Disturbing thoughts about christians and politics

Have you ever wondered how christians, who believe more or less the same things about Jesus and God, believe widely divergent things about politics and public morality?

Specifically, if you are more conservative politically, do you wonder how more liberal christians can possibly think and vote as they do? And if you are more liberal in your politics, are you amazed at the way conservative christians vote?

A 2011 paper (which I have just come across) has examined these issues and come up with some disturbing conclusions.

In this post, unless specifically stated otherwise, conservative and liberal refer to political views, not necessarily religious views (though there is strong correlation).

Psychologists probe the interesection of religious and political beliefs

Six years ago Stanford University psychologists examined how politics and christian belief are related. They noted how theologically conservative and theologically liberal christians tended to polarise over ethical and political issues, and tended to vote very differently, facts borne out since the study in attitudes to Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

So they probed questions where traditional (or Biblical) teachings were contrary to commonly held political views on some social issues where conservative and liberal views are very different.

Conservatives and Liberals were asked about “increasing the tax burden on the rich to ease the plight of the poor and easing the ability of current illegal immigrants to gain citizenship and access to social services” (considered to be issues emphasised by political liberals) and “opposition to gay marriage and restriction of access to abortion” (issues emphasised by political conservatives).

Results of the study

The psychologists found that views on these socio-political questions were very different, as you’d expect. But they also found that both politically conservative and liberal christians believed that Jesus taught, or would hold today, views closer to their own than to their opponents’. Thus they each interpreted Jesus’ teachings very differently.

But more surprising, both sides thought Jesus would be more humane to the poor and to illegal immigrants than they would be, and more opposed to abortion and gay marriage than they would be.

All this when a majority of both viewpoints said that Jesus teachings on all four matters were equally important to them (though a sizable minority of liberals said they valued Jesus’ teachings on the humanity questions more than on the moral questions, while a smaller minority of conservatives said the opposite).

The psychologists said “our most dramatic finding involved the marked projection of own views onto those attributed to Jesus.”

This is the disturbing thing ….

I don’t expect people to agree over many political issues. Politics is all about priorities and how to practically achieve certain objectives, and there will always be differences in these areas. People will always be assessing priorities and conflicting objectives differently. So a measure of disagreement is not surprising and not all that disturbing.

And some level of disagreement on the four issues studied isn’t unexpected either. The Bible never speaks about abortion directly, and while it speaks quite definitely about homosexual behaviour, Jesus doesn’t speak on the matter, and the Bible doesn’t discuss gay marriage directly. Likewise Jesus doesn’t speak directly on illegal immigrants (it probably wasn’t even a concept at the time), and while he does speak quite clearly about our attitudes to the poor, he doesn’t mention taxation. In fact, his teachings are directed at people and not government policy. So there are few “proof texts” from Jesus on these issues.

But three things deeply disturb me.

1. Projecting onto Jesus

It seems from the study that there is some tendency, on both sides, to be selective in applying Jesus teachings, and self serving in seeing our socio-political beliefs in Jesus, even though his socio-political situation was very different to ours.

Is Jesus our Lord or a convenient way to promote our favourite views and causes?

2. Failing to really know Jesus

Jesus says the Holy Spirit will guide us into truth (John 16:13), and Paul says that the Spirit will renew our minds so we will know God’s will (Romans 12:2), and that we can have “the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16).

Have we really tried to understand Jesus and the ethics he wants for those of us living in his kingdom? Do we aspire to his compassion for the poor and marginalised, his rejection of power and wealth, and his zeal for us to reflect God’s purity? Have we prayed, sincerely and repeatedly, for God to correct our wrong thinking and guide us to seeing things as Jesus would today? Or are we more prone to grab a scripture text that supports our view and hold onto it no matter what else the scriptures say or the Spirit may be saying today?

3. “If you love me, obey my commands” (John 14:15)

Both sides admit they fall short of what they believe Jesus would do in the areas not emphasised by their politics. We all fall short, but surely repentance means agreeing with God that we have got it wrong?

Casting the first stone

I’m surely guilty of inconsistency sometimes, so it isn’t my place to cast stones here. But this study is surely a warning that we should be earnestly praying, seeking wisdom, open to correction and wanting to truly follow Jesus in how we live and spend our money and vote.

I am not opposed to revising our understanding and application of scriptural principles to fit our contemporary situation, but if that revision leads systematically to views we find easier to hold, and if other brothers and sisters are coming to opposite conclusions, there is something wrong somewhere.

There is much rebuilding to be done, especially in the US where these studies were conducted and where there seems to be the greatest polarisation.

Photos: Trump from kennethkonica Flickr via Compfight cc; Obama from Pexels

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  1. Hi Unklee,
    You have made a crucially important point about filters and how they apply to religion and politics. A lot of so called “religious” politicians cherry pick the Bible to bolster their pre existing views. I would not call these people true Christians, they are frauds in that they don’t let the Bible modify their natural behaviour they are arrogant enough to believe that the Bible supports their prejudged lifestyle, and they don’t learn anything about themselves or society around them.
    True Christians ( and I would include yourself in that group) analyse the Bible, learn from it and modify their behaviour accordingly if they believe that they are not keeping up to the standards that Jesus supplied.
    However, you have mentioned before that you don’t think that the Bible is inerrant, and particular pieces of it may grate with your believe of what God is/or should be like, so I suppose that there is a bit of interpretation required according to “conscience”, although for personal reasons rather than political. I think that is an inevitable consequence of the Bible being constructed by so many different authors over a vast historical span.
    I personally distrust any politician who makes a point of projecting religion into politics. The two definitely don’t mix imo, although individuals obviously have consciences which may be guided by religious faith. As I have said before I dislike the interference of corporate religion into politics. Church leaders are also arrogant enough to believe that they represent the minds of their flock in all things including how they should vote and that is objectionable in my view.

