Chapter 06: Liberal-Conservative Split in Politics

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Chapter Summaries

It is difficult to imagine, when watching political television shows with screaming pundits, that at bottom most of us want similar things. We fight among ourselves precisely because we cherish common ideals, but differ dramatically in our understanding of how best to bring these ideals about. This chapter works to illuminate the deep differences that drive our political fights and argues that one of the key differences between Liberals and Conservatives is the role they envision for traditional institutions: Conservatives tend to support traditional institutions and expect them to preserve cultural values, while Liberals are more apt to question the role of institutions and expect them to be more flexible and tolerant of diversity. Moderates, on the other hand, are sympathetic to both arguments. We see the wisdom of having strong churches, strong schools, and strong political leaders and rightly worry about social entropy. However, as moderates, we also understand the Liberal fear that institutions with too much power, and too great of a reach might trample individual freedoms. Moderates seek a true middle way that cherishes and nurtures strong institutions, and at the same time circumscribes the role of those institutions so as to protect personal liberties.


Early in Lost Chapter 6 we read the following lines.

[W]e fight for what we need and believe. We fight with those who we think can provide what we need and with those who stand in our way of getting it. We fight on behalf of those we care about as well as ourselves. If we weren’t in a liberal versus conservative fight, then we would be fighting over something else. (page 82)

There are many different metaphors for life. Some people think of it as a journey from one point to another, while others conceive of life as a circle returning to itself. The idea that life is a fight, conflict, or battle is a surprisingly popular and flexible metaphor. From hymns (“Onward Christian Soldiers”) to favorite Bible passages (“Put on the Armor of Christ” from Ephesians 6:10-17), Christians have frequently interpreted their lives as a fight – a fight against personal temptation and sin, a fight against the devil, a fight against injustice, a fight against moral and institutional decay, a fight against nature, a fight against secular culture, even a fight against unbelief or unbelievers.

Political ideologies underlie the social and economic systems that help us and our families get the things we need to survive and thrive. In this arena of political ideology, it appears that there is room for sound and responsible opinions that conflict. That’s why there can be good and thoughtful people on both sides of the liberal-conservative divide. It is also why intentional moderates find it imprudent to side decisively and permanently with one side or the other. This chapter tries to identify what is most profound and compelling in the ideological stances of the left and the right. That helps moderates explain why they believe the wise place to be is in the middle, drawing wisdom from both sides.

Get Busy


Most of us are involved in a range of ongoing life struggles, many of which are not necessarily negative. Even political fights are not necessarily harmful. But it would be good to find more productive and less hurtful ways of fighting. We all fight, but most of us could learn to fight more fairly and with less collateral damage.

Where there are relationships there are fights, so take a few moments to become aware of some of the ongoing struggles in which you are involved. Are you and a spouse in the middle of a fight about where to go on vacation, what color to paint a room, or whether in-laws should visit for the holiday? Are you currently fighting with neighbors about property lines or the use of common spaces? Perhaps you are fighting with friends about other friends, or fighting with coworkers about future projects and responsibilities. Maybe you are fighting with a girlfriend or boyfriend about the future of your relationship, or fighting with your kids about their grades and activities. Think of one that you would not mind sharing with the group and consider the following questions and issues.

  • Can you tell the group about the fight you are in without shaping and shading your story to reflect your belief that you are right? Try describing the fight you are having in completely neutral language.
  • Is your fight serious? How does the seriousness of the fight and the issues involved affect the ways in which you fight?
  • What strategies do you use to win fights? How does your relationship with your adversary affect the strategies that you deem appropriate?
  • What kinds of fights are worth the effort? What fights might you consider losing, or avoiding, in order to avoid harmful consequences?
  • Are there any ways of fighting that consistently yield “good results” regardless of who wins or loses?

Certainly some fights and issues are worth fighting hard for, perhaps even to the point of physically fighting to defend oneself, one’s family, or one’s nation. However, since fighting is so common in human life, most of us recognize that there are many situations in which it is more important to fight in a civil and respectful manner than it is to win. Most church fights (and these are common as well) fall into this latter category. But fighting fair in church is not easy. And refusing to fight or just letting one’s religious opponents win is not always wise.


One of the most powerful prophetic and political movements in American history has been the fight for and against slavery, racial segregation and oppression, and the corresponding fight for and against civil rights. If Christians had not been so successful in rationalizing first slavery and then segregation, framing it as a battle against their religious and secular opponents in the name of implementing God’s supposed will for African people, would these practices have lasted as long as they did? If other Christians had not been able to conceive of the abolition and civil rights movements as fights against evil, oppression, and injustice, would these prophetic movements have had the same power?

