By Tom Ehrich

I think we need to get squared away on some of the language we use to talk about faith.

First, "evangelical Christianity": the mantle is claimed by right-wing religious folks, but their political, ethical and cultural perspectives have nothing to do with "evangelical," meaning people who consider Scripture authoritative, conversion paramount, and getting right with God to be a matter of faith, not accomplishments.

Quoting selected passages of Scripture to justify one's bigotry doesn't qualify as taking Scripture seriously. It trivializes Scripture. Their yearning for a former disposition -- women in their place, gays in the closet, people of color in the back of the bus, America entitled to rule the world -- doesn't come remotely close to God's own yearning for justice and mercy, Jesus' yearning for oneness, inclusion, love, peace, feeding and caring for the least.

"Radical liberalism": compared to the Tea Party, progressive Christians might seem "radically liberal." But we fall woefully short of the radical liberalism that Jesus himself demonstrated. I don't see either the Tea Party or the Episcopal Church getting serious about the Sermon on the Mount. We're all just trying to hold on to what we've got. We want to feel religious while doing so.

"Religious liberty": the freedom to hate and to exclude and to demonize isn't religious freedom. It is free speech protected by the Constitution. But religious freedom means something else entirely. It means keeping religion from poisoning the state, and the state from telling people what to believe. It protects each side from the excesses of the other. Same-sex marriage isn't an issue of religious liberty. It is a change in cultural perspective, perhaps of the law, that some religious people find offensive. But it doesn't impinge on their freedom. They can still hate all they want. They can even baptize their hatred by calling it "Christian." That's nonsense, of course, but the Constitution protects anyone's right to be stupid.

"Conservative," "progressive," "Bible-believing," "catholic" -- any of the labels we apply to religious people and religious institutions. Labels lie. Some of the most liberal Christians I know have been Baptists, who usually get tagged "conservative." Some of the most conservative, corporatist, money-hungry, elite-fawning Christians I know reside within the Presbyterian, Episcopal and Lutheran traditions.

We are individuals trying to work out our relationships with God. Labels don't begin to describe the journeys we are on. If anything, the heavy weight and convenient shorthand of labeling gets in our way, preventing us from doing the necessary work of saying one's prayers and thinking one's thoughts and contemplating one's relationship with God. Faith isn't vicarious experience. It's conversion -- personal transformation, turning one's life over to God.

Comment