Capitalism, Government, and Religion

Last Thursday the Public Religion Research Institute, in cooperation with the the Governance Studies Program at the Brookings Institution, published a report titled Do Americans Believe Capitalism & Government Are Working?  Religious Left, Religious Right & the Future of the Economic Debate.  

The survey on which the report was based, a very professionally designed phone poll conducted last month, has already been discussed below in a July 18 post by Paul Moses.  Having been invited to be part of a panel at  the Washington event introducing the report, I worked my way through it in considerable detail and am adding my own observations.

Here are some of the basic findings about the economy, inequality, capitalism, and government aid and competence:  

Whether one looks at Americans by ethnicity or race, by educational level, by party affiliation, or by generation, there is unusual agreement that the lack of jobs is the nation's number one economic problem.  There is also a general pessimism about the economic future.  Almost two-thirds of the population believe that the government should be doing more to decrease the gap between rich and the poor, and should provide a safety net to take care of people who can't care for themselves.   Less than 6 of 10 Americans think capitalsim is working well while more than 4 in 10 think that it isn't.  More than half think that unequal chances in life is a big problem.     

But more than two thirds also say that the federal government is "broken," either partially (40%) or "completely" (26%).

There's a lot more about personal responsibility, greed, the importance of family stability, the minimum wage (73% favor increasing it to $10 per hour), and health care.  It's all analyzed by age group, party loyalty (Democrat, Republican, Independent), ethnicity and race, gender, income, and religion (white evangelical Christians, mainline Christians, Black Protestants, white Catholics, Hispanic Catholics, other Catholics, other Christians, non-Christians, and the nonreligious or religiously unaffiliated.

A lot of the more detailed results are not surprising.  White evangelicals and Republicans and more affluent people are less apt to see economic problems or favor government remedies.  Blacks, Hispanics, nonChristians, and the nonreligious are more apt to.  White Catholics and mainline Christians fall in between.  

But some findings are quite unexpected.  When asked which came nearest to their own views, 44% of Americans said that capitalism and the free market system were "at odds with Christian values" compared to 41% who said that capitalism and the free market system were "consistent" with Christian values.  I was doubly surprised that only 39% of white evangelicals chose "consistent" as nearest their views and 50% chose "at odds."  It was also interesting that Hispanic Catholics were more likely than white Catholics to say "consistent" (49% to 45%) and less likely to say "at odds" (39% to 43%), although I'm not quite sure of the statistical significance.  

One observation about all this that I made at Brookings was that a lot of these findings are two-edged.  (E.J. Dionne and William Galston also made the point.)  Thus large percentages of Americans see economic problems and favor government action to remedy them.  But an equally large percentage doubts the competence of the federal government. Also more Americans saw the growth of the government as stemming from unjustifiable rather than justifiable reasons.  Here's another example:  Well over a majority of Americans (56%) thought that the government should guarantee health insurance for everyone "even if it means raising taxes,"  Yet the population is evenly split between those for and those against repealing Obamacare (42% in each camp).  

To me this pointed to the importance of the way issues are posed and explained to the public. "It is clearly the case that different ways of framing economic and social justice questions provide each side with opportunities to move opinion," Dionne and Galston stated. 

Besides the findings on the economy, government, and values, the report also offered an analysis of "religious progressives."  Several years ago, the Public Religion Research Institute did a study for Brookings on the Tea Party movement and the religious right.  This examination of the religious left was a kind of bookend.  In Washington I had a lot say about this part of the report, and I'll post on it separately.   



Peter Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal and religion writer for the New York Times, is a University Professor Emeritus at Fordham University and author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.

Also by this author
Why we love "guv'mint"

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads