What Kind of Markets Would Jesus Want?

A new survey suggests that income changes people's religious worldviews.

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Would Jesus want free markets?

A new survey suggests the American public is divided on the question. Fully, 44 percent of Americans believe capitalism and Christianity are at odds with each other, and 41 percent believe the two ideologies are consistent with each other, according to a new survey from the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution.

However, those numbers diverge widely when income is taken into account, even among the subset of Christian Americans. Among Christians who make under $30,000 per year, only 35 percent say capitalism is consistent with Christian values, while 50 percent say it's at odds with Christianity. Meanwhile, among Christians who make $100,000 or more, the reverse is true: 59 percent say capitalism and Christianity are consistent, while only 29 percent say they are antithetical (a similar split exists among the broader American public as well).

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The intersection of Americans' philosophical and religious views may seem inconsequential, but the findings suggest something profound: that a person's religious beliefs are malleable, with one of the driving factors being economic status.

"This finding is the kind of thing that keeps clergy up at night," says Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute.

"What seems to be the clear implication here is that one's own experience of being, for example, at the top of the socioeconomic ladder affects one's moral and theological evaluations of things," says Jones. "Having an experience of being in the upper income strata, there's a self-interest at play in thinking it's compatible with Christian values."

Likewise, he adds, experiencing life at the bottom of the ladder can make a religious person see capitalism as counter to their religious views.

While economic experiences might skew religious worldviews, the results also show a strong correlation between particular religious and economic beliefs.

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Among religious conservatives, for example, the largest share, 29 percent, say the budget deficit is the nation's biggest economic problem. Meanwhile, the highest priority among religious progressives is the growing gap between the rich and the poor, with 25 percent saying that is the biggest problem.

Likewise, religious groups are split on the role government should play in the economy, with religious conservatives standing apart from the rest of the population. Only 37 percent say the government should do more to reduce the gap between the rich and poor, while 69 percent of religious moderates, 72 percent of the nonreligious and 88 percent of religious progressives say the same. The study found a similar breakdown on whether government should guarantee health insurance. Just 26 percent of religious conservatives say the government should, compared to 59 percent of religious moderates, 72 percent of the nonreligious and 77 percent of religious progressives.

Of course, those views parallel broader conservative and liberal beliefs about the size and reach of government, Jones acknowledges. Religious conservatives, for example, are overwhelmingly Republican. However, he believes the basic tenets of religious and political conservatism can complement each other.

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"I do think the thing that's often ignored is the role of theology and worldview that reinforces the view of individualism, small government, [and] individual responsibility," says Jones.

However, he's quick to point out that even among religious conservatives, the relationship with politics is complicated. The vast majority of black religious conservatives, for example, voted for President Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential election, he says.

The survey not only took the pulse of religious Americans but of the broader public, and found a nation questioning basic ideas about the American dream. Fully 42 percent of Americans believe capitalism isn't working, and 53 percent believe "one of the big problems in this country is that we don't give everyone an equal chance in life."