MONDAY, Jan. 30, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- A new study finds U.S. Christians on both sides of the ideological divide believe Jesus is more compassionate than they are when it comes to the issues of helping the poor and providing services to illegal immigrants.
But there's a divide over moral issues such as gay rights and abortion: Liberal Christians tend to believe that Jesus is more conservative than they are on moral issues, while conservative Christians believe he is more liberal.
Liberal and conservative Christians also tend to believe that the matters most important to Jesus are the same ones most important to them.
The study findings reveal how so-called "cognitive dissonance" works in Christians whose personal beliefs aren't identical to those of the founder of their faith, said study author Lee Ross, a professor of psychology at Stanford University.
"In part, you handle the dissonance by having different views of what the teachings are," Ross said. "You also handle it by attaching more importance to the issues with which you think your views are congruent."
The study, based on an online survey of people in the United States, has limitations. It's not clear how well the participants reflect America as a whole, and it only includes people who were willing to take a survey online.
But Ross said the study, which appears online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is valuable. It, he said, "illustrates, in very concrete, specific and understandable ways, this drive to see ourselves as virtuous and coherent."
The study authors gave an online survey to 1,256 people who offered to take part in such surveys in return for a donation to a charity of their choice and a chance to win $100. The researchers focused on 787 people who said they were Christian, but removed those who were in the middle between liberal and conservative or thought Fox News was more liberal than CNN.
The researchers compiled the answers of the remaining 474 liberal and conservative Christians on their personal views and the views they think Jesus has on issues of "fellowship" -- caring for the poor and helping illegal immigrants gain citizenship and assistance -- and on morality -- abortion and gay marriage.
Liberals were much more likely to give greater weight to what they see as the beliefs of their faith regarding fellowship; conservatives gave somewhat more weight to teachings regarding morality.
"There is a reality that conservatives are more religious than liberals. It's more important for them to reconcile their views with their religion," Ross said.
He added that the morality-focused rules of the Old Testament and the compassion-focused teachings of the New Testament offer different challenges for those of faith on the left and the right: "For conservatives, the discrepancies exist in regard to the four gospels, where for liberal Christians, the discrepancies are basically with the injunctions of the Old Testament."
Michael Nielsen, a chair of psychology at Georgia Southern University who studies religion and is familiar with the new findings, pointed out that the teachings of Jesus tend to be presented as firm in sermons and scripture.
"Seldom is he presented as ambivalent or equivocating on an issue," he said. "This provides a potential source of dissonance for the great majority of people whose view on an issue is not black and white."
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