Faith and economic idealism

September 30, 2011

Third wave of Baylor Religion Survey examines how religion affects individuals' outlook and well-being in tumultuous times

Baylor University researchers say the third and newest wave of a national survey examining the values and beliefs of the American public reveals, among many things, "a new religious economic idealism."

Dr. Paul Froese, associate professor of sociology and a research fellow in Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion, said it wasn't surprising to see in the survey results a clear link between religious faith and conservative politics; but he was interested to learn what people of faith believed about God's work in the economy.

"One of the findings we have is that there's a strong relationship between economic conservatism and belief in an engaged God -- this belief that God guides the United States," Froese said.

The professor referenced a theory by 18th century philosopher and economist Adam Smith that states that an "invisible hand" -- not God, but possibly an unknowing person's actions or the actions of a group -- guides the economy.

"The 'invisible hand' spoken of by Adam Smith has really become God's hand for many Americans," Froese explained.

According to the study, nearly 41 percent of those surveyed believe strongly that God has a plan for them. The survey shows that Americans who "feel strongly that God has something wonderful in store for them" tend to have lower incomes and less education than those who do not believe in such a divine plan.

Those Americans, according to the data, are "the most likely to believe the United States' economic system is fair without government intervention." Other beliefs include: the government is intrusive, healthy people don't deserve unemployment benefits, anything is possible through hard work, and success equals ability.

Such opinions, in turn, can be used to guide the policies promoted by conservative political strategists, Froese said.

"What this leads to, I think, we can call a new religious economic idealism," he said. "This rhetoric is clearly prevalent in the political debates going on right now -- so that political candidates can promote economic conservatism and lack of regulation merely by reference to an active and engaged God."

A total of 1,714 adults, chosen randomly from across the country, answered more than 300 questions as part of The Baylor Religion Survey: The Values and Beliefs of the American Public. The results of the survey were released Sept. 20.

"These are unsettling times," said Dr. F. Carson Mencken, director of the survey and professor of sociology at Baylor, citing a long list of crises and socially divisive issues ranging from the recession and unemployment to political turmoil in the Middle East, gun control and same-sex marriage. "The mission of this analysis is to assess how Americans feel about their lives in these tumultuous times."

The new survey -- a follow-up of analyses released in 2006 and 2008 -- reveals numerous American beliefs and provides researchers with scores of numbers to examine in the coming months. Among the initial highlighted themes:

  • How God sustains the American dream
  • Differences in how liberals and conservatives view the ultimate meaning of life
  • The link between religion and physical and mental health, including being a "chronic worrier"
  • Beliefs about the rights of gays and lesbians and the cause of homosexuality
  • Beliefs about Heaven and Hell
  • Religion's impact on work and entrepreneurship

The portion of the survey that centered on religion and its impact on work revealed more than a third (36 percent) of those surveyed routinely pursue excellence in work because of their faith. Individuals who attend religious services regularly and those who take a literal view of the Bible are among the most likely to attribute religious significance to their work. Women, African-Americans, older workers and people in the southern U.S. are also more likely to attach religious meaning to work.

Despite those numbers, the data shows that few Americans (15 percent) perceived their congregations as encouraging them to start a business, while 18 percent report that their place of worship encourages them to make a profit.

The contradiction interested Dr. Mitchell J. Neubert, associate professor of management and entrepreneurship.

"It's intriguing that our findings suggest faith beliefs can shape motivations and attitudes toward work, and yet so few churches promote discussions of work issues," Neubert said. "When churches do speak about those issues, few seem to speak positively about profit and starting a business, both of which are critical for vibrant local economies."

The survey was designed by Baylor University scholars and conducted by The Gallup Organization in the fall of 2010. The latest analyses were funded by the sociology department of Baylor, the National Science Foundation and the John M. Templeton Foundation.

For additional information and to learn more about the survey, visit