeton Seminary, wrote a book entitled Christianity and Liberalism. In that study, he made clear that there were two different religions namely, Christianity and Liberalism, each of which used the same vocabulary but meant something entirely different. Machen’s book launched an ongoing debate as to whether a church is liberal or conservative—whether a church holds to biblical Christianity and hence is authentically Christian, or whether it holds to modernism or man-made progressive theologies that do not conform to Scripture. So-called “Liberal Christianity” or “Liberalism” is anti-Christian in various ways. It has openly denied the deity of Christ, his virgin birth, his substitutionary atonement, his resurrection, and the inspired character of the Bible, all the while identifying itself as Christian.
When we understand that there is conservative Christianity and also a liberal form of Christianity that are totally different religions, we may think that we must oppose liberalism in the political arena. Yet, while it may seem like an oxymoron and inconsistent, Machen wanted there to be political liberalism alongside his biblical and theological conservative beliefs. How is that possible?
To clarify, historic political liberalism did not mean pro-abortion, an advocacy of gender confusion, same-sex marriage or the various progressive assaults on Biblical values, the values that authentic conservative Christianity has sought to maintain.
Rather, what we are speaking of here is the loss of classic political liberalism that defined the American public square since the First Amendment was ratified. The values that we celebrate in the First Amendment have historically been foundational and necessary in the perspectives of both earlier theological liberals and authentic Christians. The issue at stake was the freedom to state one’s views openly, but to do so knowing that a counter perspective was free to respond by critique and disagreement.
Theological conservatives like Machen and his theologically liberal opponents both maintained that each side of a debate should have the opportunity to express its views openly in the press or in the public square. Political liberalism in the American tradition has believed that free individuals should have the opportunity to declare their views and to disagree openly and strenuously with one another. In other words, Machen as a political liberal wanted there to be a free marketplace of ideas. This is what the First Amendment created in America—political liberalism for all in the realm of thought and speech.
But it is exactly this, that those who are inappropriately called “liberals” today radically disagree with. An authentic political liberal wants people to have the ability to hold their views and disagree freely with other views and at the same time allow their political opponents to state their views in opposition and disagree with them. Such disagreement in the political sphere may mean one person thinks another is utterly stupid or pigheaded for holding his beliefs, but, it also means that utterly stupid or pigheaded opponent has every right to say or write his beliefs. This mutually held respect for the rights of one’s bitterest opponents is precisely what so-called “liberals” no longer hold. Hence, they are not liberals at all. Instead, they are Marxists hiding in liberals’ clothing.
Leftists: Marxists in Liberals’ Clothing
What too often is called liberalism today is much closer to a cultural Marxist ideology that intends to suppress free speech. It desires to silence opponents and not let their views be heard. That is why there is a cacophony of cancel culture and shouting matches where professors and guests are silenced by angry mobs at prestigious schools. Mostly gone are the once common opportunities for a free and open debate of ideas.
This then, it’s not liberalism. Instead, let’s call it what it is. It is “leftism.” It is a species of Marxism that wants to dominate, control, and destroy all viewpoints other than its own.
Hence, I am advocating a position that celebrates conservative theology and disagrees deeply with liberal theology even as it celebrates and advances classic political liberalism. To establish this balance is the best antidote to the toxic cultural influence of cultural Marxism and its utter disdain for freedom of speech and of the press.
As a classic political liberal, I want to protect and advance free speech and the freedom of the press. Should you agree, this means that we must labor to assure that we have openly accessible venues and opportunities to discuss and disagree. It means we must fight so that news media, programs, entertainment, publishing, academia, and other places of education maintain free speech dialog.
As we see these once great bastions of liberty shutting down their historic commitment to free speech under the duress of a monolithic politically correct ideology, let us be sure not to complain of liberalism. This is anything but liberalism. Let us call it what it is. It is “Leftism.” The destruction of the open pursuit of truth, logic and clear arguments from Scripture or reason is the poisonous fruit of the ascendancy of Marxist ideology, or what we should call Leftism.
Leftism is clever, however. On the whole advocates of this perspective will not identify openly with this label. They prefer to maintain the illegitimate term “liberal.” If that becomes difficult, they celebrate instead that they are “progressives.” But progressivism is simply a euphemism for efforts to silence the clarion wisdom of classic biblical truth and the use of public debate to achieve the best understanding of contemporary issues. The progress we need now is to redress the regressive anti-free speech tenets of the Left and return to the place where mind and authentic debate are welcome in the arena of public concern.
A Call to Courageous Action
Hence, we need to defend the First Amendment. It is the great legacy of American liberty. Moreover, consider this: the early Christian church had no weapons, no organized army, and few highly educated people. But what it had was the courage to speak the gospel boldly. This is what we must seek to do in our day. Let us strive for a free press and free-speech surrounded by the protections of political liberalism. With this reality, those on the left who withstand conservative commitments will be compelled to defend their ideas in the face of Scripture, history, and reason. This is a trilogy of intellectual and moral forces against which they cannot prevail. Their only hope is to silence them.
So, here’s a cheer for political liberalism and biblical Christianity, along with a prayer for many more courageous Christians! May we exercise our faith and freedom in word and deed, openly and boldly in the public square, while there’s still time.