The stupidity of labels

A couple times a week someone asks me if I’m a liberal or a conservative. So I want to say this loud and clear. My name is Adam McLane, I want my label to be “Christ-follower.” You can call me crazy. You can call me radical. But liberal or conservative are stupid titles.

Here’s why the labels mean nothing. Labels like conservative and liberal are not black and white, it’s not that easy. They are completely subjective to the person asking the question as well as the question that person uses to determine if a person is “left or right” of them on that particular issue.

Two examples from my world.

Politics In this year’s election you have McCain vs. Obama. Mike Huckabee would call John McCain a liberal republican. But just about any democrat would label McCain a conservative. On the democratic side most democrats, who republicans call liberals, would consider Obama a liberal and themselves conservative. It is difficult in 2008 because one traditional test of a persons “liberal or conservative status” is determined by who is seen as the person with the best family values. Boy, that’s a tough call in 2008!

In Christian circles the political labels reverse based on where you live. Traditionally, Christians in the north vote republican while Christians in the south trend towards democrats. Now Christians from the north or the south would have the same view that abortion is murder, but a “conservative” would use a persons belief on abortion as the litmus test for his candidacy while a “liberal” would use a litmus test along broader social policy lines.

Church This is where it gets really scary. In conservative places, like my alma mater and the churches I’ve worked at, I was labeled a “liberal” in that I believe Paul, that men and women are equal in Christ. But with others, because I went to a “conservative” Bible college and have always worked at “conservative” churches and I personally believe in the inerrency of Scripture, I’m a borderline fundamentalist conservative Christian. the crazy thing is, in the church, these labels have so many litmus tests that no one truly is a conservative or liberal but most of us are both liberal and conservative at the same time.

To further draw out the point from a church perspective. A “hard core conservative” would call teachings from a place like Willow Creek Community Church, liberal. But a “hard core liberal” would call the same teachings “conservative.” It’s all about perspective, baby!

Here’s why labels like this are stupid. Most times I am asked the question, “Are you a liberal or conservative?” I have no freaking clue how to answer it. And most of the time, the people asking the question are mixing politics and religion together… which is something I think is equally difficult in a postmodern, pluralistic society. I think its possible to be a flamingly liberal on social issues while holding firmly to my conservative religious roots. But on other issues, I am flamingly liberal on matters of faith… longing to shake the church out of inaction into world change… while staunchly conservative on certain political matters. So the label is meaningless altogether.

Labeling a person one way or the other is a dismissive thing to do. It devalues the entirity of a human being, someone bought and paid for by Jesus, into a label. This labelism is a dark mark against us as believers. It is a hate crime to a persons intellect which prevents us from fulfilling the Great Commission. Labels are, in fact, a devisive tool of our enemy, Satan. Labelism is emblematic of the label-fighting our Lord fought against. Over and over in the Gospels we see religious people asking Jesus litmus test questions. And over and over again, we see Jesus giving double answers that defied labeling.

Remember when mom taught you, “Sticks and stones will break our bones, but words will never hurt me. She lied. Words (labels) are powerful. My challenge to is always the same, live wildly… crazily… passionately… stupidly… for Jesus Christ in all you do.

Never be distracted by fans or haters!

By Adam McLane

Kristen and Adam live in Ahwahnee, California.

7 comments

  1. Mmm…yes and no.

    Certain dogmatic rigidity in the application of labels is useless. The broader the label, the less helpful it is. You point out two—“Conservative” or “Liberal,” I would add, as examples, “Christianity” or “religious.”

    However, in order to function and communicate, some use of labels is necessary. For example, while decrying labels, you state, “I am flamingly liberal on matters of faith…” the use of the label “liberal” is intended to convey and differentiate you from other positions; presumably those positions traditionally conveyed by the term “conservative.”

    For me to say, “I am a person, devoid of all labels” I haven’t effectively communicated anything, have I? But if I start attaching some labels, such as “atheist” or “middle-aged” or “athletic”—while you may not obtain a completely accurate picture of who I am—these labels at least provide the opportunity to narrow the scope.

    Even “Christ-follower” would require some refining.

  2. I am tired of the battle many Christians try to wage if a Christ-Follower is not also a Conservative. I don’t know what I am this election. I used to think I knew but only because I fell into the trap of assuming that since I was a Christ-Follower, I was a Republican. Now, I am just a Christ-Follower who is searching out the best candidate to run our country. This is the first year I am truly trying to look at both sides and all issues (and its made a decision even more confusing to make!), but I really feel like that is the best way to go about it. I am done with voting for a candidate because he is in a certain party.

  3. yeah, i keep getting asked if I’m a liberal or conservative christian… and im sure it is the same for us politics. trying to explain to people who I am is difficult because they are surrounded by a world full of labels and they have to categorize everything. i tend to see myself as outside any category.

    I spent many a long hour try to figure out if i was in or outside the box and then i realized THERE IS NO BOX . Trying to explain that to people is difficult, really difficult

    As for politics I’m slightly communist. I just disagree with the communist ideas that are in the world at the minute. If perfected it would be by far the best ever.

  4. Dave, that’s spot on. I think the labeling of a person as one thing or another is simply a way to devalue what they actually have to say. Categorizing their statements is one thing, perfectly natural. But writing someone off because they don’t fit into your box is flat out devaluing.

  5. These sorts of labels are just an excuse not to listen to people, you want to box people up in a package or file them, so instead of listening to them and learning what they actually think and believe, you can’t just check them off as your side or the other side and deal with them accordingly.

    We went on a men’s retreat recently and some gentlemen from another church came along and they where basically obsessed with these labels, they where the first thing they asked you after their names and then went into these prepackaged rants about this issue or that, this author or that.

    It was surreal.

    One even stormed out and went home because one of the things talked about was way too “liberal” for him. They didn’t want to listen to anybody or get to know them, they just wanted to jump to their pre-packaged speeches and feelings.

  6. loved this post. i think your argument of being a follower of Christ demonstrates two assertions:
    1) humanity, especially the human psyche, wants categories to help compartmentalize different identities. The logic is this: If you are this __________, then these things ____________ are true of you. So for you and me to say we are followers of Christ, then that means we are TRYING to exemplify: Love, grace, peace, patience, humility, and kindness. To me that is pretty clear and does not need any more refining. Look at Jesus’ disciples, he had Simon who was a ZEALOT and the ZEALOT sect was ultra liberal. And look at Matthew. A freaking TAX collector. Matthew was PRO-GOVERNMENT. There was much diversity among the disciples and they still functioned as a gathered people of God, with a focused mission: To bring the KINGDOM to people. So it boils down: Can you agree to disagree? Or do you need to see some type of ID before you interact with me?

    2) The idea of rejecting labels is deeply rooted within the philosophy of extensionalism. As Walter Kaufman puts it:

    Existentialism is the refusal to belong to any school of thought, the repudiation of the adequacy of any body of beliefs whatever, and especially of systems and a marked dissatisfaction with traditional philosophies and theologies as superficial, academic, and remote from life.

    I will love the day when someone says: Yeah I am follower of Christ and the person asking does not immediately assume his follower of Christ is a republican.

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