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 United States see faith and economics, according to a new survey.
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. 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. The findings also help explain, observers say, why Texas Governor Perry and Representative 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. "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 the fall of 2010 on a 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. In this view, "God sets them free, and He's also dealing with His creatures," he says. "He's answering their prayers."
Professor Froese suggests that, since believers in an engaged God are less educated and less well off, they are also more anxious and depressed. And those prone to anxiety are more likely to believe in a wrathful God, who punishes wrongdoers.
"God is angry with government intervention or regulation or anything that interferes with the free market," Froese says.
For his part, Professor Woodard suggests that the antigovernment view stems from confidence in a God who wants to see certain traits flourish, such as trust in Him and communities caring for each other.
This electoral cycle, after a financial crisis and a tough recession, voters are leery and looking for evidence that a candidate is trustworthy, Woodard says. This means regular churchgoers yearn to hear not just policy positions but also the theological roots that underlie philosophies.
"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," he says.