I try to balance staying aware with not getting sucked into social media debates.  This week I failed.  On three separate UM groups, I saw these words:

“extreme conservative evangelical”


“white male” just concerned with protecting “white male” privilege.”

Before you protest that I’m just another white male conservative angry about being called out, let me nip that protest in the bud.  I recognize and admit without hesitation the fact of male privilege, of white privilege, of wealth privilege.  (I also think there’s much more going on than the concerns these labels illustrate.)  I recognize systemic evil.  I don’t like labels of any kind.  I know labels can be helpful, but often – especially now – they are not.  I don’t like it when anybody of any ideological bent uses a label for the purpose of de-legitimizing somebody’s ideas without having to make their case with their own ideas.

I think it’s fair to say that it near-infuriates me when labels are used that way.  Why?  Here’s my story.

Probably in the neighborhood of ten or eleven years ago, I was asked to spend half a day with an annual conference study group on the issue of homosexuality.  This group was tasked with presenting a resolution to their upcoming annual conference meeting.  The group met several times over several months and invited various resource people to address them.  I was one such “resource.”   I was asked to share with them most likely because I hold traditional convictions on core matters of theology, thus I’m sometimes identified as “conservative.”

I’m also an academic.  As is the case with most academics, it is very important to me to present positions as accurately, honestly and fairly as possible and to criticize positions, not the position-holders’ motives or character.  I also believe very strongly that, if I’m going to teach or serve as a resource for groups trying to decide contentious matters, it is my strong responsibility to read widely and to have reasonably good working knowledge of the issues involved.

That is exactly how I prepared for the session with the annual conference group.  I had my own opinions about the matter, but I was not there to make a case for my opinions.  I was there to elucidate the range of issues to help the group do their work well.   This is why this memory is particularly galling for me.  After spending the morning attempting to do exactly what I just expressed as my aim, I ended with a published editorial, written by a physician who is very supportive of L/G/B/T rights.  In other words, I used a source with whom most people in the group already agreed on the matter at hand.  This author pleaded with his readers not to deploy the “naturalistic fallacy” to support advocacy for same-sex marriage, etc.  What he meant by this term is actually more like the “is-ought” problem: if a phenomenon is counted as natural, then it ought to be counted as good.   But, of course, we all know that not everything that we call natural can be counted as good, so this view turns out to be a very inadequate foundation for any kind of rights advocacy.

It turns out, they did exactly what the physician/author (and I) begged them not to do.  When I learned of the outcome, I quizzed one of the members of the group who told me (and I have reason to accept this person as a reliable witness) that the majority of the group said, “Well, you know, Steve Rankin is just pretty conservative, so we didn’t think what he had to say counted all that much.”

There you have it.  One word – “conservative” – was all that mattered to sweep away my input.  It was a classic case of made-up minds in advance and all they needed was to “know” that I was “pretty conservative.”  They didn’t need to listen.  They just needed the label.  Of course, the irony of the whole thing was that I used one of their allies to caution them against adopting a mistaken stratagem, the very one they adopted.

A label is a poor substitute for the hard work of explaining how one draws one’s conclusions.  A label, even if accurate, is not an argument, not a reason to adopt a position.  It’s just a label.  Journalists can use labels to meet their word limits when trying to describe someone in an article.  We should not use labels as shortcuts for arguments.

We United Methodists have a 100% chance of failure to resolve our deep differences if labels continue to dominate in our discussions.  A 100% chance of failure.


Why I Don’t Like Labels: A Personal Story

11 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Like Labels: A Personal Story

  • September 27, 2014 at 5:36 pm

    This is a sad story, Stephen. It will be repeated so long as labels and ad hominem attacks are powerful.

  • September 27, 2014 at 6:38 pm

    Stephen, thank you for your post. I agree. I believe we have to do better about working together as we move forward, removing all loaded labels that point to extremes, and come to the center where Christ is always at work. Perhaps, as you have indicated in your post, that your frustration with labels may also help us all understand better how our LGBTQ brothers and sisters must feel when we as the church label them as “incompatible.” We accept them into membership so they can be counted, and we accept their offering so that it can be added to our bottom line. But we label them “incompatible,” with the very Christianity we embody. And, we break the first General rule of the church… Again, thanks for your post.

