I really like the work of the Pew Research Center. Readers of this blog know that I have often drawn out some of their research for further comment about religion and contemporary society (as I did earlier this month). Sometimes, however, they ask questions that make me wonder what they were assuming about their respondents.
Yesterday, my history colleague Mark Edwards shared a Pew “Factank” article titled “Half of Americans say Bible should influence U.S. laws..”. This was a snapshot from the same March survey that was the basis for my above mentioned post. Here’s the relevant data:
The survey found that Americans were split on the question of whether the Bible should influence laws but that white evangelicals and Black protestants were much more in favor. Furthermore, the data suggests that majorities of both groups suggested that the Bible should be more persuasive than the will of the people.
So what does this data tell us? Without follow-up questions, it’s not clear what respondents were thinking. Is this about supporting “Biblical marriage”? Is it about prophetic passages instructing care for the poor, widowed, and orphaned? Maybe it’s a reference to Matthew 25 and “the least of these”. Or perhaps it is related to proof texting certain passages that seem to support certain policy concerns about welfare dependency.
Are these opinions held by people who regularly read the Bible (and thereby have something specific in mind) or is this simply capturing a naive “Bible is good” sentiment?
To be fair to Pew, I’m being pretty picky here. I’m right at the stage of my research design course where my student research groups are converting their research questions into actual survey questions. I’ve been pushing them to examine their assumptions and ask the question necessary to make sense of the data that they will eventually get.
Yet I wonder if the Bible and law question doesn’t force a frame into which the respondents fit their opinions. If you asked, “what should be the source of our laws?” would the Bible show up as a top response? Why not Lockean philosophy or enlightenment social contract theory?
Asking questions about the Bible is hard, particularly because so much is left to individual interpretation (and Pew’s prior work on Biblical literacy shows how limited those interpretations might be!). One of the common questions about the Bible is that used by Gallup. Respondents are given the option of seeing the Bible as the literal word of God, the inspired but not literal word of God, or an ancient book of fables (highlighting mine).
Even here, we don’t really know what respondents mean by literal or inspired. Some have asked questions about degrees of error or conflict in the scripture. Yet even then, we don’t really get at how individuals are using the Bible in their decision making (if at all).
I once experimented with a question that asked people what parts of the scripture they were most likely to read in their daily devotions using broad categories of history, psalms and proverbs, Gospels, Epistles, Revelation. and the like. In my most recent project surveying evangelical clergy, I asked questions about their method of biblical interpretation.
Sam Perry recently explored the way different Bible translation versions related to assumptions about gender roles in the family and in the church. His comments near the end of his article do a nice job of summarizing a broader and richer approach to the Bible than we normally see:
While American sociologists are well aware of the Bible’s importance to understanding Americans’ beliefs, values, and behavior, I have advocated a more critical approach to the Bible’s content, one that understands it as a product of ideology and not merely a producer or platform.
If we really want to understand how Americans view the Bible and its role in the broader society, we simply have to ask better and more in-depth questions.