Prof. Paul Froese, Professor of Sociology at Baylor University, on the new Baylor Religious Survey’s findings, revealing that people who believe in a God who is actively involved in their lives are significantly more likely to oppose government aid to the needy and to believe there is one right solution to societal problems.
RUSH TRANSCRIPT: Dr. Paul Froese, Baylor University[REV. DR. C. WELTON GADDY, HOST]: Welcome back to State of Belief Radio, I’m Welton Gaddy.
For many progressive people of faith, it’s a simple message found in the sacred texts of all major religions. Care for the less fortunate. Feed the hungry. House the homeless. Clothe the naked. That’s why the current budget-cutting rhetoric, relentlessly aimed at reducing benefits for the most needy, is so deeply disturbing for so many of us. This is in direct conflict with some of our most deeply-held values.
And it then seems profoundly hypocritical that again and again, some of the most prominent, self-identified people of faith, usually conservative faith, seem most contemptuous of preserving government services for the poor.
Now here comes what could be at least a partial answer to this puzzling question.
This past week, a new study came out that quickly made its way into the headlines. The Baylor Religious Survey was based on Gallup Polls spanning half a decade, and it draws some remarkable conclusions about the impact of faith on how one views these issues. I think this is really big, and helpful. And I’m very pleased that this brings Paul Froese, Professor of Sociology at Baylor University and co-author of the Religious Survey, back to State of Belief again. Welcome back![DR. PAUL FROESE, GUEST]: Well, thank you for having me. [WG]: So, what were your fundamental findings? The survey has gotten a lot of attention thanks to the differences you found between people of faith who believe in a God who’s personally involved in their lives and those who don’t… What are the essentials we need to know? [PF]: I think, you know, there’s lots of findings; but the one that’s been kind of making headlines recently is this finding that people with a more engaged God tend to also have very strong feelings about conservative economics. And so, specifically what I mean there is that when you hear the phrase “God bless America,” some people take that very literally and other people take it figuratively. For those who take it, let’s say, more literally, that God is actually kind of guiding the economy, guiding the United States – those people tend to also express very conservative economic views. So, for instance: no government regulation; less government; lower taxation; and, as you said, kind of, at the opening, reducing a lot of the social welfare benefits that we currently have. So we found a very strong connection between these two things, and it could go the other way – so this was kind of a surprising finding. [WG]: Yeah, I think so; and, you know, one of the first things that came into my mind, Paul, is that a lot of the people that would fall into that particular category are also people that do a lot of biblical proof-texting to support their particular position – whatever it is – and it seems like here that a view of God, a particular view of God, trumps even the Scripture to which a person turns. Is that fair? [PF]: You know, that’s a good question, and that’s a tough one to answer, because one of the things you never know when you’re surveying the public is, you know, I don’t know the extent to which people are reading the bible or their knowledge of that text; so we’re really just kind of picking up their opinions about things. And one thing I can say on this point is that people who tend to conjoin this very active vision of God with economic conservatism tend to be poor and less educated. And so, in this sense, I doubt if there’s a lot of, maybe, scriptural defense of why these two attitudes go together; it’s simply that we’re finding that, for many people, they do. [WG]: I see. Well, I think it’s helpful that we see at least an explanation of this strange correlation that’s developed between religious conservatism and fiscal conservatism. The other question I have upfront is: is there another equation? Does this principle of correlation relate just to fiscal conservatism, or does it relate across the board to conservatism? [PF]: Yes, it tends to relate across the board to conservatism. I think why this finding was of interest this time around is, in the past we tended to see certain measures of religiosity correlated very highly with political conservatism – and that could be, kind of, social conservatism, sexual conservatism, but not so much on economic conservatism. And I think that’s why a lot of people talked about conservative value voters and that they were voting for Republicans for, kind of, on issues of abortion and gay marriage; and I think this new data is showing that, although that certainly is true, they also tend to buy into a very conservative economic strategy. And that, I think, is a little bit new. [WG]: I’m Welton Gaddy. I’m talking to Paul Froese, professor of sociology at Baylor University and coauthor of the new Baylor Religious Survey. Paul, we were talking about the big difference it seems to make in a believer’s position on aid to the poor depending on whether they see God as personally involved in their lives. Are we in any way getting into “people are poor because God wants it that way” territory? [PF]: I think… That’s a very good question, and this is something that we’re kind of struggling to understand in our data, and that is: the extent to which certain religious beliefs might predict, I guess, what you might call a kind of an economic fatalism in the sense that things are just the way they are, and there’s nothing that can be done about it. One of the things, I think, that we’re finding is that people who link strong religious beliefs to economic conservatism think that the state of nature is a free market; and that if you mess with the free market in terms of government regulation or some type of taxation, that then you are disrupting a state of nature that God wanted us to have. And so, really, we’re finding that many of these believers see government as really a profane object, and I think that’s the reason why they are against many of the liberal kind of suggestions on how to fix our economy – because they see conservative theory as, really, an article of faith. [WG]: You know, I understand that. I can’t help but be remembering, as we talk, a friend of mine in your hometown – where Baylor is – telling his congregation one Sunday morning “If you will promise to tithe to the church, I promise you that God will see to it that there are at least 12 new millionaires