In recent decades, “big tent” conservatism has seemed on the brink of collapse, its poles buckling under competing constituencies with “values” voters in one corner pitted against fiscal conservatives in the other. Discussions among academics and media pundits suggest these are two distinct categories of Republicans—the former made up of mainly working-class white evangelicals and the latter historically comprised of higher-income whites. Republican politicians must seek the favor of both special interests, appealing not only to traditional social issues—gay marriage and abortion—but also to economic fare such as reducing government and lowering taxes.
This distinction is central to Thomas Frank’s engaging analysis of the popularity of conservatism in the American Midwest in his 2004 bestseller What’s the Matter with Kansas? Frank championed the narrative that working-class Americans vote against their economic interests, having been lured into the GOP tent largely with what he sees as insincere religious rhetoric. “The people at the top know what they have to do to stay there,” writes Frank, “and in a pinch they can easily overlook the sweaty piety of the new Republican masses, the social conservatives who raise their voices in praise of Jesus but cast their votes for Caesar.”
However compelling this dichotomy may be, it is a false one. As a researcher and social scientist, I have found that economic perspectives are indelibly tied to religious cosmologies. Voters need not choose between God and mammon. Instead, they tend to see their money, the market, and the economy as a reflection of their God.
This finding is a rarity in the annals of social science, where the division between economic and social interests is often reinforced. Pollsters and social scientists think in terms of variables, some measuring economic opinions and others indicating various forms of religiosity. These two are often correlated but their ongoing association is rarely tested directly. Though classical theorists such as Max Weber have famously demonstrated the constant interplay of economic and religious ideologies, contemporary social scientists seldom ask people directly about how their economic position informs their religion, or vice versa. In fact, we often assume that working-class evangelicals struggle to either prioritize their economic interests or remain committed to their religious ethics.
In 2005, I, along with a team of researchers at Baylor, began surveying American religious beliefs, values and behaviors. Last fall, our third installment of the Baylor Religion Survey was released. Our combined research, which included polling from Gallup and dozens of detailed one-on-one interviews, suggests that value and economic concerns are becoming increasingly hard to disentangle. In fact, for many white evangelicals, religious and economic spheres are conceptualized as two sides of the same coin. They describe their worldview as one in which the spiritual and the material are mutually dependent and interactive. And the popularity of this worldview cuts across social class.
This compatibility of social and economic concerns has become apparent, of course, in the Tea Party movement. While Tea Partiers were initially cast as die-hard fiscal conservatives, the movement’s pious rhetoric—along with subsequent polling data—indicated that religious concerns were central to its popularity. Ultimately, the Tea Party movement revealed the extent to which religious and economic beliefs meld in the minds of many frustrated Americans.
To put this more concretely, approximately 31 percent of Americans, many of whom are white evangelical men, believe that God is steering the United States economy, thus fusing their religious and economic interests. These individuals believe in what I call an “Authoritative God.” An Authoritative God is thought to be actively engaged in daily activities and historical outcomes. For those with an Authoritative God, value concerns are synonymous with economic concerns because God has a guiding hand in both. Around two-thirds of believers in an Authoritative God conjoin their theology with free-market economics, creating a new religious-economic idealism. Nearly one-fifth of American voters hold this viewpoint, signaling that it can be a major political force.
Religious-economic idealism is the belief that the free-market works because God is guiding it. (Its adherents are, of course, not your typical laissez-faire, Ayn Rand devotees.) The popularity of this ideology explains two supposed paradoxes. First, it indicates why some religious working-class Americans have embraced the GOP. It is not that these individuals ignore their class interests, but rather that they believe issues of abortion and gay marriage are linked to whether God is willing to help solve both social ills and their economic woes.
Second, the fact that income does not predict whether an American believes in an Authoritative God indicates that this is not a class-based ideology. Instead, it is a cosmic worldview, which appeals across economic divides. Most clearly, it benefits the wealthy because conservative economic policies tend to favor them. But wealthy Americans with an Authoritative God can also have a religious-like devotion to their economic conservatism. In this way, their economic pragmatism transforms into a type of religious dogmatism. And dogmatism does not bend to changing circumstances and outcomes, so that we can expect believers in religious-economic idealism to cling to laissez-faire policies even when they appear not to work.
In sum, religious-economic idealism makes economic and cultural issues fully compatible, which may be a blessing and a curse for the Republican Party. It blesses the GOP with strong support from individuals who may be personally disadvantaged by their economic strategies, but also curses them with an unforgiving and inflexible constituency if political compromise becomes a necessity of governing. In a universe where God decrees no government intervention, any deviation or compromise from the free market is heresy.
What these findings do not explain is why someone who thinks God controls the American economy is necessarily a fiscal conservative. Couldn’t an Authoritative God want a socialist-style controlled economy under the tutelage of a pious chief economist? In Europe, I have found that belief in an Authoritative God is not at all associated with economic conservatism, and in Latvia and the Slovak Republic it even predicts a socialist ideology. Depending on where you are in the world, an Authoritative God is not always a capitalist.
But the United States stands as a clear exception. Americans who feel that “God has a plan” for them and their country are much more likely to think that “success is achieved by ability rather than luck” and that “able-bodied people who are out of work should not receive unemployment checks.” And over half (54 percent) of Americans who think God controls the economy feel that “anything is possible for those who work hard”; in contrast, only one-quarter of Americans who rely on human resourcefulness, rather than God’s plan, feel this way.
Perhaps it is the fervent individualism of American Christianity which makes free market capitalism seem like a Divine mandate. Because evangelicals assert that you alone are responsible for your eternal salvation, it makes sense that the individual is also responsible for his or her economic salvation without government assistance, especially if God is the only assistance you really need.
Today, economic conservatism is inextricably linked to theology. Americans who believe in an Authoritative God simply do not make the same distinction between economic and religious spheres that researchers routinely do. Therefore, it is not enough for a Republican candidate to define himself or herself as mainly a “fiscal conservative” or a “person of faith” to be embraced by believers in the new religious-economic idealism. If he or she is to appeal to the religious-economic idealists, both these things must be claimed in equal measure.
The prudence of this strategy has yet to be seen. The new religious-economic idealism risks further alienating non-religious conservatives and social justice evangelicals, but the remaining true believers are an energetic bunch. Perhaps their fervor—and the fact they count as one-fifth of the electorate—will be enough to inspire GOP success this November. After all, these believers may depend on divine guidance, but they don’t leave elections solely in God’s hands.
Paul Froese is a sociology professor at Baylor University and a research fellow at the Institute for Studies of Religion. He is the author of America’s Four Gods: What We Say about God—and What That Says About Us and The Plot to Kill God: Findings from the Soviet Experiment in Secularization.