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politics, Religion, Theology

Frequent Bible Reading Can Turn You Liberal? Part Two

Christianity Today released a new article from Aaron B. Franzen yesterday with the provocative 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).” If true, this would definitely be a surprising development.

Franzen examined data from the 2007 Baylor Religion Survey and has determined that “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.” To demonstrate his contention that “frequent Bible reading can turn you liberal,” Franzen points to these topics for illustration: the Patriot Act, punishment of criminals, compatibility of science and religion, social and economic justice, and consumerism. I commented on the first three topics in part one. Today I will discuss “social and economic justice.”

Social and Economic Justice
Conservative talk-show host Glenn Beck caused a big stir last year when he declared that the religious left was using “social justice” as a codeword for progressive political agendas. He even went so far as to warn Christians to leave their churches and report their church leaders if they found any mention of “social justice” in their literature, website or sermons. Franzen, however, finds that those who read the Bible frequently were likely to agree that it is important “to actively seek social and economic justice in order to be a good person.” “Indeed, they were almost 35 percent more likely to agree at each point on Baylor’s five-point scale,” he writes. (The five-point scale refers frequency of Bible-reading ranging from “never” to “several times a week.”)

It is unclear how support for social and economic justice means one is turning liberal. Even Franzen himself states, “A reading, politically conservative literalist is only slightly less supportive than a non-reading, politically liberal non-literalist.” So conservatives are only slightly less supportive in their agreement with the notion that one ought to actively seek social and economic justice in order to be a good person.

Liberals and conservatives in the Baylor study provided a similar answer to the social justice question but there are two clarifying questions that separate liberals and conservatives when it comes to social justice. The first obvious question is: What do we mean by “social justice”? Last year when Glenn Beck brought attention to the subject on his TV program, he used “social justice” in one way while liberal activist Jim Wallis used it in another. In response to the confusion the term can cause, pastor and blogger Kevin DeYoung warned against using the term without explanation:

“The term is unassailable to some and arouses suspicion in others. For many Christians, social justice encompasses everything good we should be doing in the world, from hunger relief to serving the poor to combating sex trafficking. But the phrase is also used to support more debatable matters like specific health care legislation, minimum wage increases, or reducing carbon emissions. If something can be included as a ‘social justice’ issue then no one can oppose said issue, because who in their right mind favors social injustice?”

Indeed, no one favors social injustice so this could explain why liberals and conservatives answered in a similar fashion when asked about social and economic justice. If, as DeYoung mentions, one considers reducing carbon emissions to be a matter of social justice then it would follow that the federal government must act in a particular manner in order to achieve social justice. On the other hand, if social justice is seen primarily in terms of providing aid and comfort to the poor, for example, then justice could properly be sought through churches, charities, and individuals which leads us to our second question.

Second is the crucial matter of how one goes about matters of social and economic justice. It is the administration of social and economic justice that reveals stark differences between liberals and conservatives. By and large, liberals tend to operate as statists when it comes to seeking social and economic justice while conservatives look to private institutions. Liberals often claim that matters of social justice cannot be left to the churches due to a lack of resources but conservatives counter that Scripture in no way calls for state coercion as a means of ensuring fidelity to its commands and principles.

In my view, we can ask the State to care for the poor but this is not a picture of the church being faithful to the biblical call of social justice. If we are convinced that faithfulness to the church’s call to care for the poor is the redistribution of wealth, for example, then let us willingly redistribute our wealth without governmental coercion. If we know how one believes we ought to pursue social and economic justice then we might now whether they are liberal or conservative but I see no reason to conclude that one is turning liberal merely because they think that actively seeking social and economic justice makes one a good person.

Stay tuned for Part Three.

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