Thought Question: Does Bible Reading Turn You Liberal?

[Well, I was behind on my email and comment responses before going to Boston, and then I came back sick, ... and so I'm going to post several Thought Questions while I mend. But not to worry, I'll finish the series that I began, including Resident Aliens. One day. I'm sure. Absolutely.]

According to a survey reported in a recent article in Christianity Today

[R]eading the Bible more often has some liberalizing effects—or at least makes the reader more prone to agree with liberals on certain issues. This is true even when accounting for factors such as political beliefs, education level, income level, gender, race, and religious measures (like which religious tradition one affiliates with, and one’s views of biblical literalism). …

As might be expected, respondents who were more politically liberal were prone to disagree with the statement, “The government should punish criminals more harshly.” Unexpectedly (at least given the conservative stereotype), the more frequently people read the Bible, the more they too are prone to disagree with the statement. This is not an anomalous finding: Support for abolishing the death penalty increased by about 45 percent for each increase on the five-point scale measuring Bible-reading frequency.

Reading the Bible affects attitudes toward science as well. If you just ask people about biblical literalism, you don’t find statistically significant differences in views of whether science and religion are compatible. But the more someone reads the Bible, the more likely he or she is to believe science and religion are compatible. (For each increase on the five-point scale, the odds that they see religion and science as incompatible decrease by 22 percent.) …

Some of the most interesting findings relate to moral attitudes. “How important is it,” the survey asked, “to actively seek social and economic justice in order to be a good person?” Again, as would be expected, those with more liberal political leanings were more likely to say it’s very or somewhat important. And those who read the Bible more often were more likely to agree. Indeed, they were almost 35 percent more likely to agree at each point on Baylor’s five-point scale. …

Ask an evangelical who is politically conservative, has some college education, has an average level of income, is a biblical literalist, and does not read the Bible, and you’ll have only a 22 percent chance he or she will say reducing consumption is part of ethical living. Ask the same person, only now they read the Bible, and you’ll have a 44 percent chance they’ll say so. It’s still not a majority, but the swing is dramatic.

(emphasis mine.) Interesting. And yet conservative political views are very closely associated with evangelicalism. Does this mean that many Christians don’t read their Bibles? Or what?

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About Jay Guin

I am an elder, a Sunday school teacher, a husband, a father, a grandfather, and a lawyer. I live in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, home of the Alabama Crimson Tide. I’m a member of the University Church of Christ. I grew up in Russellville, Alabama and graduated from David Lipscomb College (now Lipscomb University). I received my law degree from the University of Alabama. I met my wife Denise at Lipscomb, and we have four sons, two of whom are married, and I have a grandson and granddaughter.
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31 Responses to Thought Question: Does Bible Reading Turn You Liberal?

  1. Alan says:

    There are plenty of scriptures supporting conservative values. Just a few examples off the the top of my head:

    Pro_10:4 Lazy hands make a man poor, but diligent hands bring wealth.

    2 Thes 3:10 If a man will not work, he shall not eat.

    John 14:6 I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

    Luk 3:14 Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”

    Mat 20:14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you.
    Mat 20:15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

  2. Charles McLean says:

    I think that there is a difference between quoting scripture and reading scripture. Quoting tends to show our connection to particular favorite ideas. Reading, OTOH, tends to expose us to thinking other than our own.

    The more you read Jesus, for example, the more unsettled you may become in the context of your ordinary lifestyle. Jesus is quite radical and does not line up with current conservatism in some significant particulars. Read the Bill of Rights and the story of the king in Luke 19 back to back and see how they compare. Look at Jesus’ view on paying taxes– even the unjust ones. And how he responded to government oppression (“if a man compels you to walk a mile…”). And let’s not even start on “if a man steals your coat, give him your shirt, too.” Or, God forbid, “lend to any who asks you without expecting to be paid back”.

    I find Alan’s selections interesting, as he does not report the laborer’s side of the conversation in Matt 20, only the master’s. And in that metaphor, that is not us. That master pays, not based on the relative value of the hard-working “early to rise” fellow, but based on his own fiat. It’s hard to rise to the top in a program like that on the basis of your own hard work. And as to John 14:6, I find no freedom, or self-determination, or rugged individualism here. I find no “consent of the governed” or “individual rights” in Jesus’ words.

