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This We Do Not Believe

February 21, 2011

Some time ago I wrote an article that spent considerable time discussing what it meant to believe in God. I concluded that belief in God was not the belief that God existed but belief in the reality and correctness of God’s rules and ways. Since I tend to be bad at what is commonly called application that’s where I stopped. Recently, though, a clear example of what it means to believe has been brought to my attention.

The Pew Research Center for People and the Press in conjunction with Christianity Today produced polling data looking at how American evangelical Christians thought the US federal budget should be changed versus how Americans who are not evangelical Christians (although this probably includes a fair number of Catholic and non-evangelical Protestants alongside the atheists and members of non-Christian religions) thought the US federal budget should be changed. This takes place in the midst of some serious discussion of the federal deficit.

The data (which you can look over for yourself) are rather complex. Eighteen categories of government spending were polled. To simplify this I’ll group them into larger groups: defense (military defense, terrorism defense, veterans’ aid, and perhaps crime), the large named social programs (Social Security and Medicare), poverty reduction (both domestic and foreign aid for this purpose, unemployment, and college financial aid), education (education, public schools, and college financial aid again), and a miscellaneous grab-bag of funded items (agriculture, energy, scientific research, environment, infrastructure, and health care). Evangelicals had relatively consistent priorities across multiple questions: defense was a major priority, education, the poor, health care, and science were not, nothing else showed much trend*.

This is fairly odd. If I presented Martians sociologists with information on Christian beliefs and church history up until about 1900, I would expect them to tell me that Christians favor aid to the poor. After all, Christians started the modern charitable organization as a more-organized outgrowth of their already-notable charity. They would also tell me that Christians favor education, both because that’s a prerequisite for Biblical literacy and because both universities and public schools were originally Christian institutions. The fact that science arose within the church as an outgrowth of the serious thinking done by theologians and philosophers there would also help. Christian aid to the poor has often taken the form of health care as well, including the direct creation of a vast number of hospitals. And, finally, Christians, with a strain of pacifism and a basic belief that God’s greatest act was redemptive love and not violent revenge would be leery of the military. Instead we see that, when asked about the government, Christians want the exact opposite funded.

Now this is, of course, ultimately a question about the role of the government and not about the priorities of individual Christians. The views evangelicals actually expressed are the direct result of the wholesale importation of the Republican idea of the role of government. It’s not even an idea about limited government in its more theoretical libertarian sense – the named entitlement programs which libertarians and advocates of limited government hate, but which the political establishment guards for votes, received no real attention. The ideas expressed are a particular partisan idea about government (see, especially, health care which was recently debated quite acrimoniously versus Medicare) tinged, perhaps, with the unfortunate anti-scientific bias some evangelicals have.

The problem here is that the Republican theory of government is not a Christian theory of government. There are a lot of options for Christian theories of government, ranging from the rules laid down by Calvin in Geneva, Cromwell in England, and the Pope in the Vatican to the Law of Moses. The debate about statism versus liberalism will be involved in selecting between these options. However, the Republican party did not form its idea of government by looking at any part of the Bible.

The point here is fairly simple: Christians have thought about the role of government. The Bible does address the issue at points. However, for some large fraction of American evangelicals participating in this survey, Jesus didn’t get a vote. Another theory with a different origin ran the show. Let’s start by being ugly: this is a failure to believe and idolatry. Of course, it’s accidental, almost certainly, but it’s a failure to believe in the way of Jesus and the substitution of someone else in His place. This isn’t entirely surprising. Political parties seem to desire idolatrous worship and I’ve seen my liberal friends do exactly the same sort of thing (but there aren’t enough of them to make a blip on this survey’s radar). This doesn’t make it OK, though.

