SALT LAKE CITY — Religious Americans, despite suffering hardships during the recession, still have faith in the American dream and are optimistic about the country's future, surveys in the past two years have shown.
The most recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found 53 percent of Americans believe the American dream still holds true, while 54 percent said the nation's best days are ahead.
According to a demographic breakdown of the survey taken in August, 81 percent of the 2,500 sampled said religion played an important role in their lives.
Religiosity predicting a more upbeat economic outlook was also found in a Baylor University survey released last year that found 73 percent of Americans believe God has a plan for them, while 54 percent said they believe anything is possible through hard work.
"In today’s United States with high levels of unemployment and vastly expanding wealth inequality, belief in God’s plan sustains belief in the fairness of our economic system and our ability to eschew government assistance to stem the tide of our economic woes," Baylor researchers concluded in their "The Values and Beliefs of the American Public" survey.
Religion and the working class
The PRRI findings compared the views of white working-class Americans to those of white college-educated Americans. While many of the questions were political in nature, with the presidential election approaching, some explored religious views.
Asked if capitalism and the free market system were at odds with Christian values, 44 percent of Americans overall agreed and 41 percent disagreed, while 46 percent of the white working-class saw a conflict and 38 percent didn't. But a majority (53 percent) of those who identified as white and college-educated said capitalism and Christian values are consistent.
Dan Cox, director of research at PRRI, said that question along with others countered common stereotypes of the white middle-class, who were identified in the survey as without a four-year college degree and who don't hold a salaried position.
"One of the preconceptions is the (white middle class) is a group for which religion is really important and that it defines them. But one of the things we found is that the religiosity of the white working class doesn't differ appreciably from that of white college-educated Americans," Cox said.
For example, church attendance was nearly even between the two groups, with 35 percent of white college-educated saying they attend a religious service at least weekly compared to 34 percent of the white working-class.
That measure of religious commitment could explain why it would appear economic hardship may have shaken the faith in capitalism of some white middle-class Americans, said Paul Froese, a sociologist who worked on the Baylor University study.
"Our findings are that there is a connection between high religiosity and a belief in American capitalism," he said.
But when you pose questions about economic equality to those who are struggling then ask them what they believe, you can get conflicting results.
Cox said the white working-class has been struggling economically since the 1990s and two-thirds of those surveyed considered themselves either in fair or poor shape financially.
Seven-in-ten white working-class Americans and more than 6-in-10 white college-educated Americans believe the economic system in this country unfairly favors the wealthy, the PRRI survey found. A majority (53 percent) of white working-class Americans also say that one of the big problems in this country is that we don’t give everyone an equal chance in life.
Religion and optimism
But the Baylor poll found that the more religious someone is, the more likely they are to believe that people start life with equal chances and prosper based on hard work. Of those who said they were very religious, 92 percent said anything is possible for those who work hard.
"What we picked up on is religion is a motivator for people who say that despite their circumstances they believe with hard work things will get better and maybe by God's grace and help we are going to make it," said Kevin Dougherty, a sociologist who also worked on the Baylor study.
One's faith in God and concept of who God is can also be a factor in their outlook on life, Froese said.
"People who think God is in control are more happy than other people," he said the survey found. "People who think God is loving and caring and not judgmental and wrathful aren't as pessimistic about things. There are people who have a happier picture of God and stay happy no matter where they are economically."
Under the heading "God Worriers," the Baylor study showed that worriers or those who are sad or depressed are less likely to attend church or consider themselves very religious.
About America's future, the PRRI survey found 54 percent overall believe the country's best days are still ahead. But some are more optimistic than others. Nearly six-in-10 (57 percent) white college-educated Americans believe that America’s best days are ahead of us, while white working-class Americans are evenly split in their outlook at 46 percent.
White evangelical Protestants were the most pessimistic about the future with 47 percent saying America's best days are behind us, compared to 64 percent of black Protestants and 58 percent of Catholics saying the best days are yet to come.
Regardless of their outlook on the future, all religious segments in the PRRI poll, except the religiously unaffiliated, agreed that their country has a divinely ordained place in human history. Leading out on that question were white evangelical Protestants (85 percent) and black Protestants (82 percent), compared to 63 percent of Catholics and 55 percent of white mainline Protestants.