The Perils of Making Jesus in Your Own Image

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From my seat in the theological bleachers, I've watched politically liberal and conservative Christians debate for years.

Both sides claiming to take stands that are informed by their specific faith. Both sides turning to the same sacred texts to bolster their causes.

Often, I'm left thinking about a wonderful line from the movie "A Princess Bride": "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

A scholarly study released this week attempts to answer how staunch Christians can make such differing claims about how the teachings of their faith should inform their politics. The bottom line: Many Christians make God, or at least Jesus, in their own image, projecting their own politics and priorities onto their interpretation of the divine will.

The study is titled "How Christians reconcile their personal political views and the teachings of their faith: Projection as a means of dissonance reduction." It's written by psychology professor Lee Ross and graduate student Alexandra Russell and communications graduate student Yphtach Lelkes, all of Stanford University.

They used the online poling service SurveyMonkey to gather their sample. And they asked self-described Christians how they assessed their own politics, how they assessed Jesus' views on politically important issues, and about how central a variety of issues are to Christianity.

Here are some highlights: Many Christian liberals, you will be stunned to learn, think that Jesus is, "in general" a lot like them politically. Many Christian conservatives, you will be equally surprised to learn, are just as certain that Jesus is, "in general," a lot like them politically.

When asked about the relative centrality of two kinds of kinds of issues to Christianity, the divide gets more nuanced.

The authors chose two examples as a marker for what they call "fellowship" issues: increasing the tax burden on the rich to ease the plight of the poor and easing the ability of current illegal immigrants to gain citizenship and access to social services. For "morality" issues, they chose the obvious: Same-sex marriage and abortion.

Many liberals said they believed that Jesus wasn't as liberal as they were about the morality questions, but that Jesus was even more liberal than they were on the fellowship topics. Many conservatives also said they thought Jesus was more liberal on the fellowship questions than they were and more conservative on the morality issues.

About half the liberals and a larger chunk of the conservatives said the two kinds of issues were equally important. But a significant chunk of the liberals said they thought the fellowship issues were more central. A much smaller sliver of the conservatives said the morality issues were more important.

So what does this all mean? The psychologists among the authors wander into cogitative dissonance theory. The basic idea is that we tend to try to avoid apparent contradictions when we can, so we talk ourselves into thinking that the divides aren't there.

That's why, suggest the authors, liberals and conservatives each imagine a Jesus that thinks the way they do:

"Indeed, the difference in the views that liberal and conservative participants claimed that Jesus would espouse were he alive today were almost as great as the difference that these groups reported with respect to their own views-both 'in general' and with respect to the four specific issues that divide contemporary liberals and conservatives."

Which bodes badly for reaching across political divides in this election season and beyond.

When people of strong faith believe they are clear on the will of God, there is no room for compromise. But there was that one odd agreement: Both sides think that Jesus is more conservative than they are on morality and more liberal on the fellowship issues. Maybe that's a way to build bridges toward governance?

And now, a few words of caution about taking this study as, ahem, gospel. The total sample size is large enough for good stats: 1,256 of which 787 said they were Christian. But then the sample got winnowed down:

"Participants also indicated their assessment of political views of the Fox News and CNN. Those rating Fox News as more liberal 'in general' than CNN (N=112) were removed from all analyses because we could not be confident that they had closely attended to, and understood, the content of questions posed or had not deliberately offered perverse responses in the remainder of the questionnaire. An additional 174 participants were excluded in comparisons of liberals and conservatives because they placed themselves at the exact midpoint of our scale."

All of which raises questions about just how good SurveyMonkey is at capturing poll takers willing to take the task seriously.

On the other hand, because so many of the results are in accord with my own beliefs, I'm pretty certain they're correct.

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