Capitalism and Religion

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according to Marx, is the opium of the people, and the sociologists at
Baylor would be hard pressed to disagree. In their latest survey
of Americans’ values and beliefs, disembargoed at 12:01 a.m. today,
they find that the 41 percent plurality who “strongly agree” that “God
has a plan for me” are disproportionately poorer and less educated than
the rest of us, but also disproportionately more likely to
strongly agree that the government does too much, that able-bodied
people who are out of work shouldn’t get unemployment checks, that
“success is achieved by ability rather than luck,” and that “some are
meant to be rich and some are meant to be poor.”

Less lapidarily
than Marx, the report declares that these folks’ “belief in God’s plan
mitigates how we expect demographics and attitudes to correlate.” More
pointedly, researcher Paul Froese told the religion newswriters last
Saturday that our most religious citizens appear to have extended their
belief in divine planning to the invisible hand of the market. Thomas
Frank would say that that’s what’s the matter with Kansas. I’d say that
the Baylorites have come up with some additional evidence for why it’s
been so easy for “social conservatives” to embrace Tea Party economics.

But on the other, less invisible, hand, back in April the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) found
that more Americans believe that Christian values are at odds with
capitalism and the free market than believe they are compatible–and
that goes for Christians no less than for those who identify with no
religion. Unsurprisingly, Republicans and (even more) Tea Partiers broke
the other way. And in an example of what’s not wrong with Kansas, those
who earned $100K or more annually were twice as likely to believe that
Christianity is compatible with capitalism as those earning $30K or

So how compatible are these two surveys? Well, I’d say the
Baylor study is pretty compatible with the conservative values of the
Templeton Foundation, its principal underwriter. And the PRRI study is
pretty compatible with the liberal values of the Ford Foundation, its principal underwriter.
But as to being compatible with each other, not so much–unless, of
course, you believe that when it comes to abstract questions like these,
survey research is an imprecise and easily manipulated instrument.

Update: Robby Jones, CEO of PRRI, called in with a correction that while the Ford Foundation provides his organization with general support, this particular study was not underwritten by them but rather was a collaborative venture with the good folks at the Religion News Service. Duly noted. More broadly, Jones wanted me to understand how careful PRRI is not to put its thumb on the scales when it does a survey; i.e. no push-polling, no prior clearance of questions with funders, etc. Fair enough–and indeed, it’s been a great boon to to have PRRI around over the past two years. Part of the reason, however, is that it asks different questions than some of the others in the field. And those questions tend to yield results more compatible with progressive religious values than those of others. I’d argue, for example, the “capitalism” retains something of a negative valence in American discourse, such that more people are likely to consider “capitalism” odds with Christianity than, say, “free market economics” or “economic liberty.” OK?