I’m about to interview a fundamentalist preacher who claims to be a liberal and ask him that very question.
I’m waiting for the preacher to finish cleaning the toilets in the restrooms of the community center in our local park. He’s allowed to hold his religious services in the center on Sunday mornings as long as he and his followers clean the toilet facilities for the upcoming week. Times are hard, even for a mostly white suburb in a red area of Southern California.
He’s walking toward me now, wiping his hands on a dirty towel. He appears to be finished and I’m hoping we can now talk.
He stops wiping and holds out his hand. I don’t suppose he would fist bump…? No, I guess not. I take his hand, even though I have a real problem with shaking hands.
“Preacher,” I say, “I’m happy you’ve agreed to talk to me.” As I say this, I try to imperceptibly wipe my hand on my back pocket.
“Why not,” he says, “I have nothing to hide.”
“No, no, certainly not,” I say. I look around the center. “So, this is where you hold your Sunday services?”
“That’s right,” he says, looking around with me. We stand and study the area for a moment. The floor is seedy, worn and scraped from so many hard-soled shoes over the years. I’m thinking that the preacher similarly looks a little worn around the edges.
“How many people usually attend your services?”
“Well,” he hesitates as he appears to be thinking, “most of the time we have about…oh…I don’t know, maybe five, sometimes six…”
“Five—sometimes six families?” I exclaim.
“That’s right,” he says, somewhat defensively. “That’s from two families, not one, however.”
“I see. So, if I understand you correctly, you consider yourself a liberal?”
“That’s correct. A liberal, that’s right. That’s what I am.”
“And yet, you also consider yourself a fundamentalist Christian as well?”
“Yes, yes, that’s right. I do.”
“That would seem to some people to be a contradiction in terms.”
“Yes, so I have learned over the years.”
“Do you preach politics from your pulpit like most of the conservative
Christian fundamentalists? Tell people who to vote for, for example?”
“No…no, I just preach the gospel…that’s political enough, don’t you think? Keeps me in hot water enough.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you see, most of the fundamentalists I know always preach how easy it is to get to heaven. Just got to believe in Jesus, you see, that’s the ticket. All they have to do is say they accept Jesus as their lord and savior. As a liberal, though, I see it as a little more complicated than that.”
“Ah, yes, the old liberal complication. If life were only so simple as a conservative sees it… “
“Yes, but it’s not. It’s all about the way we measure belief.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, it’s just not enough to go around saying I believe in Jesus Christ. Your life has got to change as well. The measure of any true belief is how much it changes behavior. “
“Can you give me an example?”
“Most assuredly. You can’t claim to believe in the teachings of Jesus and then vote to support people who want to take health care from the poor. You can’t believe in Jesus and then be willing to do anything to gain wealth and power. You can’t claim to protect the rights of the unborn and then vote to snuff out the lives of those who commit crimes… you can’t be a true Christian and then proudly march your sons and daughters off to wars, especially stupid and unnecessary wars…”
“‘Stupid and unnecessary wars…’ that’s spoken like a true liberal…but did you say, snuff out…?”
“And then there’s the role of wealth and how it stands in the way of getting to heaven.”
“That bit about a rich man getting to heaven being as hard as a camel going through the eye of a needle…?”
“That’s right. And sections of the gospel that state that if a man asks for your coat, you must give him your cloak as well…I haven’t even mentioned the role of forgiveness in all this. I could go on and on…”
“I’m sure. And this gets you in difficulty with your congregation?”
“Are you kidding? The competition is preaching that all you got to do is say you believe in Jesus and get baptized—not sprinkled, but dunked under the water—boom and bang, it’s a done deal.”
“I can see that you’re very passionate about this issue…”
“And then, trying to get the elders of my church to loosen up on the role of women in the church—man, they’re as backward as some of the other fundamentalist religions that make women wear a sack!”
“I can see where you have some disadvantages in trying to attract followers… but say, why not just advertise openly and try to get only liberals to your church?”
“Are you kidding? The few that admit to any religion at all love the pomp and circumstances of the showy churches…you know, the big ones with organs and large choirs and rituals, lots of rituals… In my little church, we mostly sing a cappella…”
“Well, this has been very enlightening. As we get near the next election, are you going to get your congregation out to vote for Obama?”
“Absolutely, all five or six of us. Oh, there’s one very important difference between us and the other fundamentalists that I didn’t have a chance to mention. May I?”
It’s really all about truth. With us liberal fundamentalists, truth is spelled with a capital T. With the others, it’s with a small t.
“And that means…” I prompted him.
“With their truth, the end justifies the means. They can do anything, for example, to stop a doctor from performing an abortion, even an abortion that will save the life of the mother. They can kill him and that’s OK because to them the end justifies the means. With us liberal fundamentalists, there’s truth with a capital T. Wrong is never right and the Gospel tells us how to live to show that we believe.”
He is out of breath from his last comment. Like most liberals, I can tell that he is a sincere believer in “treating the least among us” as he would treat Jesus.
This time I take my hand out of my back pocket and offer it to him. “Well, preacher, thank you for your time in explaining all this to me.”
“Any time, “ he says as we shake hands. “I wouldn’t mind chatting a little longer, but I still have all the trash to take out to get the center ready for the next week.”
“A preacher’s work is never done,” I say, smiling.
“A liberal preacher’s work is never done,” he stresses, not smiling.
“I stand and watch the preacher walk toward the trash barrels to finish his job for the day. Funny, but I no longer have the urge to run and wash my hands, but liberal that I am, I make no effort to help him with the trash…