Valley Voices

What’s the gospel truth about who’s liberal, who’s conservative?

By Lanny Larson

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at a campaign event at the Cumberland United Methodist Church in Florence, S.C., in February.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at a campaign event at the Cumberland United Methodist Church in Florence, S.C., in February. Associated Press

This has little to do directly with the presidential election (Yes, I can hear the relieved sighs.), except that it follows National Public Radio broadcasts about the presidential and vice presidential nominees’ religious backgrounds.

The Democrat piece concluded, “Just as [Hillary Clinton] comes from the liberal side of Protestantism, [Tim] Kaine comes from the liberal side of Catholicism” because they were religiously invested in the social gospel.

The report about Republicans Donald J. Trump and Mike Pence said they were religiously conservative and adherents of the prosperity gospel.

I wondered – not for the first time: Being your brother’s keeper? Turning the other cheek? Following the Golden Rule? Not seeking the spotlight? Paying taxes? Recycling and saving water and energy? Seeking better wages and working conditions? Those are liberal?


Does it follow that conservative Christianity is characterized by war, hate, intolerance, pride, exclusion, seeking the limelight, squandering natural resources, choosing profits over people, injustice and inequality?

I hope not.

I’m not proclaiming any gospel. My religious background is spotty at best, including a couple of decades when I worshiped mainly myself. However, I’m ordained in the Universal Life Church and have officiated at a few weddings. So on paper …

I grew up Catholic, memorizing the “Baltimore Catechism” on Saturday mornings when I would rather have been about anywhere else. We didn’t do Bible chapter and verse. We heard “Because-the- Church-says- so” when we questioned what we’d recited well enough to score a holy card. The nuns’ intonation made clear that capital “C” in “church” was all we needed to know.

Is it any wonder that some of us started breaking church rules as soon as we dared, especially the one about attending Mass each Sunday; choosing leisure over liturgy?

Only now, in old age, am I better connected with my faith, singing Sundays in a choir and attending men’s group discussions at a parish that tries hard to accept all comers. That hymn isn’t “Some Are Welcome.”

I guess that makes my church liberal, although I could swear I’ve read somewhere that welcoming strangers is a staple of the New Testament, which seems pretty conservative. We apply standard political distinctions to religious beliefs today, although our nation’s founders seemed to believe that freedom to worship was a personal right in which the government shouldn’t meddle.

I believe the reverse to be true, too. Today governance is increasingly and divisively politicized, even at the supposedly nonpartisan local level, and some politicians feel free to inject their religious conviction into the mix.

Christian leaders recommend candidates and campaign for them. That doesn’t square with the fact that Jesus isn’t portrayed with “I Like Ike” buttons and the Sermon on the Mount wasn’t a political rally.

Candidates claim to be “more Christian than my opponent.” Once elected, though, politicians are challenged to balance religious beliefs with their other governmental responsibilities. Faith-based belief about human life may not square with capital punishment or abortion-rights laws, and helping our neighbors may not extend to all our neighbors.

I get that as a cafeteria Catholic who chooses teachings to accept, challenge or disregard. It’s complicated. Does that make me liberal or conservative in my faith? I don’t know. Does it matter?

I’ve never – in a half-century of voting – cast a ballot for or against anyone based on their faith, nor will I on Nov. 8.

A person’s deeply held personal religious beliefs are sufficiently complex that simply labeling them liberal or conservative is confusing at least and possibly misleading at worst.

Lanny Larson is a retired Fresno Bee reporter and editor who also helps train grand jurors in California. Email: