In the US, beliefs about Christianity tend to have considerable weight for some people in how they decide on public policy issues. However, whether Christians see themselves as conservative or liberal, there is inevitably some discrepancy between their personal policy preferences and a plain reading of the Bible’s teaching on those matters.
In a new paper titled How Christians reconcile their personal political views and the teachings of their faith: Projection as a means of dissonance reduction (subscription required for the full article although the abstract is freely accessible), the authors look at how conservative Christians deal with two issues that are troublesome to them (reducing economic inequality through taxation and more generous treatment of illegal immigrants) and how liberal Christians deal with two issues that are problematic for them (abortion and same sex marriage).
The authors state (with citations removed):
American Christians, both liberal and conservative, must deal with conflict between the traditional dictates of their faith and their personal political views and allegiances. This tension is most obvious in the case of those who identify with the Christian Right and the Republican Party. The exhortations of altruism, fellowship, and the common bond of all humanity captured in the quotation from Matthew ["Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me" (Matthew 25:40, New International Version)] convey a major theme of the New Testament, indeed one arguably much more central to the teachings of Christ than the cultural issues that have served as the rallying call for many Christian churches and television networks. However, in the decades since the New Deal, the Republican party, which has become ever more opposed to progressive taxation, expenditures for social services, lenient treatment of illegal immigrants and their families, and other policies designed to ease the burdens of the least fortunate, has enjoyed increasing electoral support from members of the Christian Right. Liberally inclined Christians, fewer in number, face a different challenge. They must reconcile their own, typically moderate views on matters such as abortion and gay rights with the traditional teachings of their church and the stern pronouncements of highly visible religious spokespersons, as well as the views of the majority of their fellow Christians.
These discrepancies can cause cognitive dissonance for believers. So how do the two groups go about the process that the authors refer to as ‘dissonance reduction’?
As one might expect, Christian conservatives acknowledged that their views deviated somewhat from those they attributed Jesus and the Gospels with respect to “fellowship” issues of reducing economic inequality through taxation and more generous treatment of illegal immigrants. Liberal Christians acknowledged similar deviation with respect to the “morality” issues of abortion and gay marriage. However, a less obvious discrepancy was also noteworthy. Liberals claimed that Jesus would be even more liberal than themselves on the two fellowship issues, and conservatives claimed Jesus would be even more conservative than themselves on the two morality issues.
Beyond projection of their own views on specific issues to Jesus, many of our participants displayed an additional source of dissonance reduction. A slim majority of liberals and a clear majority of conservatives claimed Jesus’ teachings (and the tenets of their religion) on fellowship and on morality were equally central to their personal religious views. However, among survey respondents who claimed otherwise, especially those who claimed their Christianity to be central to their personal identity, liberals were much more likely to attach greater weight to teachings and tenets involving issues of fellowship, whereas conservatives were somewhat more likely to attach greater weight to teaching and tenets involving issues of morality.
It is no wonder religious people are all over the map when it comes to politics, since human beings are quite ingenious in finding ways to justify whatever they want to do.
Christian conservatives face an acute problem in that while they claim primary allegiance to Jesus’s teaching and the gospels of the New Testament, their political views track the harsher Old Testament teachings more closely. The authors suggest (but did not investigate) that another form of dissonance reduction that they be utilizing may consist of using heated rhetoric to denigrate liberal Christians in order to silence those voices that highlight this contradiction. Liberals meanwhile drift away from their churches and into more secular organizations that are more congenial to their views.
Does the heated rhetoric that conservatives use in derogating liberals—including fellow Christians—and the energy they devote to proselytism reflect further attempts at dissonance reduction? In this context, it is worth recalling that, before the 1970s, Christian political movements in the United States were largely progressive. Notably, the Christian leaders in the North were the most vocally opposed to slavery in the New World; and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, headed by Martin Luther King, was similarly associated with the left in its efforts at desegregation and addressing the needs of minorities and the poor. Elements of the Catholic Church in America (including the Catholic Workers Party founded by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in 1933) similarly have long been associated with workers’ rights and antiwar movements.
Is the relative weakness of the once-powerful Christian left a sign that the many liberals of Christian background have reduced dissonance by moving away from the mainstream of their church and focusing on more secular values? Is their derogation of Christian conservatives as hypocrites or dupes of wealthy GOP supporters who care more about their pocketbooks than the teachings of Jesus a reflection of further dissonance reduction on their part?
The findings of the paper are not Earth-shattering and seem to comport pretty much with what people might have guessed. But empirical testing of a proposition, however obvious it may seem, is always a good thing.