Friday, May 11, 2012

Neither and Both: Conservative vs. Liberal

As I address current social issues in a variety of venues, I'm often intrigued by the responses to my analyses.  They are remarkably similar, regardless of whether they come from folks who self-identify as “liberal” or “conservative.”

On the other hand, I find it difficult to label my own social ideology.  While I have agreements with both liberals and conservatives on several fronts, the intersections with my own philosophy aren’t significant enough to allow me to identify with either.

As a follower of Jesus Christ, my ultimate allegiance is to Him and a biblical worldview.  A key teaching of Scripture is that human beings are in the “image of God.”  Yet, because of sin, the divine image has been damaged, resulting in human nature and thinking being fundamentally flawed and given to depravity.  Because of God’s grace, however, the damage is not absolute, making it possible for humans to do the right thing and achieve a stable society.

When it comes to social vision, both the liberal and conservative views affirm and deny this truth.  The liberal perspective seems to affirm human depravity when it comes to the individual.  In other words, because individual initiative often falls short, the individual cannot be trusted to do the right thing without external prompting.  With this, I agree.  However, this perspective seems to deny human depravity when it comes to government.  In this view, and of course to varying degrees, it seems that government intervention is seen as the best means of the aforementioned ‘prompting.’  With this, I disagree.  Witness the bloated and inefficient government bureaucracy we often encounter when trying to satisfy the very systems they’ve set up.

Conversely, the conservative view seems to affirm human depravity when it comes to the government.  In this view, government power has a corrupting influence and cannot be trusted to do the right thing.  Individual initiative flourishes best in an atmosphere of freedom.  With this, I agree.  However, this view, and again, to varying degrees, seems to deny human depravity when it comes to the individual and trusts that freedom will result in individuals doing right with little external prompting.  With this, I disagree.  Witness the recent post-deregulation chaos on Wall Street and the avarice that led to it.

From my perspective, both the liberal and conservative ideologies as classically understood have an inadequate understanding of human depravity.  The liberal view doesn’t seem to take into account that government is run by flawed individuals they don't trust; the conservative view doesn’t seem to take into account that individuals are just as depraved as those who run the very government they resist.

Though I have sympathies with many of the finer points of the two views, it's on this basis that I cannot comfortably align myself with either.  In order to do the right thing, it's necessary to have an internal moral compass, informed by a transcendent reference point.  It's my understanding that the human conscience remains the best internal moral compass, and the Word of God remains as the best transcendent reference point.  The two must stand together - this gives me a stable rubric from which I can safely operate.

Dr. Carl Ellis, Jr. is a theological anthropologist and Assistant Professor of Practical Theology at Redeemer Seminary in Dallas, TX.  Follow Dr. Ellis on Twitter: @CarlEllisJr


  1. Jesus unnerves both sides: out-liberalizing liberals and out-conserving conservatives.

  2. It is interesting how Jesus leads us in some ways on this. He did not side with the pro-Roman government supporters nor did he side with the Jewish Zealots of his day. As God in the flesh on earth, he knew "what was in man" and acted accordingly. Go 'head bro!

  3. As a recipient of government programs, being transformed by the word of God, I thank u for putting into words the tension of identifying soley as liberal or conservative. Blessings,

  4. Hey Doc. I am new here and my theological views are in the formative stage. Can you comment further on "given to depravity", "God's grace making it possible to do the right thing" and "the human conscience as moral compass". So many times the "depravity" word is used to indicated that God's grace covers only a pre-determined, relatively small number, of people in this world. If that happens to be your theological contention, does the "rest" of humanity have the same access to their human conscience? I find myself perplexed and frustrated by the gulf between those in various theological camps. The venom and rhetoric between theologians mirrors the political divide you describe in this blog and actually saddens me.

    1. Thanks for your question. Depravity is toxic and if allowed to run its course, it would destroy humanity. However, God, by His grace, prevents depravity from completely having its way; this is “common grace” – a grace that all mankind shares whether we acknowledge God or not. Because of this “grace,” our humanity, while flawed, survives. In some theological circles “total depravity” is often confused with “utter depravity.” While every area of our humanity is tainted, because of God’s grace, depravity has not become absolute. This means that in spite of our fallen condition, we can still have a sense of what’s right, and we still have a conscience that acts as a moral compass. However, without the transcendent reference point of God’s word, our conscience will eventually veer off course.

      There’s a second kind of grace, “special grace,” that brings salvation. This applies to God’s people and only God knows for sure who they are. It is not our business to try to second-guess God in this matter. Our job is to give all mankind access to the good news of God’s saving grace. Anybody who uses ‘venomous rhetoric against other theologians’ or uses God’s knowledge of His people as an excuse not to reach the world discredits his or her own claim to God’s special grace. This saddens me too.