Are Liberals Too “Special” to Go to Church?

New research from psychologists from the New York University suggests that the desire to feel unique can undermine consensus, cohesion, and mobilization—at least in political contexts.

My hunch is that this may extend to religious contexts as well.

Chadly Stern and colleagues reported in the journal Psychological Science in November 2103 on the findings of a study on “truly false uniqueness” and “truly false consensus” among political liberals, moderates, and conservatives.

The study looked at two things. First, the researchers considered the degree to which participants over- or underestimated their sense that their beliefs were the same as those of others in the same political grouping (liberal, moderate, conservative). Second, the team measured the degree to which participants in the study were motivated by a desire to feel unique versus a desire to feel the same as others in their group.

Overall, Stern, et al found that “liberals underestimated their similarity to other liberals, whereas moderates and conservatives overestimated their similarity to other moderates and conservatives.”

Further, the researchers found that liberals “possess a greater dispositional desire to be unique,” which, they suggest, “likely undermines their ability to capitalize on the consensus that actually exists within their ranks and hinders successful group mobilization.” The “desire to conform” among moderates and, to a greater extent, conservatives, likewise, “allows them to perceive consensus that does not actually exist and, in turn, rally their base.”

Liberals, that is, emphasize in their beliefs, actions, and self-understanding uniqueness, creativity, and non-conformity even in the face of sameness. Moderates and conservatives, by contrast, focus on similarity and commonality even when little may in fact exist.

Thus, we might not be surprised that the Occupy Movement would seem to present so little in terms of cohesive results (though many of those actively involved in the movement would argue that “cohesive results” were never the point). In contrast, despite vast socioeconomic and ideological gaps between themselves and Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, the Koch Brothers, and so on, Tea Partiers enthusiastically helped to move their agenda directly into the halls of Congress.

The researchers are careful to point out that other motivations—“need for closure and uncertainty avoidance,” for instance—distinguish liberals, moderates, and conservatives. And, their study focused on political groupings, not religious or other social configurations. 

However, questions in the study about abortion do sit on the boundary between the religious and the political. Further, we know from the 2012 Pew “Nones on the Rise” study that the growing ranks of the religiously unaffiliated lean heavily liberal. What’s more, we know from Pew’s 2008 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey that, as a percentage of membership, Christian denominations viewed as most progressive (Congregational, Episcopalian, Presbyterian) are among those least likely to retain young people raised in their traditions, contributing significant numbers to the ranks of the unaffiliated.

The data on Nones also tell us that most of them come from Christian traditions, and most retain reasonably theistic beliefs. My own research with Nones certainly illustrates that a version of progressive Christianity highlighting God’s equal and unconditional love for all and social justice as prophetic action remains a significant idiom for spiritual practice among the religiously unaffiliated.

I’ve suggested recently that while the former Evangelical Christians I’ve talked with in my research on Nones have tended to express anger with the religious traditions of their youth, and many former Catholic Nones express hurt or sadness, Nones raised in Mainline Protestant traditions have tended to express a “been-there-done-that” boredom with the traditions in which they were raised. They’ve graduated, matured out of the need for regular reinforcement of the ethical teachings of the church.

The idea of the uniqueness of humanity in the scheme of divine creation is central to Christian doctrine:“So God Created humankind in his image,” the first creation narrative in Genesis tells us, “in the image of God he created them.”

And while this idea of human specialness in creation has been behind many of the more problematic consequences of Christian thought throughout history (environmental exploitation and destruction and associated war, coercive religious conversion, and colonialism perhaps topping the list of ills) imago dei theology is also at the root of liberal ideas of the dignity and worth of each person.

Could it also be, among more liberal Nones, at least, that the very theologies that highlighted their uniqueness as “God’s special creations” invite them see themselves as profoundly different from the those in the faith communities in which they were raised?

Though of course further research would be required to bear this notion out, we may fairly wonder if the personal “specialness” and “uniqueness” that is often at the center of Christian formation programs is perhaps over-amplified in more progressive Christian traditions.

Are liberal Christians encouraging and affirming themselves to the point that they no longer feel the need to occupy their own communities?