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Lose the categories of 'liberal,' 'conservative' and just do good work together

By Walt Shelton
Special to the American-Statesman
Walt Shelton is a part-time professor at Baylor Law School and an environmental attorney in Austin.

Decades ago, in my first election to vote, I recall a strange conversation with an acquaintance.  He was a bit more conservative in his Christian outlook and initiated the conversation by asking about my voting choices, which is not necessarily a good icebreaker for friendly conversation. 

I took the bait and told him.  His response?  “Oh no, he’s just a ‘do-gooder.’  Instead, you should vote for a ‘Christian.’”  

As he explained in a dictatorial manner, his idea of a “Christian” candidate was solely a litmus test on one or two social and personal issues that he considered measures of authenticity.  I kept my mouth shut and came up with a reason for a quick departure because a mutually respectful conversation was impossible. 

Setting politics completely aside, I recall the disdain in how my young acquaintance mockingly pronounced “do-gooder.”  My head-shaking reaction now, as it was then, is total bewilderment. Anyone who does good for others in the way they live daily is a role model rather than someone subject to mockery because they hold varying opinions on certain politically charged issues. 

I have read and heard berating descriptions recently of “liberal Christians” who, instead of insisting on the prominence of believing factually in miracles and the bodily resurrection of Jesus, focus upon and highlight Jesus as a teacher who prioritized love, inclusiveness and the pursuit of justice. 

Personally, I believe both. However, following the teachings and life-model of Jesus is both the most prominent and important aspect of being Christian and intersects with the core of other authentic faith traditions as well as simply being a model human being. 

As a Christian, it is an easy step to emphasize what Jesus taught and modeled as most important, as well as understanding that this priority does not eliminate what one chooses to believe happened historically.  The New Testament Gospels repeatedly depict Jesus saying “Follow me” during his public ministry (for example, Mark 1:16-20).  In fact, John 21 reports a post-resurrection appearance to some of his disciples where Jesus cooked breakfast for them (ever the model of service to others ) and then again emphasized the necessity of “following” him (John 21:19). 

“Belief-police” who judgmentally insist on “correct” historical beliefs as necessities for being Christian and accepted by God often utilize snippets of the Apostle Paul’s letters.  For example, I grew up hearing Ephesians 2:8-9 repeatedly cited in a vacuum in a “this is all that matters” creedal manner: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”

How about adding verse 10? “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”  Thus, God made us to be “do-gooders”! 

Further in Ephesians, Paul emphatically pleads with his readers: I “beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-3).   

Reading and prayerfully thinking about the entirety of Paul’s first century correspondence strongly indicates that he understood how followers of Jesus lived was critically important along with their beliefs.  In his culture, “belief” and “following” (i.e., living a changed life based on Jesus’s teachings) were intertwined.  In contrast, in our contemporary American culture, “belief” can have a nonsubstantive, surficial sense of merely assenting to certain “truths” without any impact on one’s daily life.     

We live in an era of polarization, tribalism and demonization.  Hateful categorization of people who are different or think differently as “liberal” or “conservative” (or worse) are symptomatic of our diseased time. 

We would all be better off taking steps toward cultural transformation by finding common ground with others, starting with working together to do good things for others instead of insisting on allegedly correct or incorrect opinions to drive larger wedges between us. 

Walt Shelton is an author, speaker, part-time Professor at Baylor Law School, and environmental attorney.  He leads discussion groups, including in association with The Church at Highland Park in Austin.  His first book, The Daily Practice of Life :Practical Reflections Toward Meaningful Living (CrossLink Publishing 2020), was nationally recognized recently with a Nautilus Silver Award in the Religion category. Learn more at WaltShelton.com