Left and right signposts

Mike offered some advice for navigating scholarly disagreement a few weeks ago, and today I want to ask some questions about what may be the most prominent rift among Christians in our day, evident in scholarly writing as well as campaigning and, dare I say, in a large chunk of the discussions I see among my acquaintances on social media. I must tread carefully here! But I offer the following in the spirit of biblical faithfulness and reconciliation, hoping to stimulate more-gracious, higher-quality discussion than I’m familiar with on these issues. Above all, I am expressing my grief about the polarisation that I see.

The rift I’m thinking about is one that appears (at least to outsiders, I think) to match the left-wing / right-wing division familiar in political discourse. According to Wikipedia as I write, this has origins in seating patterns in the Assemblée Nationale after the French Revolution. I tend to agree with those who say that the left–right spectrum is a simplistic and somewhat outdated model, but that’s a moot point as regards the disagreement among Christians that I want to look at now.

What concerns me is that I can find Christian action and campaigning groups, here in the U.K. at least, that focus on two sets of issues, with very little overlap. I’m sure readers will already know what I’m thinking of.  Abortion, euthanasia, marriage and sexuality are core examples of one set of issues. Social justice, environmental care, disarmament and animal welfare are examples of the other set. And I vaguely know (or think I know) how other views will line up as well: on evolution, pacifism, lockdowns, and so on (I don’t want to reinforce stereotypes here). As Christians we sometimes label these alternatives as ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’, respectively. But surely all (or most) of these issues have some degree of importance?  

Why do we have such polarisation? Historical legacy is probably very important, but a perennial factor appears to be the kind of authority we attribute to Scripture. The issues identified as ‘conservative’ tend to be related more directly to biblical teaching, and hence to traditional ethical issues in human life (paradigmatically, sexuality). The issues identified as ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’ are partly aligned with contemporary societal concerns (paradigmatically, environmental care), but their advocates may also see them coming into focus within a wider biblical worldview.  But if Scriptural interpretation were the main factor, I wouldn’t expect the polarisation to look quite so much like the left–right political division.  So I have some questions to ask.  (I realise that many readers will have thought deeply about these matters, and I’d like to hear your views.)

  1. Why is animal welfare so rarely advocated by Christians today? This ethical issue seems to have such direct biblical teaching that it ought to be championed by those who campaign about, for example, normative sexuality. (I’ve alluded to this before.)
  2. Why are social justice concerns found mostly with the ‘progressive’ organisations, and not so much with the ‘conservative’ ones? Surely Scripture says enough about the poor, marginalised and oppressed to make this a core Christian ethic, even if the term ‘social justice’ isn’t used in most Bible translations?
  3. Why is there so little encouragement (as I see it) for Christians to develop a biblical worldview and pursue careers in journalism, law and politics?
  4. More generally, why do we find it so difficult to listen sympathetically to other points of view? I may not have time to go reading lots of books and tracts on all kinds of views that diverge from mine, but when I meet a fellow-believer expressing a view that I find unpalatable, isn’t the wise course of action to listen, question, and try the exercise of empathy?

I’ve decided to take a small action here by contacting a charity I follow that focuses on one side of this rift to ask if they would bring in at least one or two issues from the other side, on the grounds of faithfulness to Scripture.  I’m pledging to start supporting the charity financially if it will make some such gesture – but I must also listen carefully to the reply, even being open to change my view (in the spirit of Proverbs 18:17). I’ll let you know what happens.

Richard Gunton
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Richard Gunton

Richard is the Director of Faith-in-Scholarship at Thinking Faith Network. He also teaches statistics at the University of Winchester. His current passions include Reformational philosophy, history of sciences, ordination (the statistical sort), and wildlife gardening. He worships, and occasionally preaches, at St Mary's Church in Portchester. [Views expressed here are his own.]