Can a Liberal Be Christian?



Anna Marie Cox posed a useful question when she compared her faith to President Obama’s, who has been roundly criticized by conservatives such as my friend Erick Erickson, who wrote that Barack Obama is not a Christian in any meaningful way.  Cox asked “if Obama’s not Christian, what does that make me?”

She announced her Christian faith to the world by writing “My understanding of Christianity is that it doesn’t require me to prove my faith to anyone on this plane of existence.”

She’s right.  You could stop reading here—if you are not a Christian, maybe that’s the limit of your interest in the subject—but faith is merely one aspect of Christianity.  Defending your faith is therefore far more than a mere profession, just as God is far more than a totem you rub to obtain salvation.

But how did Cox even arrive at such a question?  On the surface, she isn’t even a very likely candidate to call herself a Christian, never mind “coming out” publicly.

Cox should be a poster child for secular humanism.  Her journalism career is studded with liberal curricula like the devil’s snuff-box (Lycoperdon perlatum for biology enthusiasts).  A frequent contributor for The Rachel Maddow Show, Washington correspondent for the defunct Air America, Time blogger and contributor for anti-conservative The Guardian, Cox clawed her way up the food chain in the progressive ecosystem.

Unlike celebrities who were brought up Christian (Katy Perry and Brad Pitt, for example), Cox was raised by her mother, “an angry, agnostic ex-Baptist,” and her father, who she describes as “a casual atheist.”  (A casual atheist is the most genuine in non-belief.  Atheists who rail and rant against God are really theists who hate the God they pretend not to believe in.  Cox’s description of her father’s nonchalant dismissal of God “because He doesn’t exist” is the mark of a true unbeliever).

Cox doesn’t go into the details of her faith journey; nonetheless, I take her at her word.  She wrote,

Me, I’m going all in with Jesus. It’s not just that the payoff could be tremendous, it already has been! The only cost is the judgment that comes from others, from telling people that my belief has a specific shape, with its own human legacy of both shame and triumph.


Yet while throwing her lot in with Jesus, Cox admits not being particularly knowledgeable about her Savior.

What about Bible literacy? Mine is mostly limited to dimly remembered excerpts from the Old Testament we read in my college humanities class and a daily verse email. I read spiritual meditations, but the Word is still a second language I speak less than fluently.

Does this mean she’s not a Christian?  No, but in a meaningful way, following Jesus does have specific, predictable results.  Christianity results in discipleship.  Discipleship is based on devotion to God, study of God’s Word, and Christian action—living in holiness, and exhibiting the values of a life in Christ.

Cox wrote that she was hesitant to publicly declare her faith because she feels “intimidated by a conservative culture that seems intent on creating boundaries around Christianity rather than open doors.”

Sadly, it’s lamentable that some Christians—especially American conservatives—apply their own standards to other people’s faith, while many times ignoring their own standards.  There are, in fact, clear boundaries around Christianity—precise standards by which anyone’s devotion to faith can be judged (yes, judged).  One Bible passage oft-quoted by those opposed to any kind of boundaries in Christianity is Matthew 7 verses 1 through 5:

“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye’; and look, a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

Here’s the lie in not judging at all:  with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.  If believers do not judge at all, if no standard at all is applied to Christianity other than a confession of faith, then they themselves won’t be judged?  Certainly not!

Jesus didn’t say that we should never remove the speck from our brother’s eye, only that we should first work out our own salvation, and deal with our own problems according to the standard (boundaries) of Christianity before we can help others.

The standard of Christianity is Christ.  The standard of doing God’s will is Christ.  The standard of sinlessness is Christ, and the standard of judgment is Christ.  And Christ will judge.

Jesus continues in Matthew 7, verses 13 and 14:

“Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

That doesn’t sound like a no-judgment Christianity.  Verses 15 through 20 continues:

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them.  [bold mine]

A prophet declares the Word and the will of God.  A false prophet falsely declares their own words instead of the Word of God.  Anyone who declares the boundaries of Christianity without properly interpreting the Word of God is a false prophet.  And every work proceeding from their teaching is bad fruit.

Finally, Jesus concludes with this in verses 21 through 23:

“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’

There’s a standard for knowing Jesus beyond a simple profession of faith:  he who does the will of My Father in heaven.   In case you think that standard is subject to one’s interpretation, the Apostle John confirmed it in 1 John:

Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. He who says, “I know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoever keeps His word, truly the love of God is perfected in him. By this we know that we are in Him. He who says he abides in Him ought himself also to walk just as He walked.

