Ronald J. Sider, a "conservative" politico?

As the battles continue over religious liberty issues -- by which I mean battles over issues that the White House has described as having religious-liberty implications -- journalists continue to struggle with that old, old issue of simplistic labeling. We're talking about political labeling, of course. The actual theological positions of people in the various camps are too complex to describe with simplistic labels, so it's much easier to settle for broad sweeping labels linked to politics.

These labels often do not fit, but what the heck.

Consider this small, newsy report from an important newsroom that your GetReligionistas -- with good cause -- praise far more often than we criticize. I am referring to Religion News Service. Here's how things start off:

A coalition of nearly 150 religious leaders, led by conservative Protestants, have petitioned the Obama administration to broaden the exemption that allows churches and some religious organizations to avoid a controversial new mandate that all health care insurers provide free contraception coverage.

In a letter sent Monday (June 11) to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, the 149 religious leaders note that they hold differing views on "the moral acceptability" of birth control and on the viability of various administration proposals to allow faith-based groups to bypass the mandate for contraception and sterilization coverage.

But they said they share a strong objection to the language that defines which "religious" groups are eligible for an exemption, saying the definition creates a "two-class system" of religious groups: churches, which qualify under the wording of the exemption, and "faith-based service organizations," which may or may not qualify.

Now, I appreciate that this lede stresses that this effort is led by Protestants. This isn't another story that describes the conflict as a clash between Catholic bishops and the White House.

What caught my eye was the word "conservative."

In a political sense, I can see why this label is so easy to use. If President Barack Obama is on one side, then anyone on the other side has to be a "conservative."

The problem is that the story, as it should, includes a list of key leaders among these "conservative Protestants." Pay close attention to this:

The letter to Sebelius was organized by Stanley Carlson-Thies, an architect of President George W. Bush's faith-based office, and includes Ronald J. Sider, head of Evangelicals for Social Action; Richard J. Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary; Samuel Rodriguez, head of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference; Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals; Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission; and David Neff, editor-in- chief of Christianity Today.

Now, people who follow progressive causes among evangelicals will raise their eyebrows when reading this list.

Now, Richard Land is a conservative in anyone's world, political or doctrinal. But Richard Mouw is a "conservative" -- pure and simple? How about David Neff?

I was especially interested to see Ron Sider in this list. This is a pro-life progressive I have known for 25 years or more. He's an evangelical, in terms of doctrine and moral theology, but most of the time the press refers to him as an outspoken progressive when it comes to most issues in the public square. After all, we're talking about the author of "The Scandal of Evangelical Politics."

Let me be clear. It is perfectly logical that Sider is a leader in this effort. If the story is clear that it is talking about theological conservatives, then I guess these people are "conservative Protestants."

But my main point is that this simple label does not capture the true complexity of the names on this list. Some of these folks are evangelicals who have sipped their share of coffee with Obama and taken part in efforts to build bridges between Democrats and evangelicalism. Some of these people are leaders Obama truly cares about.

So, "conservative Protestants"? Yes, and no.

Hey you evangelical scribes in our regular readership: How would you describe -- in language that fits in basic news stories -- some of the leaders in that list?

Please respect our Commenting Policy