January 22, 2016

Studying Politics with a Faith Perspective

You don’t have to choose between being a person of faith and a scholar. I see at least three ways that my faith in Christ and my appreciation of the academic discipline of political science have affected each other in positive ways.

Peace about my views

The first major effect is a general absence of fear. In my courses I cover a wide variety of negative things, wars, financial crises, negative campaigning, etc. A Christian perspective gives me a sense of hope where a purely objective look at events might not.

This also manifests itself in a more relaxed approach to political disagreement. In an era in which one hateful thing after another is written about political opponents, my classroom can be a place where people don’t have to feel compelled to agree with me about every little thing. I have a confidence that comes from years of study, but also a faith that puts our earthly politics into perspective. This means that a student from any political background, or none at all, can come into my class and explore ideas without worrying that they’ll negatively impact their grade because they don’t echo my opinions.

This peace extends itself to many of my other relationships. Many of my friends don’t share much in common with me politically. It’s possible that they don’t know what I actually think. Most people don’t ask, perhaps assuming agreement. Perhaps they overlook my failings. Others might assume I disagree with them and it simply doesn’t bother them. I have friends who are, at times, openly contemptuous of faith perspectives. A confident peace maintains these relationships, too.

My life is much richer because I know people who disagree with me. Maybe they overlook my faith. Maybe they just assume I’m different. Hopefully, they see evidence in my life of Christ. Whatever the reason, a sense of peace builds bridges that I may not otherwise have with those who think, feel, and pray differently from me. I’m exposed to ideas I would never otherwise hear, and have a much richer understanding of how people reach their political conclusions.

An appreciation of data

William Edwards Deming is quoted as saying, “In God we trust. All others bring data.” This is such a great place to explore how the Christian political scientist lives in two worlds. Our discipline insists upon the most objective measures of hard-to-define concepts as the standard from which we draw conclusions. These conclusions regularly run counter to intuition, and often have easily politicized ramifications (climate data, anyone?).

Jesus called himself the truth. This truth-seeking ethos of political science is something that we should embrace. I tell my students to follow the data, seek the truth wherever it leads. The truth they find may make them uncomfortable as it may challenge their political worldview. It can isolate you from others who insist that the data’s story conform to a particular ideology.

An appreciation for data, and the training required to understand measurement and analysis both require the scholar to accept some degree of uncertainty and measurement error. For the political ideologue, however, certainty reigns. Political science generally argues that our most sophisticated conclusions are probabilistic, and the best scholars approach prediction with intellectual humility.

New things to say

The intersection of my personal faith and my academic work has led me to explore ideas I’d have never considered if I tried to focus on only one way of thinking. I’m challenged to think about amorphous concepts and refine how I teach, write, and advise.

The writing that comes out of this doesn’t always neatly fit in traditional political science research, which usually takes a tone that is purely empirical, focused on what can be seen and measured. Much of my recent work is very different from that. Hopefully that connects with people who might never read a political science journal.

Summing up

The worlds of academic thinking and faith have positively intersected in my life and work. I think this helps me in both areas. I don’t worry about how analytic thinking might challenge my beliefs because I frame both my faith and discipline as places of truth-seeking. This may lead me to alienate some people, but will open the door to engagement with some who might otherwise not consider Christianity to be compatible with a more empirical approach to politics.

One need not have a faith perspective to be a great teacher who is open to letting students be free to explore their politics, or to be a person who develops rich relationships with those with whom they disagree. But, I know that has become easier for me over time as I’ve been more conscious of my faith. It confuses me when my fellow Christians speak insultingly about those that disagree with them on politics. I’ve been that person and I hope I’ve matured since then. 

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