Perceptions of God make Democrats more conservative, Republicans more liberal in some ways

February 21, 2018

Republicans who believe that God is highly engaged with humanity are like Democrats -- more liberal -- when it comes to social and economic justice issues, according to a Baylor University study.

"Partisanship explains only so much. Images of God reveal deep moral perspectives that affect the ways in which Americans understand justice, so much so that they can blur the lines of partisan politics," said researcher Robert Thomson, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Rice University.

The study -- "God, Party and the Poor: How Politics and Religion Interact to Affect Economic Justice Attitudes" -- is published in the journal Sociological Forum.

In previous research, Thomson and co-author Paul Froese, Ph.D., Baylor professor of sociology, found Republicans and Democrats who believe God is highly judgmental tend to agree about issues of retributive justice, such as capital punishment.

"Liberals with a 'strict father' image of God are more inclined to support harsher criminal punishments and military solutions to foreign conflicts because they adhere to a theology of retribution and just deserts," Froese said. "It appears that Americans who see God as wrathful are quicker to support policies which seek an eye-for-an-eye outcome."

In the new study, Froese and Thomson found that Republicans who view God as actively involved in the world tend to support more generous welfare policies, in opposition to their party's platform.

"Conservatives who feel close to God tend to go to church more, volunteer more, but also more likely to want help from the government to take care of the poor," Froese said. "Republicans with a distant God tend be less compassionate."

Froese and Thomson used data from the 2007 wave of the Baylor Religion Survey, a national cross-sectional survey developed by Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion and administered by the Gallup Organization. The sample size was 1,588 respondents, excluding atheists because they did not have an image of God to compare with those of other respondents. The group's makeup included 41 percent Republicans, 37 percent Democrats and 22 percent Independent.

Respondents were asked:

Additionally, respondents were asked to respond to how religious they were on a four-point scale; and how frequently they attended religious services, with answers ranging from zero ("Never") to 8 ("Several times a week").

Researchers noted that typically, Republicans are consistently and distinctly more conservative on both issues of social justice and retributive justice than Democrats. Put simply, conservatism predicts negative views towards social justice, specifically (1) distributing wealth more evenly, (2) improving the standard of living for ethnic minorities, (3) seeking social and economic justice and (4) taking care of the sick and needy. Conservatism also predicts positive attitudes towards retributive justice, specifically, (1) keeping the death penalty, (2) expanding authority to fight terrorism, (3) punishing criminals more harshly and (4) affirming the importance of serving in the military.

While the GOP opposes efforts to distribute wealth more evenly through taxation and welfare programs, some Republicans feel a personal obligation to assist in nongovernmental ways, researchers said. Because Republicans are more likely to be active Christians than Democrats when it comes to affiliating with a church, they are more likely to donate time and money to charity than more secular Americans.

"Republicans with a deeply engaged God are consistently liberal on issues of social justice," Froese said. "And Democrats with a highly judgmental God are consistently conservative on issues of retributive justice."

Baylor University

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