What daily practice may help American Christians become more concerned about issues of poverty, conservation and civil liberties?
Reading the Bible.
The answer may come as a surprise to those locked into viewing religious practices in ideological boxes. However, a new study by Baylor University researcher Aaron Franzen found frequent Bible reading predicted greater support for issues ranging from the compatibility of science and religion to more humane treatment of criminals.
The study, one of the first to examine the social consequences of reading Scripture, reveals the effects of Bible reading appear to transcend conservative-liberal boundaries.
Thus, even as opposition to same-sex marriage and legalized abortion tends to increase with more time spent with the Bible, so does the number of people who say it is important to actively seek social and economic justice, Franzen found.
It was not just liberal Christians who found their attitudes changing.
In many cases, even those who believe the Bible is literally true but rarely read the book found themselves at odds with their evangelical sisters and brothers who regularly read the holy text.
"Usually, the literalists tend to read the most frequently, but increased reading over time would moderate their conservatism," Franzen said the study indicated.
Franzen speculates the reason so little research has been done on the effects of reading Scripture may be because "the ubiquity of references to the Bible promotes the idea that we all know what it says and, consequently, reading it is simply a habitual and ultimately meaningless activity."
But that is not true, according to his study using data from Christian respondents to the 2007 wave of the Baylor Religion Survey.
In many cases, Franzen found frequency of Bible reading was one of the most powerful predictors of attitudes on moral and political issues. Consider some of the findings:
- The likelihood of Christians saying it is important to actively seek social and economic justice to be a good person increased 39 percent with each jump up the ladder of the frequency of reading Scripture, from reading the Bible less than once a year to no more than once a month to about weekly to several times a week or more.
- Christian respondents overall were 27 percent more likely to say it is important to consume or use fewer goods to be a good person as they became more frequent Bible readers.
- Reading the Bible more often also was linked to improved attitudes toward science. Respondents were 22 percent less likely to view religion and science as incompatible at each step toward more frequent Bible reading.
- The issues seemed to matter more than conservative-liberal tags. In the case of another major public policy debate, same-sex unions, nearly half of respondents who read the Bible less than once a year said homosexuals should be allowed to marry, while only 6 percent of people who read the Bible several times a week or more approved of such marriages.
Among other issues, more frequent Bible readers also were more likely to oppose legalized abortion, the death penalty, harsher punishment of criminals and expanding the federal government's authority to fight terrorism.
Forget Glenn Beck
The findings may be striking to those who tend to separate Christians into right and left, members of liberal and conservative blocs often seen as marching in lockstep with confrontational personalities such as Glenn Beck and Al Sharpton.
But the results are consistent with some past research.
In a 1998 article in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, sociologists Mark Regnerus, Christian Smith and David Sikkink found that data from the 1996 Religious Identity and Influence Survey suggested that, contrary to "conventional wisdom," conservative Protestants were among the most generous Christians in giving to the poor.
Anthropology professor James Bielo of Miami University, author of the 2009 book "Words upon the Word: An Ethnography of Evangelical Group Bible Study," said Franzen's findings "are not terribly surprising."
As individuals read the Bible, often in the context of other influences such as a local group or their spouse or children or a study guide, "Frequently, I think, people come to a new position, or find some nuance in what they already thought," he said.
In his own ethnographic work with evangelicals, Bielo found that most considered religion and science to be compatible. "Ultimately, they would say all truth is God's truth," he said.
Perhaps the larger issue is not whether Christians are influenced by Bible reading, but how many of them read the Bible enough for it to make a difference.
In the Baylor Religion Survey, less than a quarter of respondents said they read Scripture weekly or more.
As C.S. Lewis once observed: "Odd, the way the less the Bible is read the more it is translated."
David Briggs writes the Ahead of the Trend column for the Association of Religion Data Archives.