The South, God and politics

The Raleigh News & Observer ran an interesting set of stories this weekend about faith in the South, which offered some revealing insights into how faith and politics mingle in the region.

Based on a recent Baylor University study, the story points out that the issue just isn't how religious the South is, but what kind of religion holds sway. And how Southerners view God is an excellent predictor of political and social attitudes.

The survey split people's views of God into four types -- authoritarian, benevolent, critical and distant (see the chart here for more explanation) -- and Southerners had a strong bias:

Southerners, more than residents of any other region of the country, believe in a God the researchers describe as "authoritarian" -- one who is highly engaged in the world and very angry as well.

While 44 percent of Southerners see God in such terms, only 31 percent of all Americans have similar views. [...]

Significantly, the Baylor researchers found that people's views of God can accurately predict their moral attitudes, political affiliations and stands on hot-button social issues. [...]

Those who believe in an authoritarian God were nearly twice as likely as those with other views of God to believe abortion is always wrong, for example. They also tended to oppose same-sex marriage and to approve of the death penalty.

The impact on political attitudes is striking. For example, here are some positions strongly held by those with an "authoritarian" view of God. In fact, people with the authoritarian view were the only people in the survey who registered over 50% support for these positions:

The war in Iraq is justified: 63.1%

Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11: 53.7%

Premarital sex is wrong: 58.7%

Cohabitation is wrong: 50.3%

Adherents of an "authoritarian God" view also held beliefs that were off the charts when compared to those with other religious perspectives:

Support expansion of government authority to fight terrorism: 76.4%

Trust Bush 'a lot': 32%

To see how these stack up against the political opinions of those with a different take on the divine, see the chart here.

What's interesting is how this lines up with what Berkeley linguist George Lakoff -- who brought the issue of "framing" into the public debate a few years ago -- has argued, about conservative vs. progressive politics being a clash between "strict father" vs. "nurturant parent" worldviews. The "authoritarian God" described in the Baylor study sounds very similar to Lakoff's "strict father," and the political results are nearly identical.

If so, the political "frames" of conservatives may have deeper roots than many acknowledge, especially in the South. They aren't just the product of media spin or political positioning: among a significant share of the population, they are learned at a young age, and reinforced in the powerful cultural crucible of the church over the course of a lifetime.