This idea is certainly not a new one. Many people have commented on the topic and there is even a book of name as the above title, Rev. Scotty McLennan’s Jesus Was a Liberal. The basic methodology of Rev. McLennan’s book is to argue that Jesus’s positions on various issues, like his concern for the poor, align him more closely with liberals than conservatives. Lots of other liberals have done similar things. ONe of my all time favorites is Supply Side Jesus which originally appeared in Al Franken’s Lies and the Lying Liars who Tell Them.
I believe that approach does seem to show that Jesus teachings and life are more liberal or progressive than conservative.
However I think there is another very interesting way to approach the question. We can think about question from the perspective of moral psychology. I think this is interesting because if you can show that Jesus had a liberal moral psychology then it would show that he would be aligned with contemporary liberals, and that he would think about contemporary issues the way liberals do not the way conservatives do. Another way of saying this is that the evidence from the Bible may be merely circumstantial. Jesus looks like a liberal but there is no way to know who he would vote for or what policies he would endorse if he were alive today. But if you can show that he shares a certain psychological profile with modern day liberals I would think it would be good evidence that Jesus would be a modern liberal.
A brief primer of liberal and conservative moral psychology is probably in order.
Jonathan Haidt identifies five traits that he views as the foundation of morality (You can see his ted talk here). Let’s briefly consider them:
This refers to basic concerns regarding the harm caused by certain actions. All persons, and many animals have this concern for harm. Interestingly conservatives and liberals have this central notion at the heart of their moral psychology. Both value this more than any of the elements of moral psychology.
Justice or fairness is very important concern amongst both liberals and conservatives, and even many animals. (You can see the work of Frans De Waal for his work with primates and fairness here.) Our sense of justice or fairness is obviously essential for our ability to function in co-operative groups.
Here is where liberal and conservative morality diverge. Conservative consider respect for tradition and authority an important part of morality. Liberals on the other hand often times feel that tradition and authority stand in the way of moral progress.
4. In-group Loyalty
Here again is a where there is a large difference between conservative and liberal psychology. Conservatives value in-group loyalty whereas liberals view it as unjustified discrimination. Conservatives are going to tend to be in favor of policies that benefit their in-group, sometimes this can be racial, religious, national, etc., whereas liberals value projects that promote all forms of equality and help people outside their in-group. They are going to be concerned about the plight of persons in other countries, the plight of immigrants, and persons of other races in a way that conservatives are not. For conservatives notions of in-group loyalty affect how they conceive of an issue in terms of harm and fairness.
Sanctity and purity concerns tend to be moralized by conservatives, especially certain types of religious concerns including things related to sexuality. And more generally the drive to purity through religion.
Liberal morality consist exclusively of the first two values. For liberals morality consists of not harming others and concerns about justice or fairness.Conservative morality on the other hand while valuing harm/care and justice/fairness also value the other elements of moral psychology that liberals reject.
For liberals in-group loyalty, respect for authority, and purity have absolutely nothing to do with morality but for conservative these are very important moral issues that can attenuate how they view issues of harm and fairness.
Now let us consider the three traits that really set liberals and conservatives apart in regards to Jesus’ life and teachings:
1. Authority / Respect
How respectful was Jesus of contemporary religious and secular authorities and the religious tradition he came from. Jesus was a reformer often saying that he came to offer a new law in place of the old. He was very critical of contemporary religious authorities. It seems to me that he is fairly low on the authority/respect psychological trait.
2. Purity / Sanctity
Jesus didn’t really value purity in the traditional sense. He didn’t reject jewish purity laws but he made it a point to spend time with people considered impure by society. And he put other concerns above strict following of the laws as when he healed on the Sabbath saying that “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.”
3. In Group Loyalty
It is here where I think we get the strongest picture of Jesus’ liberal tendencies. I’m thinking here about Jesus’ telling of the story of the good Samaritan in response to the question of who our neighbor is that we ought to be trying to love as ourself. He is clearly and specifically identifying a Samaritan as our neighbor, and of course Samaritans were generally despised by Jewish people. He goes very much out of his way to make it clear that in-group loyalty is a serious problem in terms of how we think of our moral obligations. This is a very liberal notion, and strikes at the heart of conservative moral psychology.
Beyond the specifics what we find in Jesus’ message is a rejection of everything except for concerns about harm and fairness. He did this when he healed on the Sabbath and when he associated himself rejects and outcastes of society, and when he rejected contemporary religious authority figures. He summarizes the entirety of Jewish law basically by saying “Don’t harm others,” which is really a very liberal way of thinking about ethics. Conservatives value harm but they also value tradition, purity, and in group loyalty. His intense concern and care for the poor is very much characteristic of a liberal moral psychology.
The funny thing is, one way to think of Jesus whole message was that it was a liberal message to a conservative audience. He was attempting to get his conservative audience to hear that they should care about all people, even people from a different tribe. He was trying to teach people that traditional standards of purity didn’t have anything to do with religion. And that being religious often times meant standing up to authority. Jesus saw himself as a prophet in a long line of prophets who felt the calling to speak truth to power.
So, from that perspective it seems conservative Christians are completely missing Jesus’ main message.
If Jesus were alive today would he be pro-choice? Hard to say, although there is an argument to be made given his Jewish roots and the Jewish notion that life begins with the first breath.
While liberalism and liberals are not entirely homogenous and there is room for a range of opinion on a variety of issues, I do think it pretty obvious that he would have been some sort of liberal. And I think the perspective of moral psychology adds extra strength to this position