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The caring evangelical: New studies question liberal stereotypes

Evangelical Christians have been the victims of bias among powerful institutions shaping public opinion, including higher education, the secular media and the entertainment industry.

These days, the heat has rarely been higher as the vitriol and lack of reasoned discourse stoked by President Trump and many of his opponents run roughshod over the complex reality of this diverse group of Americans.

But are evangelicals, even those who identify as politically conservative, that much different from everyone else?

New research calls into question the stereotypes of the cold-blooded religious conservative and the bleeding-heart liberal.

Highly religious political conservatives generally are as likely as political liberals to report similar levels of empathy, such as having tender feelings of concern for others or being greatly disturbed by the misfortunes of others, indicated one study analyzing data from the General Social Survey.

“Our study finds some common ground among liberals and conservatives, at least when it comes to the sense of empathic concern for others,” noted the study led by sociologist Scott Schieman of the University of Toronto.

In a separate study, researchers measuring images of God found few religious individuals believe in an angry divinity primarily concerned with meting out punishments.

One key finding: Evangelicals were as likely as Catholics and mainline Protestants to fall into the category of believing in a loving God engaged in the lives of human beings.

Love and empathy

There is a great deal of research showing the positive effects of having an active faith and belief in a loving God in promoting compassionate caring for others and reducing prejudice.

Viewing God as judgmental, punishing and distant in general is associated with negative outcomes.

Two new studies in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion yield results that may surprise those holding on to an image of highly religious individuals as rigid and uncaring, more concerned with judging than loving one another.

In the study on empathy and political orientation, researchers from the University of Toronto, University of Calgary and the University of Texas, San Antonio, analyzed data from the 2004 General Social Survey.

They found that self-identified political conservatives scored lower on measures of empathy than self-identified political liberals.

But those differences disappeared as conservatives reported higher levels of belief in a loving, supportive God engaged in their lives, or prayed frequently or were regular worship attenders.

“These patterns suggest that religious institutions and the beliefs and practices they socialize might provide multiple pathways to bolster social‐psychological processes like empathy,” researchers said.

In the other study, researchers from Texas A&M and the University of Minnesota analyzed data from the 2010 Baylor Religion Survey to determine five basic conceptions Americans have of God, from the divine as a non-entity to a loving God concerned with human beings.

The largest group consisted of those who viewed God as a loving, nonjudgmental deity who is engaged with humanity. The next two largest groups were those who perceived God as a loving deity who is neither judgmental nor engaged with humanity and those who viewed God as loving, engaged and judgmental.

What did not gain much traction is the idea of God as punishing and judgmental.

“We find little evidence that respondents perceived God to be only an angry entity,” researchers reported. “Instead, much of the variation among the three classes that imply a robust God revolves around how God’s tendencies toward judgment and engagement with humanity intersect with love.”

In all three classes were God was perceived as loving, there were no significant differences among mainline Protestants, Evangelicals and Catholics.

The reality is individuals within different religious groups are not monolithic, said lead researcher Nicholas Davis of Texas A&M University.

Nor should generalizations be made about believers’ image of God based on a single trait — for example, how loving, judgmental, or engaged God is thought to be— when many people view God based on a composite of multiple characteristics.

Science over f

The research is consistent with other findings that reveal nuance and complexity in the relationship of religion to issues from national identity movements to racial attitudes.

For example, a 2015 study of 13 European countries found that supporters of populist radical right parties were relatively non-religious. With the exception of Poland, higher levels of Christian religiosity were weakly or negatively associated with voting for the populist radical right.

Another study based on a major New Zealand survey found prejudice decreased the more people were committed to their faith.

In a study examining attitudes toward racial inequality in the U.S., researchers found “simply identifying as a conservative Protestant was never significant in and of itself.”

In fact, whites who were religiously involved showed significant support for identifying factors such as prejudice and discrimination and lack of social capital as causes of African-American disadvantage and supporting solutions including affirmative action and government assistance.

“Are white conservative Protestants distinctive in the way they understand the causes of racial inequality or in the solutions they prefer? Our analysis leads us to propose that this may be the wrong question to ask,” researchers noted. “Religious identification does not signal a static identity that individuals take on wholesale. Instead, religiosity is incorporated into the lives of individuals whose identities are already raced, classed, and gendered; it is intersectional, and as a result, religiosity has a variety of interpretations and uses in everyday life.”

All of these results matter in a time when political and social polarization based more on emotion and fear than science and reason undermine the nation’s ability to come together to address its most pressing issues.

In the conclusion of their study on empathy and religion, researchers noted the timeliness of their findings.

“In the current polarized political landscape, the capacity to see beyond caricatures of ‘the left’ and ‘the right’ is essential for finding some degree of social cohesion and unity.”

Image by Ahs856, via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 4.0]

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