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.
E.J. Dionne, a Washington Post columnist and a Brookings fellow, focused on the difference between religious liberals and religious conservatives, saying that in contemporary politics, the very notion of a liberal religious person is discounted.
“Paul Begala once said that people tend to think of religious progressive as one of those internally contradictory phrases, like ‘jumbo shrimp,’ ” Dionne said.
Dionne sees a “social justice” thread running through American religiosity that ties together many religious people on the left and right.
“Among people of faith in general there is a strong consensus on the need for compassion and fairness for those in need," Dionne said, even among conservatives. He said that more than 60 percent of both theological conservatives and social conservatives “support increasing the minimum wage to $10 an hour.”
Both groups also by large margins see the gap between the rich and poor as growing, and see a role for government in taking care of people who can't take care of themselves.
While Dionne said that this pattern is not consistent — three in five Americans, for example, think that government has “gotten bigger because it has gotten involved in things that people should do for themselves” — he suggested there was at least an opening to use religion as a bridge across the ideological divide.
God and values
The country is split down the middle on one area — whether “it is necessary to believe in God in order to be moral and have good values.”
While Americans were closely divided overall, women were 11 points more likely to agree. A majority of white Americans rejected the proposition, while blacks and Hispanics overwhelmingly favored it. Sixty-seven percent of conservatives said yes, while 65 percent of liberals said no.
There was a huge socioeconomic divide on the question. Those of low-income levels or low-education levels strongly favored the God and morality link, while those with higher education and higher income rejected it.
Galston suggested that 50 years ago there would have been a much broader consensus in favor of some version of the God and morality link. Now the country is sharply divided, and the trend is moving “toward a rejection of the necessity of the belief in God in order to have good character and the right values.”
“Who knows what kind of society will be,” Galston added, “but some of you are young enough that you will live to see it."