May 25, 2023

INSIGHT KANSAS: What is a liberal Christian?

Posted May 25, 2023 12:05 PM
<b>Michael A. Smith</b>
Michael A. Smith


We liberal Christians are used to being overlooked.  I was reminded of this the other day while discussing religion and politics with an otherwise smart, worldly, well-read former student who had never heard of liberal Christianity.  

Liberal Christians are woven into the fabric of Kansas and American history.  Without us, there might never have been an abolitionist or a civil rights movement. 

Kansas Reflector reporters Sherman Smith and Rachel Mipro are trying to give us our due.  Their recent series about religious faith and Kansas politics focuses on the Kansas Legislature’s 2023 session, particularly the priorities of fundamentalist, evangelical Christians.  These include criminalizing abortion, mandating discrimination against LGBTQ persons, “parents’ rights,” promotion of religious schools instead of public ones, and attacks on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.

For balance, Smith and Mipro relied heavily on interviews with Rep. Tobias Schlingensiepen, a Topeka Democrat and United Church of Christ (UCC) Pastor.  Schlingensiepen spoke of an inclusive church, the difference between personal faith and public legislation, representing the powerless, rejecting violence, and economic justice.  Being UCC myself, I know all too well the tendency for people of faith to be stereotyped as anti-LGBTQ and as preoccupied with criminalizing abortion.  

We believe that following the entire Bible literally is impossible.  As A.J. Jacobs notes in The Year of Living Biblically, the Bible commands believers to avoid eating shellfish or wearing mixed-fiber clothing, for example, and men must not shave their beards.  Those who do not keep the Sabbath holy are to be executed by stoning.  Liberal Christians respond by focusing on what UCC theologian Marcus Borg called The Heart of Christianity–Jesus’ teachings through word and example.  These teachings include humility, kindness, refraining from judging others, inclusiveness, economic justice, nonviolence, and speaking truth to power.  If one does truly seek to follow the Bible as literally as possible, small, close-knit faith traditions such as Hasidic Jews or the Amish probably come the closest–but even they do not stone Sabbath-breakers.

Liberal Christians are not exclusively pro-choice. Some predominantly African-American Protestant churches and some Catholic congregations believe and practice the social justice gospel but also oppose abortion, for example.  However, the UCC denomination and many other liberal Christians are openly, avowedly pro-choice.  In an open letter published last year in the Wichita Eagle and signed by numerous UCC, United Methodist, and other clergy, these leaders called for Kansas voters to reject last year’s attempt to criminalize abortion, which they did.  They argued that the Bible holds a woman’s body and her autonomy to be sacred.  Not to be confused with being “pro-abortion,” the UCC and Unitarian Universalist Association co-publish Our Whole Lives, a sex-education curriculum for children and adults alike celebrating our bodies and calling for open communication, family planning, scientifically and medically accurate facts, and affirmative consent. 

Must-read authors include Reinhold Niebuhr, who popularized the Serenity Prayer and influenced Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and several Presidents.  Scholar Elaine Pagels has closely studied the Gnostics, early Christians whose unique understanding of the faith gives insights into the Christianity’s early days.  Finally, the Jesus Seminar’s Five Gospels offers offers a historically-grounded reading of the traditional four gospel stories, plus the recently-discovered Gospel of Thomas.

Liberal Christians may not fit the stereotype, but we remain an active, ongoing part of Kansas’ civic culture and religious life.

. . .

Michael A. Smith is a professor at Emporia State University.