Introduction

IBCSR's Spectrums Project is an ambitious attempt to apply what is known about ideological spectrums in politics and morality to the field of religious beliefs and practices. The Project's goal is twofold: firstly, to deepen understanding of why human beings adopt a spectrum of religious and theological viewpoints; and secondly, to discover strategies for mitigating the problems associated with religious extremism and polarized religious discourse. IBCSR's main partner in this project is Dr. Catherine Caldwell Harris in Boston University's Psychology Department. The project's post-doctoral fellows Dr. Aimee Radom, who recently completed a dissertation on a related topic, and Dr. Ravi Iyer, who also works on YourMorals.org. This project is funded by Boston University's School of Theology, the Doug & Gay Lane Foundation, the Lakeside Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

As the United States has become more ideologically polarized over the past 30 years, academic interest in conservative-liberal divisions has increased substantially. At the same time, a parallel stream of research has investigated the concept of religious orientation, continuing a line of research that began in earnest with Gordon Allport’s work of the 1950s and 1960s. While numerous researchers have noted correlations between various conceptions of religious orientation and personality characteristics known to be associated with measurements of political ideology such as right-wing authoritarianism (Altemeyer), prejudice (Allport), and death salience (Beck), relatively few papers have been published focusing on the ideological spectrum as applied exclusively in the religious domain. During everyday speech it is common to refer to “religious conservatives” or, somewhat less commonly, “religious liberals,” yet it seems that we have only a hazy idea of what such categorizations might actually mean or how to measure them.

Under the aegis of the Boston University School of Theology and the Institute for the Biocultural Study of Religion, the Spectrums Project team set out to design a research instrument to measure and interpret religious ideology along a conservative-liberal axis, with the ultimate goal of deploying the instrument in two ways.

First, with regard to the special interests of the Boston University School of Theology, the aim is to use the instrument in seminary classrooms in order to gain a clearer understanding of the diverse ideological positions represented in incoming classes. On the basis of the newly sensitive understanding permitted by our project’s survey, the aim is to develop strategies for (1) mitigating tensions that arise within the School of Theology student community due to religious ideological differences, and (2) enhancing the awareness and competence of future professional religious leaders in handling ideological tensions alive and well in most religious communities.

Second, the uses of such an instrument extend far beyond the seminary setting. Religious ideology is strikingly salient in contemporary world affairs, American politics, and society-wide debates on topics as diverse as education, birth control, and homosexuality. Indeed, there is virtually no sphere of modern life that is not influenced by the ideological commitments people draw from, and bring into, their religious lives. A clearer understanding of the ideological spectrum in religion would be of substantial value for the continued investigation of ideology, its leaders, and its interconnections with, and influences on, other elements of contemporary world societies.

 

Funding for the Spectrums Project

Funding from the Spectrums Project has come from three sources:

  • Boston University School of Theology
  • Arthur Vining Davis Foundations
  • Institute for the Biocultural Study of Religion

 

History of the Spectrums Project

The project began in 2007-8 with research for two books published by Dr. Wildman with Rev. Dr. Stephen Chapin Garner: Lost in the Middle? & Found in the Middle! (both published in 2009). The purpose of these books was to articulate the psychology, sociology, politics, history, theology, and ethics of moderate Christians, who are aware of the left-right spectrum of religious ideology but identify with neither extreme.

In 2008-9, Dr. Wildman established the Liberal-Evangelical project, to support moderate Christians and congregations that intend to be radically inclusive and yet still clearly Christ-centered in their worship and practice. Apart from having practical benefits for a certain target audience, the Liberal-Evangelical project served to test the theory underlying the two books published around the same time.

The implication of this early work was that the conceptual framework for interpreting religious ideology was robust enough to apply to real lives and interesting enough to explore further. So, on May 2, 2009, Dr. Wildman hosted the first Spectrums Conference. The purpose of the conference was to evaluate the feasibility of studying religious ideology in more detail, in relation to as many academic disciplines as might have something to say about it, and hopefully in a way that would generate a conceptual framework for interpreting religious ideology that crosses cultures and religions.

The consensus of the conference attendees was that there was something of great value to investigate here. So, with funding from the Institute for the Biocultural Study of Religion and Boston University School of Theology, Dr. Wildman put together a small team of research students to construct a preliminary bibliography building on the discussions of the first conference. The two years stretching from May 2009 to June 2011 were spent enhancing and annotating the bibliography, learning how to articulate the project in a persuasive way, recruiting an excellent research team, obtaining IRB approval for a pilot study, and seeking greater funding to take the project forward.

Two doctoral students—Connor Wood and Nicholas DiDonato—continued work on constructing and annotating the richly multidisciplinary and fairly comprehensive bibliography. In periodic meetings throughout 2010-2011, working with psychologist Prof. Catherine Caldwell Harris, the team constructed a novel theoretical framework for interpreting the religious ideology spectrum, testing it against the extant literature from one discipline after another. The team also drafted a large question pool for a survey instrument to measure and make sense of religious ideology. We defined a protocol for administering the survey. In March 2011 we obtained approval from the Boston University Institutional Review Board to pilot the survey.

Prior to piloting, however, with the conceptual framework and question pool in place, we sought to test and criticize what we had built as vigorously as possible. To that end, we convened our five consultants in the second Spectrums Conference and worked intensively through every aspect of the proposed survey instrument. After that consultation, we made revisions to the conceptual framework and the question pool.

In July 2011, postdoc Aimee Radom joined the team, thanks to funding from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. That funding was part of a grant awarded to Boston University School of Theology Dean Mary Elizabeth Moore. This marked the beginning of a two-year period of full funding for the project, and the work intensified accordingly. The team piloted the survey instrument and the associated administration protocol. We then launched into statistical analysis to test the central constructs and the individual questions in the over-sized question pool.

We have emerged from piloting and analysis with a first-draft version of the Multidimensional Religious Ideology Scale, which we affectionately call the MRI. We have also refined our protocol for administering the survey and affiliated questionnaires. As of January 2012, the project is almost ready to publish its results and to take the MRI into the wider world.

 

The Project Bibliography

The Spectrums Project Bibliography represents the core of our research effort because it comprises the publications from which we have derived the conceptual framework for the MRI and against which we have tested it. There are over 703 items as of December 2011, and the bibliography is still growing. Here are the individual collections within the bibliography.

  • Commentary & Philosophical Analysis [14 items]
  • Demographics – International [7 items]
  • Demographics –USA [12 items]
  • Empirical Psychology and Cognitive Science on Politics [202 items]
  • Empirical Psychology and Cognitive Science on Religion [134 items]
  • Fundamentalisms [80 items]
  • History, Social Studies, and Sociology [96 items]
  • Morality and Ethics [45 items]
  • Parenting, Corporal Punishment, and Family Dynamics [14 items]
  • Political Science and Religion [99 items]

View the bibliography here.

Acknowledgements

The Project Team is pleased to acknowledge support for this research from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations through a grant to Dr. Mary Elizabeth Moore, Dean of Boston University’s School of Theology; and also from the Institute for the Biocultural Study of Religion, which is supporting this project through grants from The Lakeside Foundation and the Doug and Gay Lane Foundation.