  2. It’s also worth noting that most Right wing religious politicians are also quite wealthy, and there is Luke 18:25 for them to worry about, and that verse doesn’t seem to enter into their calculations.

  3. Hi, I tend to agree with what you say here. I think the problem of politicians and religion is worst in the US. I have heard that few atheists get elected to high office there, so there is an incentive to at least be nominally religious. Donald Trump seems to be an example. He had few pretensions and few indicators of being a christian, and many that suggested otherwise, but he courted the christian right, allowed them to pray for him and opposed abortion, and so most of them voted for him.
    But it is different in Australia where we don’t care all that much what people believe and no-one has to pretend.
    I agree with you that we have to interpret and apply the Bible, and that will sometimes lead to disagreements, but if our “interpretation” becomes self serving, then that is dishonest.
    Thanks for your interest in reading and commenting.

  4. Yes it’s an interesting situation with politics and religion in the US. I can’t think of any other western country where these two influences are so entwined.
    It’s probably because the original founding fathers were essentially religious refugees seeking independence from the Church of England, as opposed to our Godless convict ancestors. We share the same opposition to authority, but in different ways.
    The Bible belt has always had a strong influence in US politics,but I tend to think that that influence will wane over time even more so if Trump is seen as the false idol that he so palpably is to people who still have a degree of rational thought.

  5. Church leaders are also arrogant enough to believe that they represent the minds of their flock in all things including how they should vote and that is objectionable in my view.

    This is actually the establishment view in American legal thinking on religion. In certain disputes involving religious freedoms (think along the lines of private law actions), religious defences are only possible if it has institutional backup.
    It makes you wonder if American law is at fault for some of the cultural difference.

  6. The meeting between the Pope and Trump was very interesting. Apparently the Pope had previously suggested that Trump was ‘un Christian’ for wanting to build the Mexican wall and Trump reacted with amazement to that idea.
    The Pope also gave Trump one of his writings on global warming. Now if Trump was a true Christian he may re-examine his policy on both of those subjects, if not he could be considered an arrogant fraud.

  7. Hi Unklee,
    Since posting on this topic I’ve been thinking about it a bit more. It occured to me that I stated my opinion fairly forcefully but omitted to ask your opinion of whether there is a place for an organised Christian political party.
    In Australia we theoretically have separation of church and state, but we also have a Fred Nile and his Christian Democrat party in NSW. Is this a legitimate use of Christianity or does involvement in politics sully Christianity ?
    If we have religious political parties, should we also allow Islamic parties whose ideology would seem at odds with our secular society ?
    If Christians have an organised party, what policies should they pursue in your opinion ?
    I’d be interested in your views on this.

  8. Hi, I am not very supportive of christian political parties, for several reasons. (1) I think parties which represent a particular subgroup or issue tend to have a distorted view of what is important, and often tend to do compromise deals with the party in power to get what they want, and I think that is often undemocratic. (2) I think power tends to corrupt, and that has a bad effect on religion. (3) I tend not to agree with the conservative approach of most christians in politics. (4) Christians in politics tend to try to force their personal moral views into law whereas laws should only address what is harmful to society.
    Nevertheless, it is a democracy and so everyone should be able to form a political party if they abide by the rules, and that includes Fred Nile and Muslims.
    A christian party, in my view, should follow the teachings of Jesus (how radical is that!) as they are relevant to society. It should address issues that affect society in demonstrable ways while avoiding imposing personal moral values on others. God doesn’t force us not to sin, so we should leave people free to make their choices too, except where they harm others.
    So I think a christian party should generally be slightly socialist in that it cares for the poor, the struggling and the disadvantaged, it should avoid war and violence as much as possible, and it should care for God’s world. No matter how strongly christians feel homosexuality is a sin, they shouldn’t try to enact laws that prevent LGBTI people from living normal lives like the rest of us. The most difficult issue I think is abortion, for we can see there are many natural abortions (miscarriages) and we can want to leave women free of male interference in their bodily processes, but if christians believe abortion is murder (and that is a reasonable position), they can hardly be silent on the matter.
    What do you think?

  9. I think your views are very reasonable.
    In some ways having an up-front party with stated policies is preferable to individuals standing for other parties but actually voting according to their religious beliefs. In the latter case, voters may not get the true picture as to where their candidates stand on individual issues.
    I don’t really have a problem with religious parties as long as they are consistent, have stated policies on all issues they are likely to vote on and vote on the merits of each piece of legislation instead of as you say doing deals to get what they want. The same principle obviously applies to all minor parties.
    I’m not saying I would vote for a religious party (but maybe I would if their policies align with my world view), but in a democracy they should be entitled to exist.
    Thanks for your views.

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