It seems that conceiving of a movement as a fight for an ideal and against a dastardly enemy tends to galvanize people for action. This galvanizing can be for good and bad ends, as the slavery and civil-rights example suggests; the churches have been on both sides of that issue. Galvanizing works because we are biologically primed for fighting; thinking we have to fight energizes us and makes us more determined and willing to sacrifice. Might it be possible to transcend personal, social, religious, and military fighting altogether? Could we somehow just leave it all behind?

In the section entitled “The Sociology of Political Fights” we encounter the notion that fighting itself may be unavoidable. It is not “as if we could just stop by putting our minds to it, like children fighting over toys: There really is something to fight over here.” As Chapter 6 argues, fighting is necessary because the world is complex and supports opposed value systems. But the chapter also argues that there are better and worse things to fight about, and better and worse ways of fighting. As Christians we are called to fight for and against certain things, but perhaps more importantly we are required to fight in the right way.

It is especially important for moderate Christians to understand the sociology of the basic fight between conservatives and liberals. Empathy – understanding the feelings and motivations of others – is essential to realize the moderate goal of fighting graciously and intelligently. Can we shelve the rhetoric, locate some of the deeper emotional and sociological motivations, and empathize with the basic liberal and conservative positions?

Throughout Part III of Lost, which is entitled “A Cultural Divide in American Christianity,” the emphasis is on key differences between liberals and conservatives: different institutional expectations (Chapter 6), different understandings of church-state relations (Chapter 7), and different styles of moral reasoning (Chapter 8). The reason for highlighting these differences is not to consolidate them, but rather to expose and explain them so that liberals, conservatives, and moderates might begin a process of empathizing with one another. This will not suddenly cause everyone to stop fighting; but we may hope that such empathy will lead to more productive fights that yield feasible solutions rather than merely prideful winners and resentful losers. We may hope too that understanding, even if it does not lead to agreement, might put an end to unhelpful caricatures and destructive rhetorical attacks.

What do you think are the political and institutional connotations of “liberal”

  • among your colleagues?
  • in your extended family?
  • in your church?

What do you think are the political and institutional connotations of “conservative”

  • among your colleagues?
  • in your extended family?
  • in your church?

Chapter 6 argues that one of most important differences between liberals and conservatives is their differing attitudes toward institutions, both church institutions and civic institutions. The political and institutional connotations of “liberal” and “conservative” change over the decades. At a deep level, however, the terms represent two relatively stable positions. Liberals and conservatives tend to agree that stable institutions are crucial for human flourishing and that individual freedoms should be preserved within the institutional frameworks of governments and churches. They differ on how to strike the proper balance between institutional stability and individual liberty. In general, conservatives value strong institutions as a means of preserving the stability, cohesion, and moral character of society and worry about the corrosive influence of chaotic individualism and moral license. Conversely, liberals, in general, worry about the oppressive and coercive potential of institutions and value individual liberties as the means of preserving creativity, free inquiry, and the moral character of society. Intentional moderates want to strike a deliberate balance between the two opposed emphases.

The characterizations of liberals and conservatives offered in Chapter 6 are ideals. In practice, political conservatives in the United States are rarely wholly conservative. Many politicians who characterize themselves as conservatives embody the conservative ideal insofar as they support a robust military, strong churches, and effective law enforcement, but they exemplify the liberal ideal of personal autonomy over against institutional control when they champion free markets. Conversely, political liberals who champion civil rights sometimes also embody conservative ideals as when they emphasize the need for strong educational institutions. In practice, the day to day realities in both civic and church institutions often produce political pragmatists who are neither strictly conservative nor strictly liberal. Intentional moderates make huge gains in empathy and self-understanding when they learn to recognize the ideological forces at work beneath political fashions and changing policies.

Get Caught Up

Homework (to be completed prior to group meeting)

This week as you are preparing to discuss Chapter 6, keep a list. Think about the wide range of goods, services, and behaviors that are required to keep a society going. What do we need from one another in order to survive? Some examples are provided below to get you started. As the week unfolds, think about what other items should be added to the list. Remember to bring this list to the discussion group.

  • Safe, clean water
  • Personal safety
  • Medical care
  • Education

Homework Discussion (during group meeting)

Everyone in the group was asked to write a list of goods, services, and behaviors that are required to keep a society going. Take a few moments to share and compare lists and to create a large group list.

