January 28, 1995 in Features

God And Money Reconciling Wealth And Religion May Depend On Your Level Of Income

David Briggs Associated Press
 

Jesus said no one can serve the dual masters of God and money, but he has not convinced a majority of well-off Americans.

In a national survey on faith and finances, nearly two-thirds of lower-income Americans agreed with Jesus’ admonition, but less than half of the respondents earning more than $50,000 agreed.

Meanwhile, poorer Americans were most likely to count their financial blessings, ask God for guidance on financial affairs and believe their financial situation is a reflection of God’s regard for them.

The findings show that while church leaders are often stereotyped as being preoccupied with money, in practice many clergy are uncomfortable with the topic and avoid it, said a leading researcher on religious giving.

“I think basically, in our society, the church has not provided a constructive agenda, or even a theological context, for money,” said Sylvia Ronsvalle of the Champaign, Ill.-based research organization empty tomb inc. “People don’t know what a biblical approach to money is.”

A random sample of 1,000 people were interviewed by telephone in the faith and money survey conducted last fall by Louis Harris & Associates for the Minneapolis-based Lutheran Brotherhood, a nonprofit insurance and financial services company. The survey had a margin of error of plus or minus three points.

Louise Thoreson, vice president of the Brotherhood’s charitable programs, said the survey showed faith influences the way many Americans approach their finances.

“In the daily grind of money management, many people both seek God’s guidance and thank God for their financial well being,” she said.

The poll found 81 percent of Americans, including 86 percent with incomes of $25,000 and less, have thanked God for their financial well being.

Seventy percent of the respondents, including three-quarters of those in the lowest income group, said their own financial situation reflected God’s regard for them either a great deal or somewhat.

The positive response does not mean lower-income people think God holds them in low regard, Thoreson said.

Rather, she said, “I think they do feel God is taking care of them, and they are grateful.”

In findings resonant of Scriptural passages, a substantial gulf emerged between richer and poorer Americans in their attitudes toward money.

Numerous passages in the Bible warn against placing too much emphasis on possessions. In a famous saying in the Gospel of Mark, at the end of a parable in which a rich man rejects the faith rather than give his money to the poor, Jesus says “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

In the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, Jesus says pointedly that no one can serve two masters: “You cannot serve God and wealth.”

In response to a survey question framed in the biblical language, 65 percent of both the lower-income and middle-income respondents agreed with the statement “You cannot serve both God and money.” Forty-seven percent of the respondents earning more than $50,000 agreed, while 48 percent disagreed.

More than three-quarters of the lower-income respondents also agreed that the love of money is the root of all evil. Half of the high-income respondents disagreed.

Who has prayed for guidance in how to manage their finances? Sixty percent of people with incomes of $25,000 or less, compared to 40 percent of people making more than $50,000, according to the survey.

Ronsvalle said the survey results show that despite some 2,000 biblical verses about the relationships between people and possessions, many clergy “have abandoned their members to a secular mindset about a very important topic.”

But her research indicates there is hope, she said.

“One thing we have heard from various individuals is that they wished the church talked more about money, and helped them make sense of it,” she said. “There is a real hunger for some type of spiritual guidance in this very consumer-oriented society.”


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