    No, the benevolent despot that Jesus shows us does not line up with current “conservative values” too well. But at the same time, he does not line up too well with the liberal side of that picture, either. Foremost, he does not offer to either let ME become the benevolent despot. And he extends his own royal values to his subjects without regard for their personal rights or wishes. He does not brook rebellion or opposition from those who live in the territory under his dominion.

  3. Alan says:

    I find Alan’s selections interesting, as he does not report the laborer’s side of the conversation in Matt 20, only the master’s.

    I cited counterexamples because that is what was pertinent in response to the premise Jay proposed.

    No, the benevolent despot that Jesus shows us does not line up with current “conservative values” too well. But at the same time, he does not line up too well with the liberal side of that picture, either.

    Exactly, The wisdom of man is foolishness, whether the man is a D or an R. Both ends of the political spectrum have an unhealthy dose of selfishness in their politics. Scripture directly challenges everyone — liberal, conservative, moderate, libertarian, whatever.

    I find it both hypocritical and offensive when liberals try to characterize conservative positions as unchristian.

    It’s not especially Christian to take money from one person by force and give it to another. Much better to give from your own resources to a poor person, face to face. Much more like Jesus.

  4. Alabama John says:

    Life and religion was much simpler when in parts of Tennessee and North Carolina on and near the Cherokee Reservation all they had was the small red book of John and many couldn’t read.

    The smarter we become, the more complicated WE make the Bible, the more division and arguments increase.

    Can’t help but wonder what it would be like if the Bible was never broken up into numbered chapters and verses.That numbering system sure makes it easier to argue by quoting points of contention.

    Good to just read the Bible and not read it with a position or agenda in mind trying to be made. Simply doing that type of reading in itself makes one more liberal.

  5. James says:

    ” And yet conservative political views are very closely associated with evangelicalism. Does this mean that many Christians don’t read their Bibles? Or what?”

    I don’t know. Most of the evangelical conservatives I know personally read constantly and quote prolifically. I think it may be more how they read than what they read. Many of us are expert eisogetes.

    So, that would lead me to think it may not be as simple as “read more, be more liberal.”

  6. Alabama John says:

    ” I think it may be how they read than what they read’

    James, you said that better than I did.

    The type reading I said was more liberal was reading without an agenda or point trying to make, just simply reading makes one more liberal.
    Yes, conservatives read a lot, but in many cases to state a position in mind.

  7. Alan says:

    ” I think it may be how they read than what they read’
    James, you said that better than I did.
    The type reading I said was more liberal was reading without an agenda or point trying to make, just simply reading makes one more liberal.
    Yes, conservatives read a lot, but in many cases to state a position in mind.

    That’s offensive. And just plain incorrect. I doubt Jay wants this to devolve into a quarrel about liberal social issues, but there’s plenty of liberal scripture-dodging involved in those areas.

  8. laymond says:

    Lev 19:18 Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I [am] the LORD.

    Luk 6:31 And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.

    If we just lived by these two bits of advise, we would be pretty liberal.

  9. Alan says:

    If we just lived by these two bits of advise, we would be pretty liberal.

    Some people would rather take their neighbor’s resources and give them to the poor, rather than giving their own. That’s liberal, but not Christian.

    Some people would rather not say anything to offend Muslims, Hindu’s, atheists, etc. That’s liberal, but unfortunately, the Christian message is offensive to those groups.

    Some people would rather not confront extramarital sex, homosexuality, lust, etc… and would penalize anyone who does so. That’s liberal, but, Christianity calls those behaviors out as sin.

    I could go on…

  10. Rich W says:

    Perhaps reading our Bibles makes us less polarized. The same Bible tells us to help the poor and says those who don’t work shouldn’t be able to eat.

  11. laymond says:

    Alan, i don’t recall where I said many people lived by these bible verses, I just said “if they did” . All Christians should, but they don’t. Maybe if they just made it a habit to read those verses before breakfast, more people would have breakfast.