  • Which of these goods can be provided most effectively by individuals?
  • Which of these require the aid of larger institutions?

After answering the questions above, try to complete the sentences below using several specific examples.

Most of the time, individuals can be trusted to __________ for themselves.

Most of the time, institutions must be relied upon for__________.

It is easy to lose sight of the primary issue(s) on which most liberals and conservatives agree. Individuals cannot do everything for themselves, so we must form institutions to achieve and protect many social goods. However, individual freedoms must be balanced against institutional stability. Social institutions – and this includes church institutions – need to be protected from the chaos of idiosyncratic individuals and individuals need to be protected from the coercion of corrupt institutions.

Conservatives lean toward protecting the hard-won stability of precious institutions and are suspicious of the destabilizing effects of careless individuals. Liberals lean toward protecting individual freedoms and are perpetually worried about institutional corruption and coercion. Intentional moderates are those who see the merits of both positions. They understand and value strong churches, equitable laws and courts, and stable civic institutions, but they also work to protect the liberties of the individual within these institutions and to nurture means to correct institutional corruption and to resist institutional coercion.

Get Scriptural

Bible Reading: Matthew 6

Giving to the Poor and Prayer

1 “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.

2 “So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.

3 “But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,

4 so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.

5 “When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.

6 “But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.

7 “And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words.

8 “So do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.

9 “Pray, then, in this way:
‘Our Father who is in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.
10 ‘Your kingdom come
Your will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
11 ‘Give us this day our daily bread.
12 ‘And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 ‘And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
[For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.]’

14 “For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.

15 “But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.

Fasting; The True Treasure; Wealth (Mammon)

16 “Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.

17 “But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face

18 so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.

19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.

20 “But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal;

21 for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

22 “The eye is the lamp of the body; so then if your eye is clear, your whole body will be full of light.

23 “But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light that is in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!

24 “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

The Cure for Anxiety

25 “For this reason I say to you, do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?

26 “Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they?

27 “And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life?

28 “And why are you worried about clothing? Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin,

29 yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these.

30 “But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more clothe you? You of little faith!

31 “Do not worry then, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear for clothing?’

32 “For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.

33 “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

34 “So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.


Matthew 6 is one of the most widely used chapters in the Bible when people in the church argue about institutions and personal accountability. Interestingly, both conservatives and liberals read this chapter as an affirmation of their positions. Is Jesus recommending robust institutions and supports for the needy, or is he recommending personal responsibility and accountability? Is Christ’s call not to worry about tomorrow a declamation against financial institutions and retirement accounts or rather a call for a social safety net?

Unfortunately for both liberal and conservative opportunists who would appeal to this chapter for ideological support, Matthew 6 does not map neatly onto current political debates or positions. But this is fortunate for moderates. Jesus’ words in this passage offer much needed common sense, stressing the ideals for which a society should strive without insisting on a liberal or a conservative strategy for realizing those ideals.

In Chapter 6, Jesus tells us not to worry overmuch about long-term material success, but he is clearly not calling for us to abandon concern for our own wellbeing and the wellbeing of others. After all, his admonitions about how best to take care of the needy clearly assume that we should and will take care of one another. Jesus does not advocate for a laissez-faire approach to life or just accepting our allotted place within social hierarchies. Rather, he calls on us to reorient our priorities, which is an injunction with revolutionary implications. Yet he does not reject all institutions, either. There are some goods and services that require institutional cooperation, and Jesus straightforwardly assumes the need for religious groups and charitable institutions that exist to promote the welfare of the less fortunate.

Jesus does not advocate either institutionalist or individualist strategies, therefore, but rather stresses the need for a radical reorientation of both institutions and individuals toward the ideals of the Kingdom of God and righteousness. This is a call that both conservative supporters of invaluable institutions and liberal advocates for precious personal freedoms can support. But it is even more in line with the intuitions and priorities of intentional moderates who can empathize with the concerns of both sides while remaining focused on realizing righteousness as we strive for the Kingdom of God.

  • How do the final verses (25-34) affect you and the way in which you look at your priorities?
  • Does Chapter 6 change or focus your understanding of the proper role of social institutions?
  • Does this chapter impact your view of church institutions?

Get Practical

Case Study

Many congregations have rocky relationships with their denominational leadership. This relationship is complicated by the fact that some churches in the United States practice a form of polity in which the local church membership exercises almost complete control over the congregation’s finances, properties, leadership, and affiliations.

