Cruz, Christians, Compassion

January 12, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

The great thing about Christianity is that it gives you two Testaments and two kinds of god. The god of the Old Testament is a wrathful god. But in the New Testament, Jesus represents a loving, caring, and forgiving god. The previous pope, Benedict XVI, who earned epithets like “the Panzer cardinal” and “God’s Rottweiler,” leaned in one direction. By contrast, the current pope, Francis, has just published a book – The Name of God is Mercy.

If you’re a Christian, you can take your pick depending on the circumstances. (An early post  in this blog was about the different responses of Protestant clergy (Dobson, Falwell) to adultery – that of Bill Clinton and that of Newt Gingrich.) If the sinner is one of your own, invoke New Testament ideals. If the sinner belongs to some other group, bring down the wrath of God.

Why does David Brooks not know this?

In today’s column (here), Brooks seems genuinely puzzled by the support Ted Cruz gets among evangelicals. Brooks begins by recounting Cruz’s efforts as Texas solicitor general to keep a man in prison far beyond what the law permitted.Would good Christians vote for such a merciless and vindictive fellow? You bet they would.

Ted Cruz is now running strongly among evangelical voters, especially in Iowa. But in his career and public presentation Cruz is a stranger to most of what would generally be considered the Christian virtues: humility, mercy, compassion and grace. . .

There is not a hint of compassion, gentleness and mercy. Instead, his speeches are marked by a long list of enemies, and vows to crush, shred, destroy, bomb them
Mercy, gentleness, and compassion may be Christian virtues, but in dealing with those who have broken the law, Christians in the US go overwhelmingly for wrath. (I assume that Brooks, focusing on polls in Iowa, is talking about White Christians. )

The GSS asks people if they think that courts are “Too Harsh,” “Not Harsh Enough,” or “About right.” On this item, people who believe in the divinity of Christ are the most likely to think that courts are too soft on criminals. About four out of five want the courts to be harsher.

Evangelicals and Fundamentalists are somewhat more punitive than other Protestants. Closer to nine in ten want the courts to visit harsher punishments on people convicted of crime.

(The data are from 2000 because that is the only year that the GSS asked about Protestant subdivisions.)

This pattern holds for the death penalty as well. Protestants are the least likely to oppose the death penalty. 

Except for self-identified “liberal Protestants,” the people most likely respond with mercy and compassion are those who do not believe in the divinity of Jesus.

This Protestant penchant for punitiveness turns up in other places as well. On the GSS item that says “it is sometimes necessary to discipline a child with a good, hard, spanking,” Christians – especially Protestants and especially Evangelical and Fundamentalist Protestants – are most likely to agree (40%) and agree strongly (another 50%). As usual, it’s the non-Christians, Jews especially, who disagree.

As Brooks and others have noted, Ted Cruz has many unpleasant qualities.* But his lack of compassion and mercy are not going to lose him any votes among White conservative Christians.

* Brooks is not alone among Republicans in disliking Cruz. As Frank Bruni wrote last month in the Times, “A Bush 2000 alumnus said to me: ‘Why do people take such an instant dislike to Ted Cruz? It just saves time.’”


Andrew Gelman said...


Interesting post, but please please round all percentages to the nearest integer!

Jay Livingston said...

Right. I just copied the online GSS results, which are all in one decimal place.