Paul Prather

Paul Prather: Caution: Reading the Bible may turn you into a (gasp) liberal

Darryl A. Burton, 54, looked over his favorite passage in the Bible, Luke 23 Psalm 34. The passage: Jesus said, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are."
Darryl A. Burton, 54, looked over his favorite passage in the Bible, Luke 23 Psalm 34. The passage: Jesus said, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are." tljungblad@kcstar.com

The headline is an eye-catcher: “A Left-Leaning Text.”

And then the sub-headline: “Survey surprise: Frequent Bible reading can turn you liberal (in some ways).”

Reading the Bible turns you liberal?

My wife, Liz, found a copy of the article for me in a university database after I saw a reference to it online but couldn’t find it.

That the article appeared in Christianity Today, a theologically conservative magazine, made it all the more intriguing. I’d missed the story when it first appeared in 2011.

In our endless culture wars, the Bible gets trotted out regularly as a justification for all manner of political views. The right and left alike cite it for their ends.

There’s nothing new about that. Heck, President Franklin Roosevelt used the New Testament to justify his New Deal programs way back in the 1930s.

He claimed the New Deal was meant to whip the money changers out of the temple, a reference borrowed from the life of Jesus. The allusion drove Republicans batty; if FDR was Jesus with a whip, there was no doubt who the money changers were.

But today, it seems, those who wield the Bible most expansively in the political arena are conservative Christians, and most often they employ it as a justification for cultural views that place them in the farthest crannies of the Republican Party.

For many, to be a Bible believer is to be a disciple of the extreme right.

So I find myself asking myself, again and again: What Bible are these people reading?

They don’t seem to be reading the New Testament, say, which most Christians regard as more valid and more personally binding than the fire-and-judgment Old Testament.

Anyway, it’s in this context that I managed to find, with Liz’s aid, a slightly dated Christianity Today story.

A whopping 89 percent of American households own a Bible, the magazine said.

But researchers decided to look at what happens when Americans actually read their Bibles regularly, rather than leaving them on a bookshelf — and especially when they read the Bible on their own, apart from the guiding glare of church leaders.

The results were fascinating.

“Frequent Bible reading has some predictable effects on the reader,” Christianity Today reported. “It increases opposition to abortion as well as homosexual marriage and unions. It boosts a belief that science helps reveal God’s glory. It diminishes hopes that science will eventually solve humanity’s problems.”

Other results would no doubt surprise a lot of people.

Researchers found that the Bible led frequent readers to lean left on multiple issues, even when the results were adjusted for respondents’ political affiliation, education, race, gender, income, beliefs about biblical inerrancy or type of church affiliation.

The more frequently people read the Bible, the less likely they were to support the Patriot Act, which expanded the federal government’s power to fight terrorism. On a five-point scale ranging from “never” to “several times a week,” for “each increased level of Bible-reading frequency, support for the Patriot Act decreased about 13 percent,” the magazine said.

The more often people read the Bible, the more likely they were to favor lighter sentences for criminals and to favor abolishing the death penalty.

The more they read the Bible, the more likely they were to believe science and religion were compatible.

The more they read the Bible, the more likely they were to say that in order to be a good person, one must actively seek social and economic justice and consume fewer goods.

All this is even more arresting when you consider that, as Christianity Today noted, those who read the Bible tend to be evangelicals and biblical literalists, who otherwise skew conservative.

I’d say it would be hard to turn people who’ve actually sat down and studied the Bible, especially the New Testament, into truly hardcore right-wingers. You wouldn’t likely turn them into yellow-dog Democrats, either. But you wouldn’t reinforce the Republican base.

The reality is that many of the Christians who claim to place nearly all their faith in God’s Holy Writ aren’t actually reading that writ.

They’re actually getting their dogma elsewhere. They may get it from pastors. They may get it from their neighbors. They may get it from Fox News. I don’t know.

But spend a while in-depth, on your own, with Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Paul, and you’ll discover a cosmic paradigm that’s not only separate from, but wildly at odds with, much of the conservative political platform.

The New Testament proclaims a kingdom where the poor are blessed and the rich are damned, where the barbaric are saved and the righteous lost, where aliens are welcomed and upright gatekeepers cast into utter darkness. It’s a kingdom whose citizens love their enemies, put away their swords and give everything they own to the needy.

The kingdom these men speak of isn’t Republican and it isn’t Democratic. It’s not conservative and it’s not strictly liberal, although it looks more like the liberal model than the conservative one. It’s not even American, really.

Those New Testament guys promote, as Jesus plainly said, a kingdom not from, and not readily co-opted by, this world.

Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at pratpd@yahoo.com.

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