views of god

Can View of God Affect Desire for Economic Justice?

Collin Bastian on January 21, 2022

Sparingly few commands are more consistently laid out in the Bible than the exhortation to care for the poor. Whether one considers the vast number of the Psalms and Proverbs which detail the importance of providing nurture to the poor (and the blessings that accrue to those who do so), or Jesus’ reminder in Matthew 25 that whatever we do to the least of our brethren, so we do to Jesus Himself, the importance of loving and caring for those in poverty is an utmost concern for the true Christian believer. But what if one’s likelihood of carrying out this task is determined by an understanding of how God operates in the world and deals with us at a personal level?

Dr. Paul Froese, a sociologist at Baylor University, recently delivered a talk concerning this very topic in December on the Poverty, God, Politics Webcast hosted by David Beckmann, the president emeritus of Bread for the World and the founder and former president of the Alliance to End Hunger. Froese, who has been the Director of the Baylor Religion Surveys since 2005, notes that he has been drawn to what he calls a “moral foundations theory” which supposes “that people have…core moral ideas about the world” which can determine “specific preferences and attitudes” that one may have.

“I was kind of captivated by this literature,” Froese mused, “and I thought, ‘well, how do you measure a person’s moral worldview?’” Froese claims he turned to the old idea that “the God that you believe in is a reflection of you on some level.” He then noted that twentieth century research expanded upon this idea, supposing that people’s “relationships with God would be somehow mirroring how they related to other people.”

So, what are the possible relationship configurations between an individual and God, according to Froese? Drawing upon past research conducted through a test made available through the Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA) website and a book he co-wrote with Christopher Bader in 2010, America’s Four Gods: What We Say about God and What that Says about Us, Froese has spent a long time analyzing this idea. He explains that there were two dimensions along which people diverge in the data: “one was the extent to which people felt that God was engaged with them and the world,” whereas the other was “to what extent…God feel[s] wrathful or critical or punishing to the person.”

This allowed Froese to create a diagram with two axes, with the y-axis determining whether God was more or less present in the world, and the x-axis determining how judgmental respondents perceived God to be, thus creating four primary quadrants for experiencing God. Froese dubbed the quadrant depicting a present but judgmental God the “Authoritative God,” the quadrant describing a present but non-judgmental God the “Benevolent God,” the quadrant delineating an absent but judgmental God the “Critical God,” and the quadrant illustrating an absent and non-judgmental God the “Distant God.”

Regarding the intersection of these various views of God and one’s own moral and political propensities, Froese notes that “authoritative Gods are related to…conservative politics” while those who believe in a distant God are more likely to have “left-wing liberal politics.” Republican voters, therefore, are more likely to believe in an active and engaged God, while Democrats, Froese found, were more likely to believe in a God who was less active in the world. Indeed, Froese further noted that among Democrats, “almost a third” of the data pool were in the group that self-identified as being “atheist/agnostic.”

When Froese first attempted to gauge the relationship between one’s relationship to God and one’s views about economic justice, he asked questions to respondents along the lines of “‘Should government provide health insurance?’, ‘Should the government reduce income differences?’, ‘Should the government give free college tuition?’”, and also included questions pertaining to the federal government reducing racial disparities and providing reparations.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the political relationships defined above, Froese found “a clear trend in each of these questions where people with a…distant God” and those identifying as “atheist/agnostics are much more supportive of these kinds of federal programs, whereas people who believe in…this more engaged God are less likely overall” to do so.

Naturally, Froese began to wonder whether his measures of examining economic justice were flawed. “One possibility,” Froese stated, “is that maybe people with more engaged Gods” think “that poverty and social problems should be fixed through other routes, other than…the federal government.” And indeed, Froese found that the data seems to bear this hypothesis out: he found “a very strong association that as a” person comes to “believe God is more caring, more engaged, more close to them, all groups” were more likely to respond positively to the assertion that ‘it is very important to take care of the sick and needy if one wishes to be a good person.’

Ultimately, “belief in an engaged God,” according to Froese, “significantly increases economic justice support for conservatives,” a phenomenon which greatly lessens the gap observed from earlier questions between believers in an engaged God and believers in a less engaged God on matters of economic justice.