    • September 28, 2014 at 9:45 am

      Sorry, Bill. The statement in the Book of Discipline does NOT label homosexual people as “incompatible” with Christian teaching. It labels them as people of “sacred worth”. The PRACTICE of homosexual behavior is indeed incompatible with Christian teaching; and our homosexual brothers and sisters have the choice whether or not to engage in such behavior. We ALL have free will, and we ALL have a choice about we will engage or not engage in sexual activity. Christian teaching limits sexual activity to the context of marriage between a man and a woman.

      Stop twisting clear words.

      • September 29, 2014 at 8:49 am

        Holly, thank you for the reply but I am not twisting words. The label our church applies is just that; “incompatible.” And your argument of homosexuality being a choice is a fallacy. We are all people of sacred worth, created in the image of God. And yes, we have all been given free will, and both heterosexuals and homosexuals can choose to be sexually deviate or not, or to murder, steal, etc., for that matter. Sexual identity is way more complicated than the simplistic approach of “choice.”

        Many people contend that if homosexuality is not a choice, then we are saying that God made a mistake in creating homosexuals. Yet, as Christians we believe God does not make mistakes. Therefore, because we believe that God does not make mistakes then homosexuality has to be a “choice” by the individual, because humans were created in the image of God and charged to rule over the earth and be fruitful and multiply. And because homosexual relationships cannot reproduce life (or they are non-procreative), then they are not depicting “normal” behavior and therefore, they are not a mistake by God, but represent a lifestyle of “choice,” by the individual.

        This argument is problematic. To contend this, one has to then say that infants born with ambiguous genitalia are a mistake by God. Or that men and women that are heterosexual but who cannot reproduce children are then a mistake by God. Or that people who are born with birth defects or other physical or mental afflictions are then a mistake by God. We might as well be asking ourselves: Are we struggling with this because of our own sins or the sins of those who have lived before us? Remember how Jesus addressed this? (see John 9:1-16)

        Sexual preference is used to explain one’s desire and/or “choice” in connection to sexual activity. However, sexual orientation is employed to express an inclination that is very different, representing something in the very nature of the homosexual person that make this person this way. One can choose one’s sexual preference, and one can choose to be sexually deviant, but how does one choose one’s sexual orientation?

        “Choice” plays a huge role in how we interact in the world around us. For instance, I can choose to use harmful and addictive drugs. I can choose to rebel against others and intentionally engage in sexually deviant behavior. But, how does one choose his/her sexual orientation, homosexual or heterosexual? How did you “choose” your sexual orientation?

        Homosexuality is way more than sexual activity and much more complex than a simple choice. We know better now.

        I realize the tension. I used to make the same argument you are making.

  • September 28, 2014 at 7:32 am

    Steve, in Baptist circles (where I have spent the majority of my time) the word “conservative” is used as a synonym for “good”, “safe”, and “Christian”, so both sides of the culture war resort to labels when they are tired of listening and thinking. We see this particularly when organizations are trying to decide which views are in and which are out so that a measure of institutional equilibrium can be restored. If there is a sense that we are a conservative group, then liberal opinion is dismissed out of hand; if we are predominantly liberal then a conservative position loses its legitimacy simply by being conservative. This is a form of group-think and it is deadly to genuine spirituality. We must remain in conversation, even when our disagreements appear unresolvable.

  • September 28, 2014 at 2:19 pm

    Methodism doesn’t label persons as “incompatible,” so the argument above trips itself up in trying to exploit Steve Rankin’s premise. If we want to make credible arguments, let’s make them, but not at the expense of truth.

  • September 28, 2014 at 8:10 pm

    Thanks for this post, Stephen. I am continually flummoxed by how much contemporary discourse relies on such labeling; in trying to offer perspectives beyond the conservative/liberal binary in the UMC, I am regularly accused of being in one of those camps depending on which camp I am critiquing. We do love our labels.

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  • October 24, 2014 at 1:42 pm

    Steve, I found this blog via Hal Dr. Knight. You taught the first class I ever took at Saint Paul School of theology, “History of Methodism.” I still refer to my notes from your class and two research paper’s we wrote and am very grateful to you to creating such an interest and respect for John Wesley. “You planted and Dr. Knight watered.”


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