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Does government do too much? That could depend on your view of God.

A survey suggests that Americans who believe in a God who is active in their lives are much more likely to want small government and free markets. The trend could be shaping modern politics.

By G. Jeffrey MacDonaldCorrespondent / September 23, 2011

A Tea Party Patriot holds a sign calling for smaller government during a rally in New Hampshire earlier this year. The strong push for smaller government could be tied at least partly to trends in religious beliefs, according to a new survey.

Brian Snyder/Reuters/File

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The remarkable rise of the tea party’s small government agenda, as well as the early success of Republican presidential candidates like Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann, could have their roots – at least in part – in the evolving way that religious conservatives in the US see faith and economics, according to a new survey.

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People who strongly believe in an engaged God who “has a plan for me,” were much more likely to agree that “the government does too much” and “able-bodied people who are out of work shouldn’t receive unemployment checks,” according to the Baylor University survey, released Sept. 20.

Such people tended to earn less and be less educated than those who don’t believe God has a plan for them. By contrast, those who believe that God is more removed from day-to-day affairs – or who don’t believe in God at all – are more likely to reject small government and economic conservatism.

The findings point to a dichotomy: right-leaning Christians want to rely on a providential God instead of government, while left-leaning Christians argue government has a pivotal role to play in fulfilling a Biblical mandate to care for the poor.

They also help explain, observers say, why Texas Governor Perry and Congresswoman Bachmann have caught fire at times this year with large segments of the Republican electorate. When these candidates refer to a hands-on God, they show they’re on board with both a political agenda and its roots in a certain type of faith.

“Political candidates can promote economic conservatism and lack of regulation merely by reference to an actively engaged God,” says Paul Froese, the Baylor sociologist who presented the findings. “This rhetorical strategy is used quite commonly by Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann. It works because many rank-and-file voters believe that lack of regulation and reduced taxation is part of God’s plan.”

The report is based on a Gallup survey of 1,714 Americans during fall 2010 on a wide range of topics.

To David Woodard, a Clemson University political scientist and GOP pollster in South Carolina, the findings make sense, since economic conservatism can be an expression of faith in a God who provides for human needs.

“The worldview impacts willingness to undertake risk,” Professor Woodard says. In this view, “God sets them free, and He’s also dealing with his creatures. He’s answering their prayers…. God’s hand is upon us [as Americans], and so we try new things.”

Believers in a divine plan for individual lives haven’t always perceived God to be on the side of laissez-faire capitalism. Reinhold Niebuhr, the influential 20th century American theologian, regarded capitalism as incompatible with Christianity because, in his view, the system fostered exploitation of workers.

But in today’s environment, believers in an engaged God seem to harbor few such misgivings.

Baylor’s Professor Froese suggests that, since they’re less educated and less well-off, believers in an engaged God are not surprisingly also more anxious and depressed. And those prone to anxiety are more likely to believe in an angry, wrathful God, who will see that wrongdoers are punished.

“The question is: who is God angry with?” Froese says. For these respondents, “God is angry with government intervention or regulation or anything that interferes with the free market. The word ‘government’ has become a profane object for many of these people.”

For his part, Woodard suggests the antigovernment view stems from confidence in a God who wants to see certain traits flourish in humankind. Because God wants people to have faith, a risky world devoid of guarantees is seen as better than one where risks are minimized (and where faith is therefore not needed). And because God wants people to care for each other, volunteerism and free enterprise need to be unleashed, lest government bureaucracies usurp opportunities for serving neighbor with a faith-filled, personal touch.

If conservatives seem idealistic in all this, that’s because they are, according to Baylor’s survey. Eighty-one percent of conservatives believe in ultimate Truth, versus just 52 percent of liberals. And liberals are 44 percent more likely than conservatives to say it’s useless to put effort into finding life’s purpose.

But conservatives are also feeling chastened in this electoral cycle. After a financial crisis and a tough recession, voters are leery and need convincing that a candidate is trustworthy, Woodard says. Hence they yearn to hear not just acceptable policy positions, but also the deep theological roots that underlie philosophies.

“They’re not asking for candidates to say, ‘I’m born again,’ ” Woodard says of the 70 percent of GOP primary voters who say in his polls that they attend church weekly. “They want to know that because you see man as made in the image of God, you see less role for government, more freedom for human beings, more dignity, protection of life, that kind of stuff. And those things can kind of be taken for granted because of their Christian beliefs.”

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