Beckmann, remarking on the talk on his own website, “expressed disappointment that Froese’s findings show that religious people in America tend to be less supportive of policies to reduce poverty than non-religious people,” and claimed that “more religious teaching about the importance of public policy is clearly needed.” But what Beckmann appears to be encouraging in his comments here is not a commitment to a renewal of faith, but rather a commitment to the idea of government policy.

As followers of Christ, our mission to the poor should not entail commitment to solutions that are inherently carried out by the federal government, and neither should our focus be on ensuring that all solutions involve no governmental intervention. Rather, our focus should be on doing what most helps the poor, whatever solution that requires. And as previous research on charitable giving has reported, conservative tax filers, and especially those who are religious, are the most renowned for their generosity towards the poor. What is needed, therefore, is not blind faith in federal policy, but a recommitment to our engaged Lord Jesus Christ, and to his command to be engaged in helping the poor.

  1. Comment by Dan W on January 21, 2022 at 7:11 am

    You could use the same criteria to chart a parents engagement with their children – authoritative, benevolent, critical, distant. It would be interesting to see how parental engagement relates to our relationship with God, government and our neighbors.

  2. Comment by Jeff on January 21, 2022 at 7:37 am

    >> What is needed, therefore, is not blind faith in federal policy, but a recommitment to our engaged Lord Jesus Christ, and to his command to be engaged in helping the poor.

    Yes, exactly. Charity is a (the?) commandment to the believer, not the responsibility of an almighty Government.

  3. Comment by Lynn R on January 21, 2022 at 11:22 am

    I totally agree that a personal relationship with God impacts our acts, charitable giving included.

  4. Comment by Phil on January 21, 2022 at 12:49 pm

    This study would seem to suggest first that a person’s understanding and relationship to God can be easily boiled down into neat little boxes or quadrants, like one finds on social media sites telling you what your politics are. Secondly it seems to suggest that that understanding of God is relatively fixed and will inform one’s other attitudes, beliefs, and experiences. But isn’t the opposite true as well? That where we are in life, what we’re experiencing, and how we relate to others and world informs how we view God? This study would benefit first from a larger study of the people themselves. Not just their economic beliefs, but their economic class and situation, their cultural and family background, whether they’ve experienced hardship, tragedy, trauma, or other experiences. It would also benefit from asking them point blank whether their understandings of God have changed or evolved overtime and why they think that might be. I imagine if most of us looked critically at our own lives and experiences, we would find there have been many times when we’ve felt God is both closer and more distant. I imagine too the anger v. love dichotomy is less simple and more fluctuating than this study might suggest. Another possibly might be to come back to the subjects interviewed in a couple years, sample them again and make notes of changes in attitudes. God may not easily change, but we do, thus so will our opinions of God.

  5. Comment by Wayne Parrish on January 22, 2022 at 5:45 am

    It is my view that care for the welfare of others is too much subject to corruption if left to elected officials. Does anyone doubt that offers to benefit individuals or certain groups at the expense of the whole influences elections? We have an individual responsibility for the well being of others. That responsibility cannot be laid off on politicians without harm to those in true need, our country and ourselves

  6. Comment by Rebecca L. on January 24, 2022 at 3:56 pm

    A non-Christian, Theodore Dalrymple wrote a great book, “Life At The Bottom,” on the subject of the governments in the first world countries handling poverty without Christianity. Life for the poor is becoming more and more violent and bleak with governments in charge of “helping.” As Dalrymple stated the 1st world poor today live in spiritual, moral, and cultural poverty, not economic poverty. Two futurist movies that show the state of the poor masses, thanks to the government, are “Idiocracy,” the movie and “Clockwork Orange.” And the future is now. There are videos on Youtube showing all the cities in the US with the homeless encampments. Plug in a city and the word homeless and fine out what the government isn’t telling you. And btw, Christians donate more to the poor than any other single group, and they send out missionaries willing to live in poverty in order to really help people. And the government schools are turning out people unable to do any kind of legitimate work even after 12 or more years in school.

  7. Comment by Preston on March 1, 2022 at 7:12 pm

    Could we pair up individuals fighting obesity with those who suffer hunger?

The work of IRD is made possible by your generous contributions.

Receive expert analysis in your inbox.