by George Clifford
At the end of the Reagan era, I found liberation theology attractive for four reasons:
- The then prevalent emphasis on self (remember the “me” generation) was increasingly disturbing and repugnant because it is the antithesis to Jesus’ teachings.
- My doctoral research on religious pluralism raised difficult, perhaps unanswerable, questions about the exclusive trustworthiness of any one religion’s scriptures. For example, given both a lack of scientific evidence and conflicting scriptural accounts about what happens at death (e.g., the faithful enter new and everlasting life, death is the end, life follows death which follows life in an endless cycle), one’s cultural heritage and personal biases arguably determine which, if any, scripture most persons accept as authoritative.
- Marx’s critique of religion as the opiate of the masses poignantly questions individual and institutional motives for claiming that religion benefits its adherents primarily after death.
- I learned that the world’s major religions speak with one voice regarding a key element of their basic aim of salvation, transformation, or liberation. However else a religion may unpack the term that describes its aim, at a minimum its aim includes improving the quality of life in the present. For Christians, paradigmatic examples of this motif are the exodus narrative’s theme of liberation and Jesus’ teachings and interactions with people that emphasized God’s acceptance of all (e.g., his interactions with women and sinners), God’s command to love everyone without exception, and Jesus’ healing of the sick and demon possessed.
Concurrently, social changes during the last half century have subtly pushed Christianity to emphasize defining salvation in terms of ethics. With globalization came a growing awareness of the universality of the core ethical teachings of the world’s major religions, in contrast to their mutually exclusive theological or spiritual precepts. This commonality provides fertile soil for many varieties of liberation theology.
Additionally, the apparent incompatibility of science and religion has led many people to abandon religious belief in favor of atheism, agnosticism, or being spiritual with no religious preference. Not only has this trend caused worship attendance to decrease, it has also eroded the certainty of religious belief among some of those who remain involved in a faith community. This latter group finds supporting programs that promote a more ethical and just world less theologically troubling than they do supporting programs that have a narrower theological or spiritual focus.
Hence, Episcopal congregations and dioceses, as well as the national Church, invest more energy and resources in the Standing Rock protest, the Black Lives Matter movement, and other ethical causes than in evangelism. Even the Presiding Bishop’s appointment of a canon for evangelism and his plan to conduct a dozen revivals in 2017 reflect this shift. Both moves emphasize Jesus and his teachings as the reason for engaging in ethical action, largely ignoring the promises of eternal life central to prior generations’ evangelism efforts.
Almost three decades later, I realize that the factors that drew me to liberation theology have had opposite effects on many of those who identify as evangelical Christians:
- Some self-identified evangelical Christians, instead of being repelled by an emphasis on self, have responded by adopting the “prosperity gospel,” i.e., obey God’s teachings and you will prosper materially. Unsurprisingly, Donald Trump seems to find the prosperity gospel attractive. For example, he invited one of its leading exponents, Paul White, to offer the invocation at his inauguration.
- Some self-identified evangelicals (and conservative Roman Catholics who generally prefer Popes John Paul II and Benedict to Pope Francis), like some adherents of all major religions, choose to live in a closed world that excludes disagreement and dissent. These individuals and their churches regard the Bible as the ultimate source of truth, the yardstick by which to judge the truth claims of everything else – science, history, other religions, etc. The slow decline in Southern Baptist numbers (as well as the decline in attendance at mass of non-immigrant US Roman Catholics) reflects this approach’s diminishing popularity.
- Yet other self-identified evangelicals (e.g., Joel Osteen) appear to have taken Marx’s critique of religion seriously, substituting self-help advice clothed in Christian language and stories for substantive teaching about orthodox Christian theological. Illustratively, Osteen oversaw his congregation’s use of media before becoming its pastor; he does not have a degree in theology, the Bible, or religion.
- Finally, and probably in spite of evangelical leaders’ best efforts, social trends are eroding the certainty with which evangelicals of all three types outlined above subscribe to their church’s belief system. One response has been defensive, denouncing opponents for purportedly attempting to marginalize or deny Christianity’s teachings if not its right to a voice in the public square. White supremacists, including those who see Trump as an ally, sometimes deploy this type of rhetoric, trying to bolster the appeal of their message. Another response has dynamics similar to those that draw people toward liberation theology. However, this time the dynamics result in campaigns that support the status quo. These campaigns directly or indirectly advocate oppressing or exploiting women, LGBQT persons, the poor, and other vulnerable individuals. North Carolina’s law requiring persons to use the public restroom provided for persons of the gender on their birth certificate, and proposed similar legislation in several other states exemplifies such campaigns, as do laws restricting access to birth control and abortion. This type of response diametrically conflicts with the message of liberation and love that constitute the common core of ethical teachings of the world’s major religions.
Reflecting on the above typology, I acknowledge that I have written in terms of broad generalities and blithely ignore exceptions. Nevertheless, I am unable to discover much common ground between Christians drawn implicitly or explicitly to a type of liberation theology and Christians who self-identify as evangelical. This divide mirrors the increasing polarization that I observe and experience within the Christian tradition. The divide also mirrors the political and cultural polarities so apparent in last autumn’s presidential campaign.
Sadly, what I do not see is how to bridge the divide, to reconcile the polarities. Perhaps our best option is to practice openness, non-judgmentally welcoming everyone, by living a faith that invites all to journey with the God who liberates, loves, and transforms death into life.
George Clifford, a priest in the Diocese of Hawai’i, served as a Navy chaplain twenty-four years, has taught ethics and the philosophy of religion, and now blogs at Ethical Musings.