Stop saying “love” when you really mean “liberal tolerance”

I’ve noticed that among progressive Christians, “love” works as a kind of rhetorical trump card. Christians are supposed to “love,” hence you should be nice to people, hence you should be a liberal — or something to that effect. Are you worried about illegal immigration? Stop worrying and deploy some love. Does acceptance of homosexuality bother you? Well, I’ve got bad news — accepting homosexuality is a form of love, therefore you should do it. Case closed!

Presumably this rhetorical tactic does work in some individual cases, most likely people who were already uncomfortable with conservative Christianity and just needed that last little nudge. And it does make sense to try to deploy the most powerful and intimate Christian virtue if you’re trying to make radical changes to people’s moral and political commitments.

In the end, though, it rings hollow. Most of the time, it seems like “love” is a translation for “liberal tolerance,” which overlaps only very partially with love, if at all. Does “love” really mean that you don’t make any effort to change the loved one’s behavior if you believe it to be self-destructive? Does “love” mean letting someone rest content with a way of life you believe to be beneath them? That’s not how it’s ever worked when I’ve loved or been loved. Maybe you grudgingly come to accept that you can’t change the loved one, but that’s normally the end of a long and bitter process, not step one.

Further, does “love” mean supporting government policies to impersonally help someone? If my sister became homeless, I don’t think my go-to solution would be to write my Congressman and demand greater funding for shelters. And if you are trying to goad people into taking radically self-sacrificing actions on behalf of the homeless, or illegal immigrants, or whoever, I would remind you that love has degrees, and you may well learn that the person has enough on their love-plate with their day-to-day obligations to their own family.

A diffuse love that vaguely includes “everyone” isn’t love at all — it’s liberal tolerance accompanied by sentimental feelings. And I agree, it would be better if people would embrace liberal tolerance, with or without the sentiment. But that’s not love, and anyone who has thought about love seriously — which would presumably include any committed Christian, for instance — is going to see through the cheap rhetorical ploy that wants to pass off generic liberalism as the most profound Christian virtue.

16 thoughts on “Stop saying “love” when you really mean “liberal tolerance”

    “Reverend Gretta Vosper is a minister in the United Church of Canada, an author and an avowed atheist. She is open about her lack of faith in a supernatural God and preaches that acting like a Christian is more important than believing like one. Now her controversial beliefs are testing the limits of her famously liberal church, and may lead to her being defrocked.
    Jennifer Chevalier travels to Toronto to meet with Gretta Vosper and find out why her congregation prefers a church without God. Jennifer also hears from a minister who feels Gretta’s views are fundamentally at odds with what the United Church of Canada stands for. But a meeting with a third minister reveals that Gretta’s views are not as rare as they might seem.”

  2. Obviously I don’t believe that homosexuality is destructive nor that Islam is “beneath” anyone. But at least some of the people who are the targets of the “love and therefore be liberal” line do.

  3. sure, it’s about an argument in the national church of Canada about whether or not there is such a thing as God’s/Christ-ian love or just liberal social mores.

  4. Hi Adam. A great article. I too find insipid superficial sentimental expressions of “love”. To me the Cross, as the greatest demonstration of Divine Love, is a movement of Radical acceptance as well as radical giving. Jesus in love took into himself (accepted) the violence and hatred and thus overcame it as witnessed by his resurrection – death was swallowed up in victory:)
    While we do not take evil into ourselves vicariously (because that is what Jesus has done) the principle of acceptance still holds in our relationships and with those who we either disagree with or those who oppose us. Are we condoning evil or passively accepting evil? No. We are in fact accepting, nay welcoming (whatever its contents) the moment as a given from God and in so doing we are empowered to collaborate with the Spirit in God’s loving best for that moment. This ‘acceptance of the moment’ could be misinterpreted as ‘liberal tolerance’ and I guess this is why the disciples deserted Jesus and Judas betrayed him. This is perhaps why the Apostle Paul would have been accused of anti-nomianism in his defense of Grace. Both Jesus and Paul had a strong conviction that love and acceptance were infinitely more persuasively powerful than any external coercive threats and were willing to even to death to defend love’s cause. As I said this accepting love can be seen as mere ‘niceness’ but maybe beneath the surface there is much more happening.

  5. I think I value this kind of rhetoric from liberal Christians for precisely the kind of cases you identified in the second paragraph. When I went away to college, I was a hardcore John Piper/James MacDonald evangelical, but the sort of appeals to love as having a more abstract social component from liberal Christians were instrumental in me leaving evangelicalism and ultimately organized Christianity altogether. It’s was easy to dismiss one or two instances of this kind of appeal, but where you’re exposed to it a lot (as I was at the relatively liberal Calvin College), it makes you question your conception of love as a strictly personal sort of obligation. So this kind of liberal christian rhetoric was a sort of half-way house for me. I agree that on its own terms it might not be entirely coherent, but I still think it’s valuable for propaganda purposes. So basically I disagree with the title of your post – liberal Christians shouldn’t stop saying this, but they should know that it might be bullshit.

    While it’s seems like this kind of appeal wouldn’t change the minds of hardened evangelicals, their own logic of “hate the sin, love the sinner” offers some potential for traction here. The liberal Christian can point out that loving the sinner can’t just take place on a personal level, but has to be in part by allowing the sinner the right to the same kind of lifestyle as the righteous.

