Frequent Bible-reading can make people more liberal, posits a Baylor University doctoral candidate in his master’s thesis, contradicting commonly-held stereotypes about liberals and conservatives. (That is something for ULC wedding officiants to ponder, given their need to identify potential adversaries of online ordination.) People who read the Bible frequently, the thesis suggests, tend to have a more left-leaning attitude about issues like economic equality, criminal justice, and the role of science. However, frequent Bible reading does not make people more liberal on other issues, suggesting that the growth in liberalism among Bible-readers is very much selective.
Analyzing data from the 2007 Baylor Religion Survey, Aaron Franzen, the study’s author, showed how Bible readers’ attitudes changed in very specific areas of political and social significance. Franzen found that frequent reading of Scripture and Bible verses resulted in greater opposition to the Patriot Act (a U.S. law curtailing civil liberties under the pretext of national security), expanded government authority to fight terrorism, and harsher punishments for criminals, including the death penalty. Additionally, frequent Bible readers were 27 per cent more likely to believe it important to consume less energy to be a good human being and 22 per cent less likely to see a conflict between science and religion.
These liberal views, though, were balanced out by more conservative views in other areas. (It would be interesting to know their thoughts about people who get ordained online.) While frequent Bible readers showed greater apprehension toward things like jingoism, capital punishment, unbridled energy consumption, and anti-scientific attitudes (all trademarks of a twenty-first century American conservative), they were also critical of abortion and same-sex marriage. Franzen found that almost half of people who read the Bible less than once a year support same-sex marriage, but only 6 per cent of frequent Bible readers did, and there was also a statistically significant negative correlation between frequent Bible reading and support for abortion services.
What could be the reason for this unexpected divergence in attitude between terrorism, environmentalism, and criminal justice on one hand, and abortion and same-sex marriage on the other? One possible explanation is that the Bible treats criminals and the poor as generic sinners deserving of forgiveness, but does not necessarily treat sexual “deviants” like homosexuals and women who seek abortion services by the same standard. The Bible is full of parables teaching the reader to forgive generic miscreants, but where homosexuality is mentioned, right-wing, evangelical Christians overwhelmingly treat the text as condemning the act, and abortion does not seem to be mentioned at all, which tempts frequent Bible readers to fill in the gaps with their own personal preference, or with what the Bible says elsewhere about the sanctity of life. Another explanation could be that the frequent readers’ choice in liberal values reflects a generational difference: perhaps frequent Bible-readers tend to be older, and for older people, helping the poor, forgiving criminals, and caring for nature may be traditionally acceptable forms of charity, but allowing consenting adults of the same sex to marry one another, or a woman to terminate a pregnancy, may not. Interestingly, the frequent Bible readers tend to reject the values which place more importance on the idea of adult consent, suggesting that this fundamental humanist principle figures little in the minds of such individuals. Of course, these are only explanations, and there are plenty of others to consider.
So, habitual Bible readers seem to be a bit inconsistent in their liberalism. All explanations as to why frequent Bible-readers pick some liberal values and dismiss others are mere speculation until we do more research into the subject and dig up more answers. Nevertheless, it serves as a starting point to imagine why habitual Bible reading leads to a consolidation of both liberal and conservative beliefs. Perhaps the Bible paints a prettier, more sympathetic picture of criminals, the poor, and even nature (often viewed by Christians as subordinate to man) than of people who deviate from sexual norms. Perhaps people who spend a lot of time reading the Bible tend to be older, and older people have a harder time accepting same-sex marriage and abortion than younger people because these practices redefine traditional institutions with which older people are familiar. Again, though, these are just hypotheses.
As a Universal Life Church minister, what do you think? Why do people who frequently read the Bible show more liberal attitudes about criminal justice, poverty, and the environment than they do about same-sex marriage and abortion?