liberal v conservative religious

I have been thinking about what the terms liberal and conservative mean in religious terms.   It is oft conflated with political leanings and the two do not always readily match up.  

WIkipedia’s definition of Liberal Religion is not entirely correct because it excludes religious perspectives that may indeed have a doctrine.  It is also not entirely correct because it is only using sources from the Unitarian Universalist tradition to define it.  Liberal Religion is a category of which Unitarian Universalism is a sub-category. The two are not synonymous words.   Yet, when I do a google search,  one would think the two are synonymous terms, excluding all others. 

Yet, when I think of Liberal Religion; I think of United Church of Christ, Unity, Religious Science of Mind, and the Union of Reformed Judaism.  I am sure there are others that would fit under a Liberal Religion category.  

The beliefs of these and of Unitarian Universalists are varied and across the spectrum.  United Church of Christ (UCC) is a mainline protestant denomination firmly rooted in the Christian Reformed tradition.  The Union of Reformed Judaism is a movement within the Jewish faith and is the largest Jewish movement in the United States. Unity and Religious Science of Mind have their roots in the 19th century following, among others,  Ralph Waldo Emerson’s philosophy ( A Unitarian Minister, making these groups distant cousins of Unitarian Universalism) but expanding it into what is known as the New Thought Movement.

But what makes them liberal in contrast to conservative?  Because our society is defined by its majority religion, Christianity, one of the definitions has to be how one would read the Hebrew and Christian texts aka the Old and New Testament.  What lense does one use in reading these texts? 

I believe it is safe to say that all of these liberal religions read the Hebrew and Christian texts as the story of a people of faith who are journeying together learning who they are in relation to their world and to their God.  These are humans who are applying what they know and sometimes they succeed and sometimes they fail.  When taking the story as a whole; for Jews it is the whole of the Torah; for Christians it is the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures and Christian Scriptures; they discover that there is an evolution in how God operates in the world which is with increasing generosity of mercy, with justice, and with loving kindness for all of creation.  So this becomes the lense through which these texts are read by liberal religious people. 

The texts are read with this looking for generosity of mercy, justice, and loving kindness.  James Luther Adams, Unitarian Theologian,  defined what he called the five stones of liberalism:
  1. Revelation and truth are not closed, but constantly revealed.
  2. All relations between persons ought ideally to rest on mutual, free consent and not coercion.
  3. Affirmation of the moral obligation to direct one’s effort toward the establishment of a democratic (a just and loving) community.
  4. Denial of the immaculate conception of virtue and affirmation of the necessity of social incarnation. Good must be consciously given form and power within history.
  5. The resources (divine and human) that are available for achievement of meaningful change justify an attitude of ultimate (but not necessarily immediate) optimism. There is hope in the ultimate abundance of the Universe. 

A conservative lense reads these texts as not just as a story of a people but as the word of God.  There fore there is power in the text itself.  Revelation is closed.  There is no new revelation of the divine that could be revealed that is not already revealed in the sacred texts.  The Book of Revelation closes with a statement that anyone adds or substracts to this will receive the afflictions included in the book.  Many conservative religious read this as referring to the whole of the Bible and not just the text known as the Book of Revelation.  It is a fairly strict command.  But it exemplifies how conservative religious view their faith in a theological context.

This explains the animosity between conservative religions and science.  Science being the new revealed revelation that cannot be true because revelation is closed.  So it is difficult for conservative religions then to reconcile science’s evolution to the Genesis story of Creation.  Even tho from a liberal point of view, the Genesis creation story as an ancient metaphor fits nicely with the Big Bang theory of all that is around us. 

It explains the animosity Conservative religions have regarding societal changes towards justice for all people.  Because there are texts in the Bible that dictate other things.  A liberal reading would argue that these edicts were attempting to address specific problems in a specific societal context and therefore do not mesh with today’s societal mores.  A conservative reading states no, the word of God is unchanging and therefore if it was wrong three thousand years ago it is still wrong today.   

I believe there may be a difference in how a liberal and a conservative religious would define the phrase “a living faith.”   For a Liberal undestanding, a living faith is a faith that lives and breathes in todays context.  There are always new understandings to be found and integrated into ones view of their world.  One’s biases and prejudices are confronted with this understanding of a living faith.  For a conservative understanding, I think it refers more to becoming more like the image of people living in the bible.  To put on the mind of Christ is to embrace the characteristics of what are considered righteous living in the Bible rather than what is considered righteous living for today. 

I realize as I am writing this that I have a strong bias towards liberal religious thought.  So perhaps some of our more conservative religious readers could help us out with their understanding of how to live a conservative religion’s perspective.   Blessings,



  1. Serenityhome- perhaps you are trying too hard to find a perfect definition. Remember that when dealing with humans and human institutions, you will always find inconsistancies. So, while Unitarian Universalism is generally theologically liberal, there can be elements within the denomination that are more conservative. Just as you will find liberal elements within a generally conservative evangelical Protestant denomination…like the organization Evangelicals for Social Action.

