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politics, Theology

Frequent Bible Reading Can Turn You Liberal? Part One

Aaron B. Franzen has a new article posted at Christianity Today with the eye-catching title: “Survey: Frequent Bible Reading Can Turn You Liberal. What a surprising survey says about how reading the Bible frequently can turn you liberal (in some ways).” I suppose we ought to take the “in some ways” disclaimer for what its worth nevertheless, I have a few questions after reading this article.

Franzen draws his conclusions from a 2007 Baylor Religion Survey and summarizes his main point this way: “unlike some other religious practices, reading the Bible more often has some liberalizing effects—or at least makes the reader more prone to agree with liberals on certain issues.” In case you are wondering, Franzen leaves no doubt that he is referring to the American left rather than classical liberalism with the heading “Why The Bible Pushes You Leftward.” To support his interpretation of the study’s finding that “frequent Bible reading can turn you liberal,” Franzen points to these topics: the Patriot Act, punishment of criminals, compatibility of science and religion, social and economic justice, and consumerism.

Patriot Act
“It [2007 Baylor Religion Survey] also asked whether the federal government should expand its authority to fight terrorism—a reference to the Patriot Act. For each increased level of Bible-reading frequency, support for the Patriot Act decreased by about 13 percent.” This is a truly interesting correlation but opposition to the Patriot Act is not a liberal position. Or, perhaps we should say it is not a distinctively liberal position. In fact, a better case could be made that consistent opposition to the Patriot Act is a libertarian issue.

Liberals, or more accurately “Democrats,” did indeed oppose the Patriot Act as one of several aspects of their overall opposition to President Bush’s War on Terror. Once President Obama came to office, however, Democrat opposition to the Patriot Act receded into the background along with their vocal condemnation of military intervention overseas and the holding of detainees at Guantanamo Bay. In the election year of 2010, almost 2/3 of Democrats voted for President Obama’s re-authorization of the Patriot Act. In the non-election year of 2011, Democrat support dropped to 35%. If support for the Patriot Act decreases the more one reads the Bible, perhaps we could conclude that frequent Bible reading can turn you libertarian. For a better indicator of liberal support for or opposition to the Patriot Act, we could look to the letter behind the sitting president’s name and whether or not it is an election year.

Punishment of Criminals
“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 [“The government should punish criminals more harshly”]. 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.” I will not quibble on this point except to say my curiosity is piqued. I would find it “unexpected” if frequent Bible reading and an understanding of what is being read corresponds to a belief that the government should punish criminals less harshly.

Compatibility of Science of Religion
“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.)” The case could actually be made that this finding ought to indicate that frequent Bible reading can turn you into a conservative. A common liberal (both theological and political) view is that science and religion are not compatible and not only that but it is the Bible that is incorrect relative to science. Conservatives, on the other hand, have long believed that science and Scripture rightly understood are highly compatible.

Among liberals who would agree that science and religion are compatible, it might be fair to say their position could be: once we rightly understand the science, we might rightly interpret the relevant scriptures whereas the conservative would say something akin to the reverse. Theologian and mathematician Vern Poythress puts it this way:

“Might modern science also criticize the Bible? Certainly some modern people attempt to criticize the Bible, and they may try to appeal to science as their basis for criticism. But are such moves legitimate? The person who takes his stand wholly in the modern world might suppose that such criticism is obviously legitimate. But the person who takes his stand by being instructed by the Bible goes the other way, and raises critical questions about the modern world.”

Poythress goes on to explain, “Trusting in God does not mean denying that there are difficulties, or completely ignoring them. It means dealing with them from within the framework of guidance and truth that God has provided for us.” Or as Calvin writes when commenting on 1 Corinthians 1:20, “Without Christ, sciences in every department are vain, and the man who knows not God is vain, though he should be conversant with every branch of learning.” When it comes to the compatibility of science and religion, one’s “framework of guidance and truth” is probably a better indicator of liberalism or conservatism. A frequent Bible reader who gives primacy to the authority of science may turn toward liberalism whereas the frequent Bible reader who gives primacy to Scripture may turn toward conservatism but both the liberal and the conservative may affirm the compatibility of science and religion.

Part 2 will continue with the final two examples of “Social and Economic Justice” and “Consumerism.”

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