At one such church the congregation is facing a dilemma. Several years ago they hired a young and energetic minister who immediately began to implement changes in the church. Those who had helped make the decision to hire him argued that he should be allowed some leeway to make changes and soon these changes began to bear fruit. In five years the church nearly tripled in size and now the congregation is thinking about expanding their building or adding a second service. During a deacon’s meeting, when everyone is discussing ways to save money for the building expansion, the pastor suggests that the church consider separating from the denomination and becoming an independent congregation. Independence would allow the church to keep its traditional denominational financial support and to put the money back into growing and supporting the congregation’s local ministries. After some discussion the motion is tabled so that everyone can pray and think about it before voting.

One group of deacons enthusiastically supports the idea. In general this group of deacons is made up of women and men who joined the congregation after the new minister arrived. They like the idea of keeping the congregation’s money under local control and using it to support their active ministries and not some distant bureaucracy. Their loyalties are to their pastor and their local church and they feel confident that the local church’s polity provides more than enough institutional checks and balances. Most importantly, they desire the freedom to act independently to address the social, economic, and theological needs of their families and communities, and chafe at the notion of an overarching body with little knowledge of their lives and needs regulating their behavior and worship.

A second group of deacons understands the arguments of the first group, but is less eager to part ways with the denomination. In general, this group is made up of long time members of the church who remember an era when the denomination supported them by sending and paying interim ministers during a time of transition. They are not slavishly loyal to the denomination, nor does it provide them with their primary identity as Christians, but they do appreciate the work it does far beyond their local community. The denomination commissions ministries, runs a seminary, publishes educational materials for Sunday school classes, and keeps them connected to other congregations throughout the country. Many of these deacons also share an apprehension about removing the denominational controls on their pastor, though they hesitate to voice this concern. It is not that they don’t trust him personally. Rather, they appreciate the moderating influence that the denomination can have on a local minister’s preaching and charismatic powers.


Picture yourself as a deacon on the board, as well as a self-identified intentional moderate.

  • How would you characterize the fears and concerns of the first group of deacons? What do they want from their church and how do they envision achieving it?
  • How would you describe the concerns shared by the second group of deacons? Are their worries justified, not merely in this case, but more generally?
  • Are the “conservative” and “liberal” labels at all helpful in describing this situation?
  • Imagine that you have been asked to mediate between the two groups. How would you describe the conservatives to the liberals and vice versa in a manner that would encourage empathy and lead to deeper understanding and a more fruitful and generous debate as the deacons move toward a vote?

Get Going

For Further Thought

Looking ahead, one of the overarching arguments of Lost is that Christians who are intentional moderates can balance the desire for stable social, political, and religious institutions with the need for individual freedom more effectively than those on the extremes. Moderates in the churches can do this, in part, by reclaiming the “liberal evangelical” mantle. Insofar as we recognize that Jesus Christ and the good news of the Gospel is and must remain the strength and stabilizing force of the church, we are evangelical and our faith recognizes the importance of a strong and stable church. Insofar as we are confident that Jesus Christ and the biblical texts are a sure-enough foundation and thus refuse to admit external authorities such as ecclesiastical legalism or biblical literalism, we are liberal and recognize the importance of individual liberty. We will return to these themes in later chapters.

Much of this chapter deals with topics that we generally associate with civic institutions, but the Church is, among other things, a human institution that involves sociological and political realities as well. Different denominations and churches approach the issue of balancing institutional stability with individual liberty differently. Consider the following questions.

  • What mechanisms does your church or denomination have in place to protect local institutions from the personal whims of its charismatic leaders or powerful congregations?
  • Are these mechanisms generally effective, too permissive, or too constraining? How might they be improved?
  • What mechanisms or traditions has your church or denomination developed in order to preserve an individual’s freedom of expression within the church?
  • How effectively does your church or denomination balance the concern for institutional stability and individual liberty? Does this balance, or lack thereof, affect whether you would characterize your church as liberal, conservative, or moderate?
  • If your church is part of a larger denomination or association, what checks and balances are in place at the local, state, and national levels?

Closing Prayer

Today we conclude with a prayer based on Matthew 6. The version below is from the New International Version of the Bible.

Lord Jesus Christ we come to you in thanksgiving for all that we have, for all of the institutions and people that support us and minister to us. We thank you for the ministry of the church. We are thankful also for the freedom we have to worship in our own way, and we pray for those who do not share this freedom.

We ask you to guide us as we work to understand one another better. Give us the gift of empathy for one another. Grant us patience, tolerance, and grace.

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come, your will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.

Teach us again the meaning of the prayer you taught us.


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