The Public Religion Research Institute released a report this month surveying the influence of religion on American attitudes toward the economy. I first learned about this survey from the Religion Dispatches blog, where writer Peter Montgomery's big takeaway from it is the surprising finding that "50 percent of white evangelicals say they believe capitalism and the free market are at odds with Christian values." This is a surprise because white evangelicals are thought to be the spiritual base of the Republican party and most of what passes for conservatism in the U.S. However, the survey reveals that "only 44 percent of white evangelicals are economic conservatives." If they are Republicans, Montgomery observes, it's mainly because "nearly two-thirds are social conservatives" for whom "religion is the most important thing in their lives." In Montgomery's analysis, consciously echoing Thomas Frank's, white evangelicals tend to vote Republican because "social" (i.e. moral) issues matter more than their economic interests. This is paraphrased by an unsympathetic writer on the comment thread: "in other words, conservative Christians will vote against their own economic self interest just so they can try to force onto the public an anti-gay, anti-choice, anti-science agenda."
I followed the link trail to the actual survey. It became clear that Montgomery missed one significant detail that might have made the survey findings slightly less surprising. The survey takes into account categories of "economic conservatism" and "social conservatism," defined by responses to survey questions, but also defines a category of "religious conservatives." This is actually a category encompassing all categories, religious conservatives being those who showed themselves "conservative" in economic, social and "theological" orientation. Theological conservatism was defined by whether respondents claimed a personal relationship with God, believed scriptures to be literal truth, and held an "preservationist vs. adaptive view of religious tradition." 38% of respondents proved to be religious conservatives. More so than the broader category of "white evangelicals," this looks like the face of Republican conservatism. Returning to the question of capitalism: "religious conservatives ... express views very different from religious progressives, religious moderates and the nonreligious. Nearly half (48%) of religious conservatives say capitalism and the free market system are consistent with Christian values, compared to 41% who believe they are at odds." Narrowing this down to the specific subcategory of "theological conservatives," respondents thus identified found Christianity and capitalism inconsistent by a narrow margin, 46% to 43%.
It may still be surprising to learn that support for capitalism falls short of a majority even among religious conservatives. By making the point of reference "capitalism and the free market system," the survey avoids the pitfall I suspected, that respondents might not be clear on the meaning of "capitalism" as opposed to "free markets," "free enterprise," etc. The survey leaves unclear why any segment of respondents would deem capitalism inconsistent with Christianity. Respondents were asked to interpret Jesus's injunctions to help the poor. Just half took the presumably "conservative" position that Jesus was calling for voluntary charitable giving, while 41% believed that he was calling for a "more just society." Religious conservatives are somewhat more likely to argue for voluntary charity, 58% saying "individual charity is at the heart of the Biblical call on behalf of the needy." The relevance of this question to capitalism is questionable, but the response may point to a nearly subconscious persistence of the "gospel of works." While many evangelicals presumably deem salvation dependent, on some level, on God's grace rather than human will, they may retain an idea that doing good works counts for something in the afterlife, while passively giving up taxes to the government would not improve their standing with the deity. Theological conservatives have long regarded the "just society" idea with skepticism because their top priority remains to get people through this life saved rather than, for instance, extending life to its comfortable maximum. Many "religious progressives" think differently, though whether theology or ideology ultimately explains the difference remains unclear after more than a century of debates over the so-called social gospel. In any event, it should be obvious that questioning capitalism doesn't necessarily lead to an embrace of socialism, since numerous options remain in between. If religious conservatives question capitalism, it may simply reveal that "freedom" doesn't live up to their expectations of order. Being believers in God, their expectation of order is probably pretty strong. Not only leftists question capitalism, as the history of fascism shows, so the fact that some American reactionaries question capitalism isn't necessarily a good sign for the nation.