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Survey finds surprising results on religion, politics

Published: Saturday, July 20 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Most white evangelicals think capitalism is working, but half of them also think it is incompatible with Christian values, according to a survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution.

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Most white evangelicals think capitalism is working, but half of them also think it is incompatible with Christian values.

Sixty-two percent of Hispanic Americans think that the decline of the two-parent households and family instability are primary causes of economic stress in America.

These are just two of the findings in a new survey of more than 2,000 American adults conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution, which was released this week at a Brookings Institution panel in Washington, D.C.

”One of the striking findings of the survey was pessimism about economic mobility,” said Robbie Jones, executive director of PRRI, which spearheaded the research that focused on religious perspectives on economic opportunity and inequality in America. He said that one of the founding mythologies of American political culture is the idea that hard work leads to success, adding that the "idea is in trouble."

The researchers asked respondents to look back at the previous generation and forward to the next and judge which was better off. Nearly six in 10 in the millennial generation (born from the 1980s to about 2000) said that their parents’ generation was better off than their own.

Women vs. men

At a Brookings panel discussion this week, Bill Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, focused first on gender differences in the report. He said that women are more liberal than men, according to the survey.

However on a few questions, women were more conservative than men, Galston said. They were more likely than men to believe that “encouraging personal responsibility is extremely important," more likely to think that too many people try to get ahead without hard work, and more likely to see family breakdown as a root of economic distress.

"I have to say, I was personally surprised by that finding,” Galston said, but he did offer a theory to explain the result. “I can frame all three of these as women's response to the vagaries of male behavior," he said, hinting that many women form these opinions after watching men behave badly.

Galston said that women are systematically more religious than men. Women are more inclined to think that religion is indispensable to values and to think that their own religion is ordained by God. By 64 percent to 56 percent, women agreed that "God has granted America a special role in human history."

Capitalism and religion

Jones also pointed to concerns about gaps between rich and poor. Capitalism is judged to be "working" by a majority of Americans, including a majority of independents, Democrats and Republicans, he said.

But there was less support for capitalism's compatibility with Christian values. Pluralities of white evangelicals (50 percent), black Protestants (49 percent) and the religiously unaffiliated (46 percent) said that capitalism is not compatible with Christian ethics.

Socioeconomic status was the most critical variable in how people responded to the compatibility of Christianity and capitalism. “Those at the higher end of the economic spectrum are more likely to see them as compatible," Jones said, "while those at the lower end were more likely to see them at odds."

White evangelicals and white Catholics were not as concerned about unequal opportunity, but all other religious groupings showed majorities concerned about inequality in life chances, the survey found. The highest responses were black Protestants at 76 percent and Hispanic Catholics at 64 percent.

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