American dreamers: Keeping economic faith amid the recession

Leading GOP presidential contenders invoking God in campaigns championing less government are striking a responsive chord among many of the nation’s most devout believers.

Late-night talk-show hosts may ridicule candidates such as Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann for mixing faith and politics. But a major new study finds many religious Americans prefer God’s hand, rather than the federal government, guiding the economy.

Not even the prolonged recession and continued high unemployment has shaken their faith.  More than half of Americans who are convinced God has a plan for their lives still strongly believe that, “Anything is possible for those who work hard,” according to the 2010 Baylor Religion Survey.

Surprisingly, this belief and other endorsements of free-market economics are not   the refrains of the rich.  These views are more likely to be held by Americans with lower levels of income and education, the random survey of 1,714 adults last fall found. Forty-one percent of respondents said they strongly believe God has a plan for them, but just 17 percent of respondents with incomes of more than $100,000 held those beliefs.

The continued faith in a conservative American Dream also may have an impact on the larger debates that have gridlocked government over whether to respond to the recession with less or more government intervention to revive the economy and meet the needs of struggling Americans.

There are large blocs of people who may not be sympathetic to government doing more to meet the needs of the poor and long-term unemployed, according to the Baylor survey.

More than half of respondents who strongly believe God has a plan for them said:  “The government does too much.”  Only 21 percent of respondents who are sure God is not guiding their lives found government too intrusive.

“In today’s United States with high levels of unemployment and vastly expanding wealth inequality, belief in God’s plan sustains belief in the fairness of our economic system and our ability to eschew government assistance to stem the tide of our economic woes,” Baylor researchers said in their report on “The Values and Beliefs of the American Public.”

Explore Previous Editions of the Baylor Survey in the ARDA’s Data Archive

Prophets and profits

This faith in the economic system does not seem to be coming from the pulpit.

Less than one in five respondents said their place of worship encourages participants to start a business or make a profit in business.

Aspects of personal faith, however, were a critical motivation for belief in the American Dream, the study indicated.

Fifty-four percent of respondents who strongly believe God has a plan for them also strongly agreed that hard work makes anything possible. In contrast, less than a quarter of respondents who said God does not have a plan for them placed such faith in hard work alone.

In a similar finding, 39 percent of respondents confident of God’s plan for them strongly agreed that success is achieved by ability rather than luck;  just 17 percent who strongly disagree God has a plan for them would make that claim.

These beliefs matter, from the workplace to public policy debates.

View Some Other Survey Questions Concerning the Role of Government

Left behind

It may seem counterintuitive that less well-off Americans would embrace the American Dream at a time when the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. But past research has suggested that people with lower incomes are more likely to rely on God in times of trouble and employ faith as a means to overcome adversity.

The Baylor survey indicated there are benefits on the job for strong adherents of divine intervention and traditional beliefs.

Working adults who believe in the literal truth of the Bible were more than twice as likely as those who do not take Scriptures literally to pursue excellence in their work because of their faith.

Persons who “absolutely” believe in heaven and hell overwhelmingly agreed that the organization they work for has a great deal of personal meaning to them. The majority of people who hold those beliefs also are always or often motivated by their faith to pursue excellence, researchers reported.

But the findings also raise questions about what will happen to those left behind in these hard times.

Fifty-three percent of respondents who said they strongly believe God has a plan for them also strongly agreed that “the government does too much” and that “able-bodied people who are out of work shouldn’t receive unemployment checks.” Just 21 percent of those convinced God does not have a plan for them strongly agreed with those statements.

Some find “bitter irony” in the fact many less well-off Americans embrace attitudes that can be viewed as demonizing the poor as wastrels, but conservative economic policy seems to have become an article of faith for many less-educated religious believers, said Baylor sociologist Paul Froese.

“They tend to understand government as a profane object which stands in opposition to many of the paths God has laid for us,” he said.

So politicians such as Perry and Bachmann advance their agenda of lower taxes and less government regulation by invoking God as active in the lives of individuals and the nation, Froese said.

The idea that God, not government, will provide the guiding hand for the nation’s economy is a message that strikes a chord with many believers.

As the election heats up, expect more political rhetoric that associates God with less government and more talk of “values” voters who embrace free-market economics with religious devotion, Froese said in a presentation for the recent meeting of the Religion Newswriters Association.

How people define the American Dream, and, in part, whether they believe  God blesses America with more economic equality and more social services or less government and less regulation, promises to be a key issue in the 2012 election.


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