The Apostle Peter confirmed it again, and the supremacy of the Word of God (the Bible) in knowing God’s will (2 Peter 1:19-21):

And so we have the prophetic word confirmed, which you do well to heed as a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts; knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.

It is not enough to say “I am going all in with Jesus,” you have to do His will and become a disciple.  Jesus Himself said this in Matthew 28:18-20:

And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen.

Christians call this the “Great Commission”, and it’s more than going on mission trips to indigenous people in faraway lands.  The Great Commission is a commitment to discipleship.  Before one can “make disciples”, one first must become a disciple.

Discipleship is based on three simple principles:  living the Christian life, studying God’s Word, and acting in Christian community.  What Cox refers to as “the public performance of Christianity” is deeply tied to the private work of discipleship.  All of Cox’s arguments that President Obama’s faith should be taken at his word fail the test of discipleship (the argument about Ronald Reagan skipping church is valid, although Reagan was a faithful disciple, studying God’s Word and living a pious life).

President Obama’s mangling of Scripture is evidence of his lack of discipleship, just as much as it would be if Cox committed a similar slaughter.  Cox wrote, “I have so much studying to do I may never catch up.”  That’s correct.  None of us will ever catch up.  That’s the whole point, really.

We study to know God better, so we can be better disciples.  The apostle Paul wrote in 2 Timothy chapter 2, verse 15:  “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”  The heart of a disciple is diligence, discipline, and study.  Scripture-mangling is a sign of indolence.  We all publicly display our ignorance at times, but it’s our duty as Christians to study and receive correction in order to progress in our knowledge of God.

President Obama has given no sign that his knowledge of God, his belief in Scripture, or his devotion to a Christian ideal has progressed in any way since he took office.  In fact, Obama’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast last month was so shocking that it drew invective from even those non-political advocates of the faith like Ravi Zacharias, who wrote “I cannot recall when I have heard such inappropriate words at so important an occasion, in such a time of crisis. “

Cox correctly makes a point that there is “nothing so great I can do to make God love me more.”  God’s grace extends beyond all of our faults, yet it doesn’t include those who walk in their own way and not strive for the narrow gate.  We must try to live according to God’s will in order for grace to have effect.  Grace’s purpose is to turn us toward God in repentance, not to give a pass for our lives as we want to live them.

I love that Cox wrote this:

Yet any rumbling desire to turn my religion into something fashionably rebellious is an artifact of ego. It’s an attempt to make this story about me, someone who did something and then changed, ta-da – cue workout montage and triumphant final scene. On some level, I still want credit for the spiritual makeover – I was lost, but now am found, and I am the one that found me.

But if I understand God’s grace correctly, the miracle of redemption is that I was found all along. God does not see charming dissonance in being a liberal who follows Christ; He’s not looking for that New York Times Style section trend story. I do not get to think of myself as “edgy” for being just another believer. There is nothing to reconcile.

This is a sign that she “gets it”—that God is really working in her life.  There really is nothing wrong with a liberal following Christ, and—contrary to many conservative egos—Christ does not reserve His favor only for Americans, or Republicans.

But there is another side.

God is not a “respecter of persons”; everyone is responsible for their own discipleship.  Being a liberal believer doesn’t absolve them of their due diligence in studying God’s Word, living God’s truths, and fellowshipping with God’s people.  If it’s too distasteful to go to church with Bible-believing conservatives, or too edgy to read the Bible for the sake of reading it, who’s putting the boundaries on Christianity?

Liberals who find Christ must be careful not to open every door of inclusion to God’s kingdom except those who disagree with their politics just as conservatives must take care not to close those doors.

I’m happy that Cox shared her heart.  I pray that God, the author and finisher of her faith, brings her to perfection as a trophy of His grace.

To answer her question, “if Obama’s not Christian, what does that make me?”:  Obama is not a Christian in any meaningful way, and that makes Anna Marie Cox a Christian—imperfect, falling short, yet seeking the heart of her Lord—in a very meaningful way.  I gladly call her my sister in the faith.

(photo credit: Shutterstock)

(crossposted from sgberman.com)