Research has found that different interpretations of the Bible are linked to different political beliefs among Christians.
The study, published in Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, used data from the 2012 Religious Worldviews Study to examine the relationship between political attitudes and two interpretations of the New Testament of the Bible. One interpretation, the social gospel, argues that Christians are called to better society through charity and political reforms. The second interpretation, the prosperity gospel, argues that the devout will be blessed by God financially.
The study included 599 White and 547 Black American adults.
The data revealed that the endorsement of the social gospel is linked with more liberal beliefs, while the endorsement of the prosperity gospel is linked to more conservative beliefs.
Both interpretations had similar associations among Blacks and Whites. However, the study did find some small differences. The prosperity gospel appeared to have a more robust impact on Blacks’ political attitudes than Whites. And Black Catholics were more likely to reject the prosperity gospel than white Catholics. In addition, wealthier Whites were less likely to endorse the social gospel, but the relationship was the opposite for Blacks. Higher levels of income increased support for the social gospel among Blacks.
PsyPost interviewed the study’s author, Eric L. McDaniel of the University of Texas at Austin. Read his responses below:
PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?
McDaniel: I became interested in this topic when I began examining the differences in political attitudes among White and Black Christians. For instance, an increase in religious conservatism among Whites is associated with less support for social welfare policies and a stronger identification with the Republican Party. For Blacks this relationship is reversed, higher levels of religious conservatism are associated with more support for social welfare and stronger identification with the Democratic Party. Because of this, I became less concerned about the strength of beliefs and became more interested in how people translate their religion into action.
What should the average person take away from your study?
The average person should come to understand that just like there are different interpretations of the Constitution, there are different interpretations of religious texts. Also, when we talk about the “Christian vote,” we need to be specific about which Christians we are talking about.
Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?
The biggest caveat to this study is that I was unable to track the sources of beliefs. Specifically, I am concerned about the extent to which support for the social or prosperity gospel was driven by life experiences, clergy or some combination of both. If possible, I would like to conduct a panel study to examine how these religious belief systems grow and recede at the mass and individual level.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Religion remains important in America; however, people do not spend much time understanding how their religious beliefs define their actions. I believe that greater attention to how people put their religious beliefs into action, will allow us to understand how religion can create division and unity.
The study, “What Kind of Christian Are You? Religious Ideologies and Political Attitudes“, was published June 2016.