The Multi-faith Matters grant project team met in August and discussed the results of the first year's worth of research, and I've been meaning to share a summary of this in a video, but I've had ongoing technical issues, first with video editing software, and then with the crash of my laptop. So I thought I'd share photos of slides from the PowerPoint I used in our meeting in order to share with you what we've discovered, and its significance for multi-faith engagement.
Previously our team conducted case studies on nine evangelical churches and one seminary-related organization. These groups are scattered around the nation, and are engaging different religious groups in their communities, and all drawing upon a similar approach of hospitality and love of neighbor. But at the conclusion of the initial grant our team wondered why these groups were relating to those in other religions this way, but the majority of conservative evangelicals either ignore such religions, or pursue more defensive and combative approaches, particularly when it comes to Muslims. It was apparent that one of the major concerns for evangelicals is purity of doctrine and worldview, as frequently expressed in concerns about possible contamination from those in other religions. So the central question for the supplemental grant has been to discover how our case study groups have worked through the concerns that prevent most evangelicals from doing likewise.
We decided that we needed to try to understand the psychology underlying differing evangelical theological approaches to religions. In order to do this we explored social psychology, and brought it into conversation with evangelical theologies of multi-faith engagement. The best way to understand the psychological dynamics was through survey research. Initially we surveyed our case study groups using standard areas of assessment in psychology, which included our interest in assessing possible disgust reactions. The survey also included questions about doctrine, and the concept of bounded vs. centered sets in missions and church planting. There were a few interesting results from this study, including the lack of difference in disgust concerns between our case study groups and the small number of non-case study participants we solicited who are more apologetic in their approach. In addition, the basic doctrinal views were largely the same with the exception that those who viewed other religions as satanic were utilizing defensive approaches whereas those who answered that question negatively were engaged in hospitality. But despite these few observations, our survey sample was far too small in order to draw legitimate scientific conclusions. This meant that we had to conduct another survey with an expanded number of participants.
The second survey was designed to ask additional questions beyond those asked in the first survey. You can see those listed in the slide above.
In order to obtain scientifically valid results that we could draw conclusions from, our advisory group of scholars with expertise in social psychology suggested that we use the Amazon Mechanical Turk database (MTurk). We had 209 Christians complete the survey, and we tested for some of the same measures in the first survey, but also expanded that further to include political conservatism, nationalism, and attitudes toward other groups.
Although we had more Mainline Protestants and Catholics complete the survey as opposed to evangelicals, the results were still informative for understanding how Christians within branches of Christendom feel about Muslims, including evangelicals. Our survey showed, unsurprisingly, that Christians tend to like other Christians best and non-Christians less so. There was prejudice against Muslims across the board, but with different reasons. For Catholics and Mainline Protestants, Christian Nationalism and fear were significant, whereas for evangelicals it was political conservatism and fear.
Returning to the grant questions we wanted to address through our survey research, the results were somewhat surprising. We found that rather than moral disgust, fear of physical harm and thus physical disgust was driving attitudes toward other religious groups, particularly Muslims where terrorism is in view. In my view, this does not mean that moral disgust is not a part of the psychological dynamic. In a study of pre-9/11 literature on Islam by evangelicals compared with post-9/11 literature, the concern about doctrine and contamination rose dramatically after the terrorist attacks. One of the implications of this is that physical disgust can be expressed as moral disgust in conservative evangelicals.
Related to disgust was the issue of fear. This, along with preferences for one's own religious tribe, and Christian Nationalism contribute to fear of Muslims. Our study also indicated that evangelicals are strongly influenced by political conservatism, and our advisory group thought this was a better indicator of influence and negative attitudes than tribalism.
Two issues stood out in our research as contributing to negative attitudes toward Muslims. This was fear of harm and Christian Nationalism. Evangelicals are afraid that they will suffer physical harm through terrorism, even though statistically the odds are very low. This is an emotional rather than rational consideration, so people feel the concern rather than reason their way through it. This makes it a challenge to address. Then there is the influence of Christian Nationalism, the idea that America is a Judeo-Christian nation chosen by God to lead the world, and for Christianity to have a special place in the nation. In this context there is a conflation of religious and national identities for evangelicals, and the presence of other religions can be seen as a contaminant to the purity of the nation.
Bringing all of this, and other aspects of my research together, I have put together a theory as to the psychological dynamics involved in the majority stance conservative evangelicals take toward Muslims and how this works out. My theory is stated in the slide above.
We want not only to identify the challenges, but also to identify solutions to improving evangelical attitudes toward Muslims and other religions. Our research indicates that this is not just an issue of the mind, but also one of the heart. As the slide says above, it is difficult to love our neighbor when we are fearful, disgusted, and angry with them. Education is an important part of the solution, but not the only or primary one. We must first deal with the emotions and create affective space so that the mind can consider new ideas.
But how can fresh emotional space be created? Looking again at our main grant question that framed our research, our case study churches have somehow worked through the fears of harm and contamination that stop many (most?) evangelicals from engaging other religions more positively. How have they done this? We have more research do to in this area, but we do know that all of these groups designed to risk contact with "religious others." Surveys indicate that those who know someone in another religion are more likely to view them positively, and in social psychology this is known as the "contact hypothesis." However, it depends upon the kind of contact one has. Certain kinds of contact can reinforce negative attitudes, whereas other forms can lead to the formation of new attitudes and perspectives. Our case study churches participated in strategic and transformative contact with those in other religions, and this in turn has led to different emotions, theologies, narratives, and practices than those held by many conservative evangelicals.
The Multi-faith Matters team believes that our research has uncovered significant challenges to multi-faith engagement by evangelicals. This helps us understand why many evangelicals are not only concerned with syncretism, but also often opposed to interreligious dialogue, and suspicious of participation in the interfaith movement. These psychological dynamics must be accounted for by evangelicals involved in peacemaking, and by those in the interfaith community who wonder why evangelicals are often absent from the conversation table.