    I would also argue that each aspect of a denomination can be more or less liberal or conservative. Politically it might be liberal; theologically it might be conservative; organizationally it might be liberal; socially conservative; yet liberal in how it chooses to worship. So I can see how it would be difficult to assign a single label to an entire denomination without first determining what aspect of the denomination you are trying to characterize.

  2. One more thing…I should also explain further what I mean by “defense of the status quo”. It does not mean absolutely no change because sometimes change is forced upon conservatives. In that instance, conservatives will advocate the most moderate amount of change possible. Sometimes conservatives do proactively advocate change, but it is often change to take things back to the way they use to be (i.e., let’s go back to the 1950s).

    Who knows? I could be completely wrong however:)

  3. I have a perhaps stupid question to ask. It has two immediate sources, but I have considered it off and on for some time now. I am a conservative Episcopalian aligned with the American Anglican Council, but has yet to secede from that denomination. I am working through the recent reprint of Rauschenbush as well as Gustav Niebuhr’s “Beyond Tolerance” and am doing a side project researching the signatories of the SIECUS statement that Deborah Haffner sponsored just before she left that organization and became a Unitarian minister.
    So here is the dumb question – is there anyone in the UU Church that is actively seeking to revisit the movements initial tradition – which in the beginning seems to have been little more than a revival of the Arian heresy. As an outsider, I look at the polyglot syncretism and liberal civic religion that dominates the UU denomination these days, and have to wonder if there are in fact any (ironically stated) “paleo-orthodox” tendencies, which have asserted themselves as a kind of counterrevolutionary force in almost every mainline Protestant denomination. This is not, in fact, a form of fundamentalism, although liberals tend to mislabel it as such.

    Just wondering.

    Bill Riggs
    Fredericksburg, VA

  4. Bill: There is a group that could possibly fit your definition, perhaps not as far back as Arian heresy but a group that is seeking to promote Unitarian Christianity as it was known in the 19th century. Here is their website:

  5. I was going to a UU church for a while, partly motivated by disenchantment with churches that weren’t open to worshiping with people that didn’t believe the same core beliefs. I had come to doubt a great many things, but, for lack of a better turn of phrase, I still wanted a place to encounter the Spirit (under whatever name people chose to call it) without the doctrinal trappings.

    One thing that stood out to me at the UU was that there was a similar thing going on – only the core beliefs that I felt I needed to have to “belong” were those of the political Left. I have more affinity for the Libertarian party than the Republican party, but there was more left-wing ideology at the UU than there was right-wing ideology at the evangelical church. And there was a negative attitude toward religion that revolves around a personal experience with “the God of the Bible.” The minister even had a sermon in which she discussed this as a problem confronting the UU churches at large: people too conservative or evangelical feeling unwelcome.

    The other thing is that there wasn’t really an openness to a shared religious experience. It was more of a nice comfortable meeting for people with similar cultural values. The spiritual journey was mainly activist where it wasn’t internalized. I suspect that the uproar Rev. Sinkford’s “vocabulary of reverence” has a lot to do with this. If the forum has to be neutral enough for atheists, maybe there is simply no room for a Holy Spirit by any name. But inviting a shared presence is not just a thing for Bible-belters. As an aside, the churches that are most open to these shared experiences (charismatic/pentecostal) have a long history of multi-racial membership. I was struck by the fact that, in spite of preaching diversity, I saw little racial diversity at the UU church — which I think has a lot do with their idea of worship. It seemed like a people united by social values rather than a shared attitude of seeking.

    This isn’t just a “UU thing”, but it seemed more pronounced at the UU church. I don’t think that the UU church is wrong simply because I didn’t fit in there. I think the UU association tries a little too hard to have something for everyone as it is. But I also see it as ignoring an enormous part of religious experience.

    What I’m trying to get at here is that I don’t believe in closed revelation. If one takes the Book of Acts as a serious (if inaccurate) account of the effect of Jesus’ teaching, I don’t see how that is tenable. Peter’s vision on the rooftop runs counter to that claim. There are a lot of things in the Biblical canon that defy rationales for a coherent view of an unchanging God. Such rationales become a defense mechanism for holding on to an “inerrant” guide to truth. And I think such rationalization does lend itself to rationales for various status quos, just or unjust.

    Outside of the churches that protect themselves from “progressiveness” eroding their religious culture, where are the churches where heretics (like myself?) can seek the Transcendent regardless of our political affinities, and where the Transcendent is allowed to be personal and (God forbid) supernatural? Is that “variety of religious experience” only to be experienced by “Bible-thumpers”?

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