in this church.” Now that’s a hands-on God! And what strikes me about this whole discussion is that people struggling in this economy hear these kinds of words, feel – as you’ve documented in this survey – how they feel, and then sometimes these people don’t know how to put all that together, and so they’re very vulnerable to authoritarian leadership, which further enhances conservatism. Now, am I just thinking completely out of the box, or do you see some validity to that? [PF]: I think so. I mean, I guess we have to kind of start with how you or I view what really would be helpful to people in poverty, right? [WG]: Right. [PF]: And so there’s going to be disagreements on that, and there’s going to be fair disagreements, right – none of us can completely understand the economy and what might best help the poorest population. But, you know, kind of on that note is: one of the things that is interesting is that you do have, for this population – again, I’m talking about people who have very strong religious beliefs that they connect to an economic conservatism – they tend to be poor and less educated; and so you could see this as a function of: these people tend to vote against policies that seem to be in their favor – increasing spending on education, increasing spending on social welfare. These things, you would think, would be to their economic interest to vote for, but they’re not. And one of the reasons is that they don’t believe that. Now, how they came to that belief system, it seems like you’re arguing that maybe they’re being rooked or fooled by the Republican Party, or conservative elites, and I think that’s clearly a very valid perspective. [WG]: Yeah and I would include, just to be totally candid, I would include their pastors as well, because some pastors know how to do this well. It increases the church budget and, you know, does some other things also… But that’s another story. [PF]: Can I just add one thing to that? [WG]: Sure. [PF]: It’s also a very simple story too. [WG]: Exactly. [PF]: Because, you know, I think a lot of time more, kind of, liberal economic plans are complicated. They’re difficult to explain; whereas the idea of: “The government is a bureaucracy, get government out of my life, reduce my taxes” is a very simple message, and so, in that sense, I think it has an appeal. [WG]: And Paul, I think your survey is pretty clear in showing that these people do indeed think: “If God is in control and in my life, there is one way to get this done, and that’s God’s way; and God’s way is always one way; and we may not understand, but that’s the way it is.” [PF]: Exactly. And I think that’s a very important point, because what we’re finding in the survey is this group of the population tends to see conservative economic theory as the one and only truth. [WG]: Yeah. [PF]: And not just simply as theory to be placed along other theories or other perspectives on the economy. [WG]: Is there any good news in your study for people who think more progressively? [PF]: Well… [WG]: I didn’t mean to throw you. [PF]: …There is. It depends on what your most important issue is to you, but one of the things, I think, is that liberals tend to have – and I’m talking about, kind of, historically – have done very well on changing the value system of the population in the sense that, you know, you think of the civil rights movement of course, but then, after that, attitudes towards gays have become much more tolerant over the last thirty years, and some of these other value issues… Also, attitudes towards women in the workplace have become much more liberal over the last thirty years, so if somebody’s a liberal they can see that as good news; but what the bad news for a liberal would be is that American attitudes towards the economy have simply gotten more conservative over the last thirty years. So in that sense, that’s maybe a loss. [WG]: Paul Froese, professor of Sociology at Baylor University, co-author of the new Baylor Religious Survey is also the co-author of America’s Four Gods: What We Say about God – and What That Says about Us. Man, you all are doing really great research and publishing, and I am so appreciative and want to encourage you to keep it up, and let us keep talking with you. [PF]: Wonderful. Thank you. [WG]: OK. We’ll see you again on State of Belief Radio, and thank you for this time. [PF]: Great. It was a lot of fun.
State of Belief is based on the proposition that religion has a positive and healing role to play in the life of the nation. The show explains and explores that role by illustrating the vast diversity of beliefs in America – the most religiously diverse country in the world – while exposing and critiquing both the political manipulation of religion for partisan purposes and the religious manipulation of government for sectarian purposes.
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Through interviews with celebrities and newsmakers and field reports from around the country, State of Belief explores the intersection of religion with politics, culture, media, and activism, and promotes diverse religious voices in a religiously pluralistic world.
The host of State of Belief, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, leads the national nonpartisan grassroots and educational organizations, The Interfaith Alliance and The Interfaith Alliance Foundation and serves as the Pastor for Preaching and Worship at Northminster (Baptist) Church in Monroe, Louisiana. Welton is one of 20 international religious leaders on the Council of 100 Leaders, a group created by the World Economic Forum to improve dialogue and understanding between the Western and Islamic worlds.
While ministering to churches with a message of inclusion, Welton emerged as a leader among progressive and moderate Baptists. Among his many leadership roles, he is the immediate past President of the Alliance of Baptists and is a twenty-year member of the Commission of Christian Ethics of the Baptist World Alliance. His past leadership roles include serving as a member of the General Council of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, President of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and Chair of the Pastoral Leadership Commission of the Baptist World Alliance.
Prior to the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, Welton served in many leadership roles in the SBC including membership on the convention’s Executive Committee from 1980-1984 and Director of Christian Citizenship Development of the Christian Life Commission from 1973-1977.
Welton received his undergraduate degree from Union University in Tennessee and his doctoral degree and divinity training from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.