  6. That’s right. When Jesus told people to love their neighbor as themselves, he wasn’t a fuzzy liberal. Jesus’ love excludes foreigners as well as rival Jews, and anybody who he proclaimed weren’t numbered among the elect – that is, the great bulk of humankind. What Jesus called “love” is basically being a bit of a cunt.

  7. “You’re the man who stands on the street corner with a roll of toilet paper, and written on each square are the words, ‘I love you.’ And each passer-by, no matter who, gets a square all his or her own. I don’t want my square of toilet paper.’

    I didn’t realize it was toilet paper.”
    ― Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

  8. Another common liberal admonishment is not to put God in a box. But is that not exactly what they’re doing when they proclaim “God is love” without any nuance, without any recognizance of His other characteristics?

  9. Jon K : “The liberal Christian can point out that loving the sinner can’t just take place on a personal level, but has to be in part by allowing the sinner the right to the same kind of lifestyle as the righteous.”

    I am neither liberal, nor Evangelical. I do see your point. It’s not ridiculous, but I don’t think it bears scrutiny if pushed to the limits of a perhaps reductio ad absurdam argument. What if the “sinner” is a psychopathic serial killer — just to take an example hopefully even liberal tolerance is unlikely to embrace in an unreconstructed mode? The question becomes what criteria is used to determine what is intrinsically destructive of the good. Post-Enlightenment sensibility often thinks a rational consensus is easy enough to determine. I suspect that comes from a provincialism of those who share a common education with typical presuppositions that are not, in reality, self-evidently universal. Regardless, if there is behavior that is intrinsically evil — using an older metaphysical language, one could say it is genuinely privative of the good, even if the sinner is deluded and equates such privation with self-realization — then being tolerant of sin without significant qualification is hardly a loving act. It is regrettable that many construe the classic understanding of sin to be equivalent to a bumper sticker aphorism — “loving the sinner and hating the sin;” recourse to proverbial wisdom could result in a kind of comfortable and callous self-satisfaction, but that is a degradation from what is in actuality a necessity for a robust ethical sensibility.

  10. Brian, I’m glad you think my point is not ridiculous, but I have no idea how your second paragraph responds to my comment. I was just trying to say that I think this kind of rhetoric was helpful to me (not a psychopathic serial killer, btw) and would be helpful to people in similar positions, regardless of whether the “love” of liberal Christianity is the same as that in the Bible.

  11. Jon, when you assert that “loving the sinner on a personal level” . . . “has to be in part by allowing the sinner the right to the same kind of lifestyle as the righteous,” I was wondering how that would play out if we took sinner to mean something like a serial killer. (I noted this was a reductio ad absurdam argument.) Nonetheless, the point was even a liberal would likely circumscribe the “right of the sinner” given a grave enough kind of sin. I did not broach the question of who, if anyone, is righteous. It does seem to me that the practical result of your counsel, however, is simple tolerance without any substantial moderation due to a religious difference. I tried to indicate that I am not a John Piper style Evangelical, so I am not speaking for them. Still, when you opine that the rhetoric of the blog post might offer a place to mediate liberal and Evangelical “love the sinner, hate the sin” type advocates, I was puzzled. I suppose I don’t see where there is any substantial meeting point that would allow for mutual understanding, if not compromise. Christian love usually presupposes a metaphysics derived from a creatio ex nihilo that is prior to choice. Human freedom does not operate in a vacuum. However, if one begins with nihilism and then thinks all meaning is a matter of convention, then seeing a “natural norm” can only be an imposition of will-to-power. This is how liberals typically deconstruct religious morality.

    If the relevance of my comments still elude you, we are likely just talking past one another. You seem decent enough and perhaps I mistook the intent of your language. I admit, I don’t quite follow when you discuss propaganda and apparently useful b.s. I appreciate irony and whimsy, but that is a level of dissociation, seemingly, that I could never see as condign.

  12. Your first paragraph is very funny and well-written, but I think it’s wrong. Basically, I think the argument in re: homosexuality works like this. Consider Rob Portman, who (as I understand it), came to favor gay rights when he discovered that he had a gay son. Love and liberal tolerance (again, “liberal tolerance” seems like a bad description of progressive immigration policy, but whatever) are not the same thing, but feeling love towards someone who is part of a group that would benefit from some liberal tolerance is, the liberal Christian claims, likely to make you more tolerant. Hence The Onion’s brilliant take on Portman’s announcement: “Let’s hope his son has trouble finding affordable medical care.”

    And, indeed, your argument that a homeless sister wouldn’t make you care more about systemic homelessness is refuted by every special-interest personal-connection medical or social charity in existence. The world is full of people who didn’t care about some injustice or preventable disease until if affected someone they loved, at which point they came to care about fixing it for everyone.

    Finally, the immigration example is odd. Are you claiming that immigration (in search of economic opportunity or to escape war or political instability, say) is a self-destructive behavior that those who love undocumented immigrants should try to reason them out of but then accept? Or is that part of the argument geared towards the homosexuality example alone?

  13. No, the “self-destructive behavior” argument was only aimed at homosexuality (which I don’t think is a self-destructive behavior, to be clear). For immigration, it’s more a generic obligation to help people.

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