How Your View of God Shapes Your View of the Economy
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.