Am I a “liberal?” On the responsible use of labels

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Call me postmodern, but I am no fan of labels.

I accept that they are often unavoidable, helpful, sometimes even necessary. Labels are printed on our food packages and sewn onto the necks of our t-shirts. They are displayed on the front of our businesses and, in some professions, attached to the end of our names like a caboose. I can’t imagine anyone would argue for getting rid of such labels.

But in other cases, labels can obscure, mislead, and even harm. In America’s culture wars, for example, labels are often used as weapons rather than descriptors. When we call someone “anti-God” or “anti-gay” or “unpatriotic,” we’re often not trying to express the full orbed positions held by that person. We’re trying to scare other people away. We’re saying, “They are other. They are not like you. They should not be trusted.” Labeling someone can push others into a defensive posture so that they’ve drawn conclusions about the labeled person before they’ve actually considered what that person has to say.

Language carries baggage. So when we ascribe a label to someone, we’re not just applying the literal meaning of the word to them. We’re also applying the culturally ascribed meaning of that word to them, whether or not we intend it. In so doing, we fail to acknowledge that there are a number of variations under most labels. The moniker “evangelical,” for example, often assumes that the group is monolithic, when in fact, it is not. Evangelicals include a range of individuals and beliefs from silver-haired fundamentalists to young, socially-conscious activists.

In this way, relying on labels often fails to acknowledge the complexities of issues and individuals. They train us to see other people as parts of giant, homogenous blobs. And they rob us of the space we need to evolve and develop without being accused of flip-flopping. If not applied properly and responsibly, labels can become crutches for the intellectually lazy used to scare rather than inform.

This brings me to the title question of this column: “Am I a liberal?” I ask because I was recently labeled that way by a conservative thought leader writing for a conservative publication. The irony of his assessment was that he—the conservative—was writing in defense of the Obama administration while calling me “a liberal Baptist.” As apparently compelling evidence, he cited an article where I spent more than 1000 words criticizing the President’s drone policy. Are you starting to see the problem here?

(In fact, my article was titled, “Drone Debate Reveals Moral Hypocrisy of Both Sides.” Of course, he neither shared the title of the article nor linked to it.)

To be fair, “conservative” and “liberal” labels are often fair and descriptive in the context of America’s culture wars. After all, the debate is mostly concentrated to two polarized fringes. Applying a label in such a situation can denote for which side one is fighting. Sean Hannity is a conservative. Nancy Pelosi is a liberal. Few would dispute either, least of all the individuals themselves.

But not everyone fits neatly into one of these two camps, which means that these labels are not always appropriate. I find that I’m a part of a growing number of my peers who don’t fit neatly into either box. I’m somewhere in the middle, and I’m perfectly happy living there. In fact, a recent Public Religion Research poll showed that 41% of evangelicals are centrists. Among those ages 18-34, the center is even larger (45%). My friends on the left call me a conservative, and those on the right call me a liberal. If asked which label I give myself, I often respond, “It depends on the issue.” This is not a dodge, but rather an honest assessment of myself.

I feel like Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer must have when he was interviewed by Stephen Colbert:

Stephen Colbert: Would it be safe to say you’re a liberal?

Earl Blumenauer: It depends on the issue. Because I’m also working with some of my more conservative friends to try to eliminate sugar subsidies. Is that liberal or conservative?

SC: It’s liberal.

EB: You think?

SC: I do.

EB: Why?

SC: ‘Cause you support it.

The interview was obviously satirical, but it also demonstrates the way in which labels can be emptied of all their meaning by those who misuse them.

Does criticizing Democratic president’s drone policy make me a liberal? Does being outspoken about my pro-life convictions? What about believing that that our government is spending too much money and amassing too much power over our lives? Only if you’re reasoning in reverse. Of course, I hold other views that are popular among more liberal voters but that’s what being a free-thinker often looks like.

Labels are tricky things, and we won’t always affix them perfectly. But all of us–myself included–can work to be more responsible in applying labels to others and stop using labels to scare others or avoid doing the work necessary to unfold the nuances of someone’s positions. This might begin with simply asking if that person would apply the label to himself or herself. This will at least get us on the road to speaking more precisely. After all, Precision is critical to constructive public dialogue.

That’s why when I launched this column with RNS, I thought about calling it “Reflections of a Pro-Life, Pro-Environment, Anti-War, Anti-Nuke, Non-Pacifist, Fiscally Conservative, Justice-Minded Centrist.”

In the end, “On Faith & Culture” just sounded better.

  • Pingback: Am I a Liberal? On Using Labels Responsibly | Jonathan Merritt()

  • We are kindred spirits Mr. Merritt. Spot on and well written.

  • Thanks, Daniel. Appreciate it!

  • Bart Barber

    Maybe the objection ought not to be against having labels, but against having to choose from too narrow a selection of them? I think I’m generally in favor of a person’s knowing what he is (not just where he falls on this issue or that one), or at least in favor of a person’s endeavoring to sort out what he is. Winding up against this thing and in favor of that one ought not to be something that occurs haphazardly. We all ought to BE something—have some overarching, undergirding, all-enveloping set of core principles—that determines how we sort out the various particulars.

    It is possible, if the only options afforded one for labeling are just those two (liberal or conservative), that one might object, “I am a servant of Jesus Christ. Being one of those requires me to answer this question one way and this other one differently. If I am neither a conservative nor a liberal, it is not because I cannot be labeled, but because I insist upon being labeled something else…something more important.”

    This kind of insistence is not postmodern. It does not celebrate vagueness and complexity as virtues. It does not require, even, that serving Christ might not possibly align almost entirely with one political philosophy or wind up being almost entirely incompatible with another—this isn’t fence-straddling or the quest for the “third way.” Rather, it promotes fidelity and consistency, just not to a political theory but to something higher instead.

  • That last line is hysterical! I continue to appreciate your tone on these issues, brother.

  • Dave Farmer


    I agree 100%! I wish more people would hear your message. Labels are damaging and shut down meaningful conversation. Liberals aren’t bad people and neither are conservatives. And the label Envangelical bothers me too, as it separates Christians.

    Keep up the good work!

  • I also think labels are somewhat subjective. In some circles, I am clearly a liberal, while in other circles, I am often labeled as being more conservative. It all depends on who is doing the labeling…

  • Thanks, David!

    Craig: Yes. Me too.

  • Kevin

    Yeah, I totally hear you about labels being used as weapons and as substitutes for nuanced thought. I’ve had more verbal tussles on the bottom half of the internet with people who wrongly assume that just because I take the liberal view on some things, it means I must be a foaming-at-the-mouth atheist who hates Christians, blah-blah-blah, and who cling to that narrow, mistaken conclusion even when I tell them that I actually agree with them on some things (I’m pro-life; I’m not a big fan of same-sex marriage; etc.). No, you’re just a stupid, godless liberal, just like the rest of ’em.

    Okay, whatever you say…sigh…

  • Thanks, Brandon!

    I feel your pain, Kevin! 🙂

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