When August's Republican National Convention embraced people of faith, the love fest went well beyond a few social issue planks in the platform or a benediction from a cardinal critic of ObamaCare.
Sure, opposition to gay marriage and abortion struck chords with some of the devout. But a wider segment likely resonated with a broader, more foundational message that says in effect: we share your trust in a provider God. Hence we share your disdain for “nanny” state programs that aim to remove risk and foster reliance on Caesar.
Critics on the left have assailed GOP budget proposals as abandonment of professed Christian commitments to the vulnerable and as capitulation to the allegedly unchristian approach of self-reliance guru Ayn Rand.
But sociological research from Baylor University shows that highly religious people see no such dichotomy. They’re certain it’s better to trust in God than in government, and nothing – not even a socially conservative agenda – signals a politician’s sympathy for that worldview better than celebration of risk-taking, in business and elsewhere.
In a 2010 survey of more than 1,700 respondents, Baylor researchers explored how people of faith view factors contributing to financial success. They also looked at religious beliefs and practices of political conservatives, liberals and entrepreneurs.
Their discoveries chart how faith and small government philosophies often go hand-in-hand. Conservatives and risk-taking entrepreneurs tend to exhibit more confidence in God’s provisional ways than liberals and non-entrepreneurs. And die-hard believers are far more likely than religious skeptics to expect success will come to those who have ability and work hard.
Consider a few findings. Entrepreneurs, who according to Baylor are more likely to be Republicans than Democrats, are also more likely than non-entrepreneurs to pray several times a day or meditate. More than 30 percent of entrepreneurs carry out these practices, versus fewer than 25 percent of non-entrepreneurs. It seems those who opt for a risky career path are a bit more inclined to seek guidance from above, too. It seems when GOP rallies emphasize, “We did build it,” many could finish the thought by adding, “with the help of God.”
Does confidence matter? You betcha. Those who met Baylor’s profile as non-worriers were more than twice as likely as worriers to attend religious services weekly, read the Bible weekly and consider themselves very religious.
This doesn’t necessarily mean religiousness dispels worry. It might be that non-worriers are also extroverts who enjoy all the socializing that comes with faith activities.
But it does tell us the observant aren’t as prone as are the lapsed or the skeptical to feel worried, tense or anxious for more than 10 days in the past month (Baylor’s definition of a worrier). It would follow that one who doesn’t worry much about the future also isn’t eager for government to intervene and help stave off worst case scenarios.
Believers have as much, if not more, reason to worry as those of little faith. Among those who strongly agreed that “God has a plan for me,” only 17 percent earn upwards of $100,000. Just 33 percent of them have a college degree. Yet they were far more likely (53 percent) to say “the government does too much” than were those who strongly disagree with the notion that “God has a plan for me” (21 percent).
Emerging is a portrait of a worldview shared by millions of Americans whom the GOP is actively courting. They believe it’s good to trust God by taking risks for worthy causes. This might involve joining the military, having a child instead of an abortion, or starting a business on a shoestring. It certainly doesn’t involve collecting unemployment checks if you’re able-bodied, at least according to 53 percent of those who strongly agree that “God has a plan for me.” (Those who are less certain of God’s plan for them are also proportionally more open to government-issued unemployment checks for the able-bodied).
These values are well-known to the GOP. Republicans have long held sway as God’s Old Party, but they’ve made further inroads since 2008, according to Pew surveys of 15,000 registered voters in 2011. The largest gains of the past three years, in terms of percent who say they identify or lean GOP, came among people of faith: Mormons, Jews, white Catholics and mainline Protestants. Now 70 percent of evangelicals lean Republican, as do 80 percent of Mormons. Meanwhile 71 percent of atheists lean Democratic, as do 61 percent of the religiously unaffiliated.
The neat lines from doctrine to pro-business ideology, however, beg a few pesky questions. If God can provide via market forces, why can’t He provide via government programs, too? And if the GOP is so keen to trust God, not government, why must a host of industries (agriculture, energy and so on) depend on government support?
What’s more, all the lines don’t point in the same direction. African-American Protestants, for instance, lean Democratic to the tune of 88 percent. Yet according to Baylor, they’re almost three times more likely than either Catholics or other Protestants to hear in church that they should start businesses. Entrepreneurial people of faith can apparently rally behind Democrats as long as the group politics make sense.
Still, links between faith and political praise for risk-taking offer clues into what voters might feel is at stake. These are, after all, people of faith. While they care about issues from debts to war and education, they might care even more about whether faith ultimately flourishes or fizzles in America. If faith tends to thrive amidst risk-taking, will faith fade when risk is mitigated by a provider government? For those who believe, there could be no greater loss. In that sense, safety net issues in 2012 are about much more than bread and butter.
Beliefnet Contributing Editor G. Jeffrey MacDonald is a journalist, ordained minister and author of Thieves in the Temple: The Christian Church and the Selling of the American Soul . For more information visit www.thievesinthetemplebook.com and www.gjeffreymacdonald.com