  12. Mark says:

    I think beyond the issues of what the Bible says it is clear that theologians rarely stay within their previous beliefs. Reading the Bible for oneself creates maturity. It is this maturity that brings forth progressive concepts. 2 Peter 1:5 “For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith” Goodness is the first thing…looking into the scripture for goodness brings forth for many a new light. Hating sin but loving the sinner! The world would have us do the opposite. That great divide between Abraham’s bosom and the richman is bridged by the blood of Jesus. The marriage made in heaven is unequally yoked Jews and Gentiles slave and free. Yet this is our communion the addicted, the divorced, the bankrupt sitting at the same table as those who have never tasted such affliction. How wonderful and glorious? So I’m not surprised the effects of a life time of Bible reading. For to many of our modern day apostates have become my hero’s.

  13. Cathy says:

    Rich W. — the Bible says those who _won’t_ work should not eat, not those who _don’t_ work. The difference is huge, especially in the current economy. Many wish to work, but cannot find a job, or have jobs, but those jobs don’t pay them enough to live on. Others want to work, but are physically or mentally incapable of it.

    I think we all agree that the Bible tells us to help the poor. Yet, some believe this should only be done by individuals, not by the government. I was taught that, in this country, our government is _of_ the people, _by_ the people, and _for_ the people, and I believe that _we_ the people, individually AND collectively, need to help one another out.

    This individual-vs.-government argument reminds me a whole lot of the cooperative vs. non-institutional arguments within the church. Do we really want to repeat that ugliness on a national level?

  14. Alabama John says:

    Alan,

    A man that has no religious teachings at all, is alone on an island, in a prison cell, with a bible that he reads through many times. Do you think he would be more liberal in his thinking and beliefs or more conservative as those two terms are defined today among the churches of Christ?

  15. Alan says:

    Alabama,

    You asked about conservatism and liberalism in the context of churches of Christ. Up until now, I think this conversation has been about the political spectrum, not the churches of Christ. The scriptures challenge sin in all people, liberal and conservative, politically speaking and doctrinally speaking. None of us can escape.

    Regardless, the Holy Spirit will change a person into the image of God from one degree to another, as we contemplate and apply God’s word. So the question really comes down to where is God politically… which I think is a rather irreverent question to ask. God is far above our petty politics. Politics is mostly about competing self interests. God is above all that.

    The Bible is mainly about how individuals should live their lives. It says almost nothing about how governments should conduct their business. A lot of people find it convenient to transfer their personal responsibility to the government. But that’s a cop-out. On judgment day, God’s not going to ask whether our government took care of the poor. He’s going to ask each of us whether we personally did it. (Matt 25:31-46). So don’t kid yourself. You can’t delegate it to the government.

  16. Alan wrote:

    The Bible is mainly about how individuals should live their lives. It says almost nothing about how governments should conduct their business.

    Try reading the Proverbs of Solomon looking at all that he says about the king and still say that “it says almost nothing about how governments should conduct their business.” While much of the Bible is addressed to individuals, there is still much that it says to the government.

    Jerry

  17. Alan says:

    Jerry, there are a handful of Proverbs addressing how the king should rule. I count fewer than a dozen, out of a total of 915 verses in the book. And they don’t really address what I would call a liberal political agenda.

    The article Cathy linked doesn’t show scriptural instructions for government. The passages referenced in the article actually were directing individuals how to live. Of course if that individual is the king, he should follow those principles as king. But our government is not Christian and is not submitting to Jesus as Lord. And as I said before, when you and I stand before God at judgment, he won’t ask whether our government took care of the poor. He’ll ask whether we did, individually.

  18. Alan,

    There is nothing in what I said that would suggest that my judgment will hinge on what my government did or did not do. All I was doing was pointing out that there is quite a bit of teaching in the Scriptures about how governments should conduct themselves: with justice, maintaining the rights of the poor, refusing bribes – and much more. I mentioned the Proverbs. Actually, the prophets – even when speaking of the heathen nations – spoke of things their governments and ruling classes were doing (or not doing) that violated the principles by which God rules His universe. You were pretty definite in saying that there is little to nothing about this in the Scripture, that it is all directed at the individual.

