The Baylor University report on “The Values and Beliefs of the American Public” found that 40.9 percent of Americans “strongly agree” and 32.2 percent “agree” that “God has a plan for them.”
What exactly that means is completely unclear. What does the belief that God has a plan mean?
Do these Americans believe that God has mapped out every blink and breath of their existence, that God is completely in control, that human beings are android-like?
Is this belief akin to the notion that whatever happens is in the will of God? Is it determinism without all the theological mumbo-jumbo of Calvin’s interpreters? Or is it Christianized fatalism?
Or does it mean they believe that God has a broad canvas of expectations and destinations for human beings – such as the divine desire that believers will do justice, walk humbly and love mercy?
The Baylor report doesn’t answer the question.
It does report that Americans who “feel strongly that God has something wonderful in store for them tend to” (1) have lower incomes, (2) have less education, (3) believe that “the government is intrusive,” (4) think that “healthy people don’t deserve unemployment benefits” and (5) believe that “anything is possible through hard work.”
What would explain why Americans with a strong belief in a personal divine plan are hostile toward the government and government caring for the unemployed?
As tempting as it is to blame Fox News for such views resulting from its bashing of the government and foisting the belief in radical self-reliance, one ought not forget the role of Christianity.
One version of Christianity has preached that God’s divine economic plan is capitalism. God’s sovereign plan is to bless faithful individuals who work hard and live right. God punishes those who don’t live right and don’t work hard.
This kind of theological system fits with the economic system, especially when faith is privatized and individualized.
If something goes wrong in one’s life, it is because one has sinned. If one names the sin and stops sinning, then God’s blessing will return.
This brand of Christianity holds that if healthy people face unemployment, then they have a flaw in their lives that they need to address in order for God to bless them with employment.
No fault is assigned to the economic system since the system is a capitalist one – God’s intended plan. The fault is with the individual. The solution is individual repentance and renewal.
When people suffer hardships, it is the responsibility of individual Christians and churches, not the government, to provide private charity.
The government only messes up the divine order in which winners are blessed and losers are punished.
Such conservative Christianity condemns as heresy the social gospel, a gospel that offers a moral critique about the immoral social forces that cause unemployment and calls for social justice through church advocacy, the courts and government policies and regulations.
Given the belief in capitalism as the divine plan and in individualized faith, this religious expression lacks a moral critique of the inherent corruption in the economic system – since it’s God’s so-called plan. Yet it does offer a needed appraisal of government’s failures.
To square their belief with the Bible, they must ignore the message of social justice found in the biblical prophets who warned against marketplace corruption and economic power that exploited the poor.
They must also truncate Jesus’ message into one of privatized salvation to the by-and-by. Jesus’ agenda in Luke 4 becomes a watered-down, spiritualized vision.
Bad theology is one good explanation for why many believe God has a plan, a plan that doesn’t include government intervention and aid to the unemployed.
Granted such a belief system is muddled. Believers might not even connect their personalized faith with their privatized economic views. Nonetheless, these theological threads are stitched together in churches and culture.
RobertParham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. This editorial appeared Sept. 28 on the Washington Post’s “On Faith” Web page.