Bilingual: Speaking both Liberal and Conservative

I was raised by conservative parents, shaped by fundamentalist churches and immersed in the worldview of the Right for the first 40 years of my life. My journey away from all that took a long time. Finding my way out of the bubble and exposing myself to people who saw the world very differently than I was a challenging and sometimes scary process. But I’m grateful. Both to be where I am today: living with much larger, more nuanced understandings AND to have gone through the process of questioning, growing, learning and changing.

I think of myself as bilingual. I can speak both Liberal and Conservative.

I’m one of countless humans who have made such journeys but it saddens me that many of my fellow Liberals seem to have forgotten their mother tongue. We are people who understand where Conservatives are coming from, not only because we have been there but also because many of our friends and family still live there. Our bilingual skills are desperately needed in these days of rancor and blame. We need to use our ability to understand their world and speak their language so that we can help build more bridges of communication.

Some years ago, I attended an ecumenical and interfaith retreat for seminary students from across Texas. Twice during each day of the retreat, we joined together in smaller groups for more personal conversation. We were assigned to one group that was designed to be intentionally diverse. The other group allowed us to self-select in order to be with people who came from similar backgrounds and shared our familiar ways of thinking and speaking.

Since I was still in my process, I existed in two worlds: Conservative Evangelical Christian and Liberal Mainline Christian. I self-selected for the Evangelical group and found myself serving as an interpreter and a buffer. These people were not arrogant or mean; rather they were thoughtful and good-hearted, and they were intentionally stretching themselves and pushing out of their bubble just by attending this ecumenical event. When they didn’t understand something our mainline friends or Catholic friends were saying, it wasn’t because they were stupid. It was because the concepts and the vocabulary were simply out of the realm of their experience.

I did the best I could to translate and interpret for my Conservative friends but maybe my most important work was to testify to the integrity and intent of my Liberal friends.

When I returned to my new world with my Liberal colleagues, I was surprised that I had to play the role of translator again. These folks were equally confounded by a worldview that was alien to them. These folks were also good-hearted and thoughtful. So I was especially disappointed that my open-minded, generous and tolerant liberal friends could be so intolerant and insulting. Once again, I was called to be witness: this time testifying to the integrity and intent of my Conservative friends.

Most of the people I know who have made a journey have moved from Conservative toward Liberal. But there are also plenty of people who have moved across the spectrum from Liberal toward Conservative. This orientation doesn’t have anything to do with our character or integrity; it has to do with the lens through which we see the world – and even how our brains are wired.

Our society is in desperate need of translators and interpreters. We need more bilingual people to be active in the public conversation, finding fresh ways to speak so others can hear. We need more optimistic people who believe in the basic goodness of humanity helping us break down barriers and build bridges.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of people who won’t want to join this bilingual effort. There are too many people who don’t want to listen or understand.

Those are not my conversation partners.

Instead, I’m on the search for conversation partners who want to keep questioning, growing, learning and changing. I’m convinced there are many.

I’m also on the search for other bilingual partners who are willing to use their skills of understanding the world of another and are willing to speak their language. This is how we can change the world: one conversation at a time, one friendship at a time, one bridge at a time.

Who’s in?



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12 thoughts on “Bilingual: Speaking both Liberal and Conservative

  1. Just yesterday a super republican friend said horrible things about nonbinary people. He called them mentally ill. I am nonbinary (haven’t told him though). There is no translating that. Many conservatives lack empathy. I have a bunch of other conservative friends that said horrible things about New York making abortions for medical problems legal in the third trimester. I tried with them, but the reply was just have a C-section. There is no understanding that sometimes that doesn’t work, sometimes the fetus is already dead anyway or the many other reasons that could never happen to them. If someone just dismisses whatever someone who disagree with them says, they’ll never understand.

  2. Your blog resonated so much with me. I grew up and lived in eastern Washington State for half my life, taught much of the conservative values we are seeing on display now. Some members of my family and old friends and acquaintances are still definitely on the conservative Christian republican side. Over my life, though, I’ve lost so much of that faith for various reasons. I now live in the liberal side of the Pacific Northwest. My friends and family here are all very liberal, as I tend to be at this point. Although I am in horror at what our government and Christianity have come to represent, I still understand the roots of those who voted and supported it. From this understanding, I wish I could contribute my voice, but I have found distrust and judgment from both sides in many cases. Thank you for the work you are doing to try to make a bridge, no matter how hopeless or fragile it seems at times.

    1. “Distrust and judgment from both sides…” Yes, our sad reality these days. But we can’t stop! The more of us who keeping building bridges, the more hopeful our shared future will become.

