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How Conservative Politicians Wait for God to Fix the Economy, With Frightening Results

The theology embraced by American religious conservatives may render them immune to evidence and reason when it comes to economic management.

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According to Froese, the belief represents a cognitive barrier to assimilating worldly economic research. Over eight in 10 political conservatives surveyed thought there was one "ultimate truth in the world, and new economic information of cost-benefit analysis is not going to change their mind about how the economy should work," he said. That's consistent with other findings; a  study conducted in 2009 by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life  found that “the most devout are on average least willing to accept the evidence of reality.”

The researchers found that another 20 percent or so take a purely secular view of the economy, and they arrive at a very different view. Because they don't see the hand of God guiding our economic outcomes, they tend to be more likely to favor policies that result in less income inequality – a robust safety net, taxing the wealthy and corporations and other measures an earthly government can undertake.

This is not to suggest that worldly-minded anti-governmentalism doesn't still obtain or isn't keeping us mired in the Tea Partiers' “ austerity recession.” But there is a difference between seeing the “hidden hand of the market” guiding our economy and the hidden hand of God. At least believers in Adam Smith's famous formulation are amenable to the government stepping in to correct market failures. The latter are embracing a truly dangerous fatalism. It's fine to say, “insha'Allah” before boarding an airplane, but leaving it all up to divine will rather than skilled aircraft mechanics is a formula for some frighteningly unsafe flights.

I recently wrote a piece considering whether modern American “conservatism” has become more of a religion than an ideology – a set of fixed beliefs that can't be moved just because objective reality contradicts them. The Baylor study offers an economic angle at the question. The authors concluded that this belief system represents “a distinctly American cultural finding” that is “specific to this point in history.”

Faith-based economics can have a pernicious effect on our recovery, and not only because it leads politicians down a path toward painful spending cuts at the wost possible time. It also hurts because, as New York Times economic reporter Catherine Rampell notes, “in order for government policy to be effective, people must believe it will be effective.”

Part of the reason that economic stimulus works is that it gives consumers and businesses confidence that the economy will improve. That belief becomes self-fulfilling as they feel more comfortable increasing their purchases and investments.

Likewise, if Americans believe that Congress cannot be counted upon to do anything that will help the economy, nothing that Congress does — no matter how well designed and well executed — will succeed in helping the economy. Perception matters.

Now consider a huge disconnect between common perceptions and the economic data. While there is something approaching a consensus among the experts that the 2009 stimulus bill saved somewhere in the neighborhood of 3 million American jobs (although the precise figures are subject to plenty of debate), a recent Washington Post poll found that almost three-quarters of those surveyed believed the government can "do little or nothing to solve the nation's economic problems.”

That divide is by and large based on economic illiteracy and the ideologically informed view that government is bad by definition -- and by partisan animus -- but among a subset of the population, it's also an article of religious dogma.

The tragedy is that, like some other religious beliefs (that women should be subservient to abusive husbands, or that condoms don't prevent the spread of AIDS), to the extent that it distorts our view of what's happening in the “kingdom of man,” it can lead to a lot of needless real-world pain.

 
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