    One of my teachers, Richard Rogers who is now deceased, made the point that nations are judged in time; individuals are judged in eternity. When I read the prophets, I am led to agree with him.

    Jerry

  19. James says:

    Alan & Alabama, I may not have been as clear as I could have been, by not hitting return and putting space between my remark about conservative evangelicals and eisogesis. It’s a problem at both ends of the spectrum, as most of the time, people at the far extremes are more alike in their logic & method than different, despite their conflicting conclusions (the spectrum is horseshoe with the extremes closer to one another than to the middle, not linear).

    For me personally, more Bible reading has simply lead me to being much harder to label with either lib or con. I think if you’re biblical, you’re going to be firm in areas we’d naturally be lax in, and gracious in areas in which we’d naturally be harsh. In both politics and in theology, I can’t carry the water for either of the lib/con circles, because I think in order to stay true to the labels and their proud adherents you eventually have to make compromises I’m not comfortable making because of what I understand the Bible to be saying (and not saying). I don’t want to be a liberal or a conservative. I just want to follow Christ. It’s easier said than done, but I think we have to start by denying an allegiance to such definitions, as they impact our choices and hermeneutics.

  20. Alan says:

    Jerry, I don’t disagree. My point was that the vast majority of scripture is directed at the behavior of the individual, and I stand by that. I also heard Richard Rogers preach, and he certainly applied the scriptures to the individual. I also remember a preacher named Mid McKnight who loved to point out that when we get the individual lives right, the world will be right.

    James, you’ve hit the nail on the head. There is no point on the political spectrum where biblical teachings are consistently honored.

  21. Cathy says:

    Alan, if you insist that a passage directing a king on how to rule is directions to an individual, not instructions for government, there’s no real point in discussing it; there’s no common ground in definitions.

    Regardless, I see no reason why individual responsibility negates collective responsibility OR vice versa — we can help those in need through national programs AND as individuals.

  22. Alan says:

    Cathy, since I am not a government offical (and have no intention ever to be one) it is not particularly relevant to me what the scriptures expect government to do. And since most people in government do not submit to Jesus as Lord, most of them don’t consider it all that relevant to themselves either.

    What matters to most of us is what the scriptures expect of us individually. We spend way too much time worrying about what someone else ought to do, and pay not nearly enough attention to what we ought to be doing ourselves. I guess that’s at the root of my objection to all this government stuff. We love to talk about what government ought to do for the poor. But not many of us are doing anything substantial for the poor ourselves. It’s hypocrisy.

  23. abasnar says:

    Reading the Bible should make one balanced – neither conservative nor liberal! Just becoming able to discern and apply God’s will:

    Heb 5:12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food,
    Heb 5:13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child.
    Heb 5:14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.

    A strong conservative statement is not necessarily a sign of maturity – it can be traditionalism as well, and this is based on milk not flesh.

    Alexander

  24. David Newhouse says:

    Liberals think that money is the root of all evil. Conservatives think that sex is the root of all evil. The Bible gives Liberalism a slight edge.

  25. Charles McLean says:

    No, no. Liberals only think it is evil for OTHER people to have money. Moving said money from other people to themselves sanctifies it.

    Conservatives don’t think sex is evil, only the idea of anyone having a better time than themselves… that must be evil.

    Conservatives want to supervise your budoir, liberals want to supervise your bank account. But at least conservatives don’t insist that you give them sex when they aren’t getting enough otherwise.

  26. David Newhouse says:

    Charles

    I think between the two of us, we have it figured out.

  27. Charles McLean says:

    Nice to have that one put to bed. Next!

  28. abasnar says:

    David and Charles: I don’t think this last dialogue is something to be proud of …

    Alexander

  29. Charles McLean says:

    Vague and generic criticism ain’t no prize either, amigo. But I didn’t pay anything for it, so no loss.

  30. gt says:

    Charles, as an observer and one who rarely comments I’ve noticed from your remarks on this thread and others that you’re somewhat of a smart@#$. Not impressed.

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