I have fond memories of fall 2008. Having recently earned my PhD, I had just begun my academic career at Westmont College in Southern California. Since it was a presidential election year, I decided to focus my social psychology course on the psychology of political attitudes: how they are formed, how they are maintained, and how they can predict voting behavior. Much like the Westmont faculty, about half of the students in my class were self-described liberals, and about half were self-described conservatives. This ideological diversity made for lively discussions.
At the start of the semester, the whole class—myself included—believed that our particular political viewpoint was the most faithful to Christianity.
“Sure, politics don’t replace faith,” one student admitted. “But, come on, Dr. Cleveland, you have to admit that [my party’s] values best reflect the values of Jesus.” He wasn’t the only one. Many of my students insisted that their political attitudes were informed by an untainted reading of Scripture and unsusceptible to bias—that is, social factors that influence our attitudes beyond our awareness. Social psychologists call this the “bias blind spot.” We can easily point out other people’s biases, but we have a hard time seeing our own.
I wanted to agree with my students; it’s natural for Christians to insist that only our “Jesus bias” informs our political attitudes. To admit that perhaps some other bias has polluted our worldview not only undermines the legitimacy of our Christian worldview; it also challenges the integrity of the faith that we closely associate with our worldview.
But over the semester, as we read numerous research articles, we began to see that all of our political attitudes are shaped by many factors, not just faith. Consider these recent findings on social factors that shape our politics:
(1) Personality. Well-known research from moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt shows that personality traits and even brain composition significantly shape the way we see the world and thus our political attitudes. People who need order, value authority and respect, and would rather have stability than new experiences gravitate to political conservatism. People who are fine with ambiguity, value equality, and would rather have new experiences than stability gravitate to political liberalism. Christianity, of course, attracts both types of personalities.
(2) Racial background. Race significantly shapes how we perceive the world, our faith, and politics. A recent study found that white Protestants, especially white evangelical Protestants, are much more likely to be conservatives than individuals with no religious affiliation. However, black Protestants tend to adopt more politically liberal stances relative to white Protestants and individuals with no religious affiliation. Remarkably, even among people with relatively similar religious views, race powerfully influences political attitudes.
(3) Experiences. A semester abroad, a Bible study group, or challenging life transitions have the power to alter our worldview, including our political views. For example, traumatic experiences often lead us to adopt more conservative attitudes. A study among high-exposure survivors of the September 11 attacks found that Democrats, Independents, and Republicans alike were more likely to adopt conservative ideology, which generally values stability and safety in the midst of social change, as well as strong national defense. Other research shows that parenthood leads mothers to adopt more liberal attitudes on social welfare, while it leads fathers to adopt more conservative attitudes on social welfare.
As we begin another election year, what are we Christians called to do? All of this research calls for us to humbly examine what forces shape our views, keeping in mind that our bias blind spot likely prevents us from even recognizing our biases. Humbly is the operative word here, because the people who have the clearest view on our biases are our sisters and brothers in Christ who hold divergent political views. We must look to them to show us our biases, and we must listen. In a time when political views threaten to further divide the body of Christ, each part of the body needs the others to see the full truth (1 Cor. 12:12–26).
Christena Cleveland is associate professor of the practice of reconciliation at Duke University’s Divinity School, where she also directs the Center for Reconciliation.
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