Biblical politics

Posted on July 20, 2011

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Can the Bible speak usefully and clearly to contemporary political issues? There are enough examples of people who want to insist the answer is yes, and then display a powerful conviction that one or another secular slate of partisan positions is, astonishingly, completely supported by Scripture. (For a very generous review of a particularly unfortunate recent example, that apparently even manages to defend the practice of torture as Biblically sanctioned, see Krish Kandiah’s blog here…)

Perhaps there is an alternative way of addressing the question: if we took a good sample of people, and mapped their political beliefs against their practices of Bible reading, would anything significant be observed? A recent sociological study seems to suggest yes, according to an interesting report doing the round on the web. A good source, by the original author, is the Huffington Post here; it references an unpublished study by a postgrad student at Baylor on the relationship between frequency of Bible reading and a whole series of political/social attitudes amongst American Christians, using a data set gathered in 2007. (Apparently – see comment 3 on this post, the original source, I think – the study is presently under journal review.)

The data set (the Baylor Religion Survey, which is well-known and credible) ranked people’s practices of Bible reading on an eight-point scale: ranging from opening the Bible never or yearly, through monthly and weekly, to ‘several times a week or more often’. Assuming the reports are right, there are strong positive correlations, visible and statistically significant moving up the scale, on the following points:

  • frequent Bible readers are more likely to believe in the importance of social and economic justice;
  • frequent Bible readers are more likely to believe that using or consuming less is an important part of being a good person;
  • frequent Bible readers are less likely to see a fundamental conflict between science and religion;
  • frequent Bible readers are less likely to approve of same-sex marriage;
  • frequent Bible readers are more likely to be opposed to abortion;
  • frequent Bible readers are more likely to be opposed to both the death penalty, and harsher sentencing policies more generally.

The most striking thing about this is that the positions apparently promoted by frequent Bible reading do not align at all with a simple left-right political division: pro-life, but also green; opposition to same-sex marriage, but also commitment to social justice and penal reform. (It is also a set of positions that I would regard as pretty normal amongst British evangelicals – perhaps we all just read the Bible a lot? [if only…]) I am sure that any particular person’s political beliefs are a complex interaction of all sorts of factors, and that the live options they perceive are largely determined by cultural context (consider how easy it is to call oneself ‘socialist’ in Europe compared to the USA); this study suggests, though, that, within a particular culture, personal engagement with the Bible does have a genuine effect on people’s political beliefs. Interesting – I will try to find the original paper and link or reference when it is published.

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