Science on Religion

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Religious conservatives’ and liberals’ self-narratives

StorytellingIn American politics, conservatives and liberals differ quite clearly over issues of economics, social programs, and social policies. Research concerning religious (as opposed to political) liberals and conservatives has only just begun, but Dan P. McAdams (Northwestern University) and colleagues suggest a deep connection between political and religious conservativism and liberalism: conservatives and liberals fundamentally interpret life differently. Conservatives see life as a struggle to maintain self-discipline and to overcome obstacles, whereas liberals understand life as a journey of self-exploration and fulfillment.

McAdams and colleagues argue that studying the differences between conservatives and liberals needs to go beyond dispositional traits and goals to the very heart of how people tell their life story. In other words, how do people make sense of their lives? No doubt, dispositional traits and goals serve a useful purpose. Dispositional traits describe how a person acts socially in everyday life and so record consistencies in behavior over time. By contrast, goals capture something trickier to observe, namely, what motivates a person and what that person desires. In contrast to dispositional traits and goals, narratives allow a person to synthesize and reconstruct various elements of their lives, bringing dispositional traits and goals together. Narratives do not eliminate dispositional traits or goals but form a third layer of personality (narratives are more abstract than goals, which in turn are more abstract than dispositional traits).

At the forefront of narrative research, the authors hypothesize that conservative narrative identities emphasize self-regulation, while their liberal counterparts emphasize self-exploration. The authors believe that conservatives have a pessimistic take on human nature (hence the need for self-control) while liberal have a more optimistic take (hence the safety to explore).

To test their hypothesis, the researchers found American Christians (128 in total) who actively participate in politics (by which the researchers mean that these participants vote and stay current with political issues). Each participant completed a series of surveys that measured the participant’s personality, religious practices, political views, and well-being (more specifically, the surveys used were the Right-Wing Authoritarianism scale, Social Dominance Orientation, NEO Personality Inventory, and the Big Five). Afterward, the research team interviewed the participant for approximately two hours in order to let them narrate their life. The interview questions centered around religion, politics, ethics, values, and the 2004 US presidential election.

As it turned out, in this particular sample, 11% of the survey takers self-identified as “very liberal,” 26% as “liberal,” 26.8% as moderate, 29.9% as “conservative” and 6.3% as “very conservative.” With this fairly even balance of liberals and conservatives participating, the researchers found their hypothesis confirmed. Conservatives narrated the most critical and important moments of their life in terms of control, restraint, discipline, restriction, and managing oneself. In general, conservatives described a “prevention-focus” approach to life, where life keeps slinging dangers that ideally can be anticipated and avoided (especially through self-discipline, the failure of which leads to harm). Liberals, on the other hand, told the most important aspects of their lives in terms of self-exploration, growth, expansion, and fulfillment. As opposed to the conservative’s “prevention-focus,” liberals have a “promotion-focus” approach to life which offers abundant opportunities for self-realization, creativity, and change.

It appears, then, that liberals and conservatives do not simply disagree on issues in politics and religion in a superficial way, but have radically different interpretations of life. Obviously, someone who thinks life is a struggle is going to have different solutions for government and church than someone who thinks life is an opportunity for self-fulfillment. In some ways, McAdam’s research can help bridge the gap between liberals and conservatives, but in other ways it shows that they're worlds apart.

For more, see “Themes of Self-Regulation and Self-Exploration in the Life Stories of Religious American Conservatives and Liberals” in the journal Political Psychology.


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