This isn’t the only example. If you know much about church culture you’ve seen the marketing research and tools that are thrown at churches constantly. I’ve seen a personality test relabeled and repackaged as a spiritual gifts test. I’ve heard rumors that some new churches which turn the lights down when the pastor preaches do so because they’ve realized that this makes it feel like you and the pastor are having a one-on-one conversation. Of course there are Christian thoughts about all these things. Christians don’t market the gospel, they live it. Good products sell themselves. Spiritual gifts can’t be tested on paper because spiritual gifts are things that exist in communities and are revealed by knowing people (although, to be entirely fair, some people benefit from writing down things they know but hadn’t previously known they knew about themselves). Throughout the ages churches have been well-lit to take the focus off of the people and on to God. Again, we’ve failed to believe in Jesus. We’ve believed that he exists but not that he has anything relevant to say to us about our world.

I’d like to make this point one last time. In my own research I certainly don’t pick a particular experimental design because Jesus tells me to. This, however, does not mean that I have not asked myself what Jesus would have me do. What Jesus would have me do is good, honest research that reveals the truth and, by doing so, is an act of service to those who will use my data. I then design an experiment to be the best experiment my technical expertise can manage for those reasons.

What we do not believe, most of the time, is that the question, “How do we be faithful in this?” applies very far outside of church walls or religious contexts. It does, though. We can be faithful in politics (and even disagree with other faithful people), we can be faithful in education, we can be faithful in running a business, and we can be faithful in science. If we believe in Jesus we should ultimately believe in all of Jesus and all of His ways. It’s tragic if we’ve been taught (as is often the case) that Jesus is a very small god Who rules only invisible things and the church but it is a moral failing if we realize He is quite a bit larger and then fail to follow Him.

*The article I have linked to goes into more depth on this but this is based on three things: first, the rank for both funding decreases each area receives and second the rank for increases. These appear to be the product of how many people selected these areas for either category (with the option to leave them as they were). Thirdly, the differences between evangelicals and non-evangelicals in their selections. So, for instance, evangelicals are unlikely to think cuts need to happen in any area of defense spending, they are likely to think funding increases should happen in these areas, and they hold these positions to a greater degree than the rest of the population. Most of the trends I describe are of similar robustness but, this not being a science article, I will not attempt to write a complete Methods and Results for my analysis. I will take questions in the comments, though, if this was unclear.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 25, 2011 8:28 am

    I like this. It reminds me of my own thoughts while I lived in California: I used to be a little sarcastic about a few of the things that went around my church, but the great, active, love that I witnessed by these same people was a wonder to behold (even tolerating my sarcasm).

    It’s interesting to compare the ‘assumed’ political wing of evangelical Christians in the U.S. and Europe: there is a noticeable contrast (though you might also see this in the general political views of the media).

  2. Eric permalink
    February 25, 2011 10:14 am

    I once went to a conference where an evangelical speaker from Britain started discussing important political issues and was somewhat thrown that several of them were considered evil liberal issues by a large fraction of her audience.

    • February 25, 2011 11:55 am

      Wow. I’ve not seen that (though, I don’t attend that many conferences). To be honest, I try my level best to stay away from contentious issues amongst Christians – though I do seem to have been dragged into a few arguments when I have unwittingly blurted out a ‘joke’ or throw-away comment that I thought innocent.

      I am still reeling from something that happened recently: I briefly visited SoCal after a conference (“Ah … I’m home!” I thought), and for some reason ended I showed a couple of friends this clip (because I liked the song):

      I was surprised, however, by the very negative reaction to the speech at the beginning of the song. To my mind it was relatively non-contentious. But one of the things I’ve realised over the years is that if one lives in very sheltered environments it is easy to misconceive the reality of the world. It is too easy to have the impression that people end up in poverty and bad situations because they are not trying hard enough.

      I love SoCal and I love the people. I still think that I have rarely met such friends as those I met there. But, my gosh, it is easy to be very sheltered there.

      In contrast, I wrote somewhat passionately about specific issues on Embryonic Stem Cell biology on my blog, after a bill was passed through the British parliament (actually I wrote to parliament about it). I thought I was laying myself open to professional attack. Did anyone care? Nope.

  3. Eric permalink
    February 25, 2011 4:07 pm

    I think the tendency to see poverty as the result of choice is partly a defense mechanism – we see health and security as matters of choice as well. If we believed that they weren’t the world would be scarier.

    Of course, as someone who got leukemia at what might have been the age with the absolute lowest probability of getting leukemia, I don’t think much of this.

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