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For Some Christians, Respect for Authority Outweighs Compassion

As the presidential campaign is showing us, the moral values of Christians are far from monolithic.
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(Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

(Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Of all the surprising facets of the current presidential race, there is nothing quite so jarring as the fact so many evangelical Christians are expressing support for Donald Trump and Ted Cruz—two men who don't exactly embody the tenets of Christian compassion. As columnist David Brooks wrote last week in the New York Times:

The best conservatism balances support for free markets with a Judeo-Christian spirit of charity, compassion and solidarity. Cruz replaces this spirit with Spartan belligerence. He sows bitterness, influences his followers to lose all sense of proportion and teaches them to answer hate with hate.

How do we explain his appeal to this pious group? Newly published research, which compares religious beliefs with deeply held moral values, provides one answer: People who believe in an authoritarian God are less likely to endorse such ethical values as empathy and compassion. Furthermore, the study reports belief that the Bible is literally the word of God does not increase support for the moral foundations of fairness and care.

This may seem "somewhat puzzling," given that "Jesus modeled compassion," writes a research team led by Arizona State University psychologist Kathryn Johnson. Their study is published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.

Concerned that committed Christians are sometimes portrayed by pundits as monolithic, Johnson and her colleagues decided to examine their attitudes in depth, comparing their specific beliefs with their behaviors and attitudes toward the fundamental foundations of morality, as outlined by Jonathan Haidt.

Belief that the Bible is literally the word of God does not increase—and may actually decrease—support for the moral foundations of fairness and care.

These foundations are: harm/care (it is good to relieve suffering); fairness/reciprocity (justice and individual rights are important); in-group loyalty (patriotism); authority/respect (upholding the social order); and purity/sanctity (cleanliness is good, and contamination is bad, in both their literal and symbolic sense). The first two are typically prized by liberals, while conservatives tend to place more importance on the last three.

The participants—450 American Christians (including 138 Catholics) recruited online via Amazon's Mechanical Turk—filled out a questionnaire designed to measure which of those foundations they resonated with strongly, and which were less relevant to them.

They also filled out surveys measuring their commitment to their religious group; their concept of God, specifically whether the deity is seen as commanding or punishing; the extent to which they interpret the Bible metaphorically vs. literally; and the extent to which their faith drives them to help others.

Those whose faith was of the "outreaching" variety—where closeness to God is associated with altruistic impulses and behaviors—were more likely than others to endorse the "harm/care" values, such as the importance of relieving suffering and distress.

Those who view God as an authoritarian figure, however, were actually less likely than other Christians to endorse those same values.

"This is consistent with previous research showing that such beliefs may reduce pro-social behavior, and increase aggression," the researchers note.

Johnson and her colleagues also found that "Biblical literalism was negatively or uncorrelated with the moral foundations of fairness and care." This shows it isn't easy to reconcile with the fact that the Bible literally exhorts followers to practice "righteousness and justice," as well as "loving kindness."

So Christians cannot be lumped together in terms of their ethical orientations. Several variables, including "beliefs about the nature of God, and styles of scriptural interpretation," are strongly linked with which moral foundations believers prioritize, and which they downplay.

"There are many ways of being religious," the researchers conclude. One could add that some have more in common with Jesus' actual teachings than others.


Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.