      Have you read my blogs with my conservative friend Janie? I was grateful that she approached me and wanted to blog together as a way to demonstrate respectful dialogue. You might search out one conservative friend who would be willing to sit down for coffee and talk.

      Or consider hosting a Coffee Party Talk with some of your friends.

      Or join in a Living Room Conversation.

      I appreciate your heart and your efforts, Debbie. Let’s keep this going!

  3. I would find some examples of this “translation” helpful to understanding what you mean by it.

    1. One example comes from my conversation all those years ago at the retreat. These Conservative Christians who take the Bible literally and subscribe to biblical infallibility could not comprehend any other way to read Scripture faithfully. In order to truly honor Scripture (they understand), one must the Bible communicates God’s mind and will clearly and precisely. That is a viewpoint I have left behind. My translation to these friends explained that the way liberals/progressives honor Scripture is to question, probe, argue with it. We do not believe the Bible is the literal words of God; rather it is human witness to God’s presence in the world and within the lives of faithful people who did the best they could to understand God’s mind and will. The mystery of God is unspeakable; human words will never explain and human intellect will never comprehend. But faithfulness is not defined by our ability to understand; rather faithfulness is our best effort to live in love. The two great commandments according to Jesus: Love God and love neighbor. Progressive Christians take the Bible seriously without taking it literally.

      Another example comes from my relationship with my friend and co-blogger, Janie. (We have published several shared blogs: Conversation Across our Differences.) Our dialogue began a couple years ago when I posted a photo of me officiating a same sex wedding. She messaged me and asked how, as a Christian minister, I could justify doing that. My translation, explanation basically came down to: because I believe this is just.

      Janie translates for me and explains how she can feel deep compassion for immigrants but still want tight border security; how she wants everyone to have the health care they need but doesn’t want the government to do it…

      These efforts to “translate” do not necessarily change minds but I hold on to hope that, through this process, we will move away from black/white, right/wrong, good/bad dualities and affirm the complexity of our shared humanity. Janie and I have grown closer through this shared blog project. We disagree with each other strongly and say so. But as we translate our passions to one another, we find we can agree to disagree more easily over policies.

      Does that help? Tell me more about your own journey.
      Thanks for reading and thanks for the conversation.

      1. Thanks for replying with an example; I was just about to ask for one myself. Having read yours, there’s still something I can’t quite understand. (I am a former Christian, but I did not subscribe to reading the Bible literally.) When you say they take the Bible literally, I believe you, as I have seen the same. However, it seems to me, when it comes down to the infallibility of the Bible vs. reality, they will inevitably choose the Bible. I never could; I always chose reality, which lead to my leaving the church. But how do you bridge the gap of communicating with someone who chooses the Bible over reality especially with regards to climate change?

        1. Some people may never “bridge the gap.” As for me, I think the people who can actually SEE the gap are the ones who will ask the questions. I would say that “reality” is communicated in a variety of ways. Very often the “biblical” way is poetic, or communicated within the mysterious truth of parable and metaphor. As for climate change though, Scripture is very clear on many levels that humans are called to be stewards and caretakers of creation. For me, that is not a parable. I will take that literally. Some may call it cherry picking. I call it discernment. Peace to you, Jasmine.

  4. Thank you for this. I used to think I was somewhat bilingual and understood the values of my conservative friends. This past election broke my heart because it is so very hard for me to understand how someone who believes in conservative family values, pro-life, limited government, honesty and hard work could vote for Trump. I don’t know how to talk to a conservative who hates Obama, an honest and hard-working Christian family man, and loves Trump, a liar whose wealth is based entirely on his father’s work, who has cheated countless hard-working people out of their money, cheated on his wives, made fun of disabled people, screwed over people who were loyal to him….. I wish this didn’t sound like an insulting unwillingness to listen. I’m being honest about the pain I feel at being unable to understand.

    1. I completely understand, Peggy. Beloved family members, close friends, people I have always respected – it’s mind boggling. I know these folks are not hateful or stupid so I’ve been really stretched to deal with what I see as inconsistencies. I finally decided I may never understand. So I’m moving on to keep the conversation going and nurturing relationships anyway. Keeping doors open for wherever this all may go in the future. People are more important to me than belief systems. Thanks for reading and thanks for the conversation. Peace…

  5. This is very true. I have come full circle, brought up mainline liberal, became much more conservative evangelical in college, and then back again. All types seem to coexist in the Episcopal church. I have friends of all persuasions and do as you do when the opportunities arise. Thank you for your witness.

  6. We have a very similar journey. If actually mention that issue on my Facebook Bio/About.
    Thanks for a good essay/blog
    Andrew L. Norton
    Mabank, Tx

    1. We are in good company Andrew. Thanks for reading and thanks for the conversation! Peace…

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