Are the Religious and Economic Views of Americans More Intertwined Than in the Past?

At first glance this is an empirical question.

I have argued that Americans who believe that God has a plan for America tend to strongly advocate free-market economics. I have also argued that economic views are difficult to predict solely on the basis of religious belief (see Chapter 5 in America’s Four Gods). And I have conducted research to show that the relationship between religious beliefs and economic attitudes are much different in Western Europe; specifically, individuals who believe in an engaged God tend to be economic liberals. In American history, I would expect to see dramatic variations in how religious beliefs connect with economic attitudes depending on both shifts in the economy and changes in religious traditions.

In sum, the data are complex and incomplete. Clearly, we can find strong relationships between religious and economic views, but how and why they are related is really a theoretical question.

We can consider the causal model going both ways. Karl Marx clearly thought that religious beliefs were simply a function of economic relations—the poor and disenfranchised would cling to religious faith in order to cope with the harsh realities of their alienated lives. In this case, we would expect religiosity to be connected to economic fatalism. While this might be true in some industrial countries around the world, it isn’t true in the United States today.

Max Weber famously countered Marx with The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, arguing that religious doctrine can shape a believer’s economic outlook. We need look no further than Shariah law to see that some religious traditions get very explicit about what believers should think about economics. In the United States, preachers of prosperity gospel most closely connect their theology with economics.

But both Marx and Weber thought that religious and economic attitudes should be aligned. I think this speaks to an underlying assumption about how individuals make sense of their world—people seek to make their disparate attitudes and beliefs compatible with one another. Consequently, we expect people’s religious and economic views to be in some kind of logical agreement.

The critic is quick to point out when a person’s economic perspective falls short of her stated religious ideals. He demands, “How can you want to end welfare when you say that Jesus commands us to aid the poor?” Believers who hope to salvage both their hatred of welfare and their love of Jesus will work hard to come up with an answer—which, at the very least, will satisfy themselves. In this way, economic and religious views require one another for justification.

This is all to say that religious and economic views will always be intertwined. The strength of how they are intertwined is tough to know. This comes down to how important religious doctrines are to believers. Those who place enormous importance on their religious identities will struggle to make their economic views match their sacred doctrines. And throughout our history, religion has been important to most Americans. This suggests that religious and economic views have always been closely intertwined.

But I expect that the initial question might also be about how religious and economic views come together. In other words, when does religion make someone an economic liberal and when does it make them an economic conservative? Currently, standard measures of religiosity, such as church attendance, biblical literalism, prayer, and stated religiosity, all predict economic conservatism. I expect this has not always been the case in American history and there may be a day in the future when these indicators again predict economic liberalism. If and when that day will come, God only knows.

Paul Froese is a professor of sociology and a research fellow for the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University, and the co-author of America’s Four Gods.

Category: Q&A


4 Responses

  1. Rowlando Morgan says:

    Religion and science can indeed be harmonised, with religion as pre-eminent. Here is a book which does this in an economic sphere:

    This provides a mathematical framework for depicting debt and understanding biblical laws (especially economic ones) in general.

  2. Wingnut says:

    Is capitalism a competer’s church in itself?

  3. Kim S says:

    An interesting new book looks at why and how preachers need to address the economy in their sermons. Preaching in Plenty and in Want is by Matthew Tennant, a former brokerage firm VP turned church pastor. He looks at scriptural references to economics and considers how the economy affects the person in the pew.

  4. Forrest says:

    The critic is quick to point out when a person’s economic perspective falls short of her stated religious ideals. He demands, “How can you want to end welfare when you say that Jesus commands us to aid the poor?”

    I’m an atheist, so this may be a caricature, but my impression of the Religious Right’s answer to this is that the government shouldn’t be in the business of helping the poor; Christian organizations should. That way the poor will not only be helped materially, but also spiritually — and the godlessness which is responsible for society’s decline will be averted.

    The position is one I find abhorrent, but I don’t think it’s inconsistent.

Leave a Reply