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The Psychological Seesaw of God and Country

New research suggests that when faith in government decreases, belief in an all-powerful deity rises.

The relationship between God and government is tricky terrain. Religious belief and allegiance to the state can coexist comfortably, or even overlap entirely (as in Iran). But in many instances across history, the two have been rivals, even antagonists.

And why not? Newly published research suggests they serve the same psychological function.

A sense of political stability provides comforting reassurance that our world is orderly and controlled. So does belief in an all-powerful deity. This puts the two in a seesaw relationship: When one goes up, the other goes down.

That’s the contention of a group of researchers led by Duke University psychologist Aaron Kay. Writing in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, they provide evidence of this dynamic and suggest it can be found in Eastern as well as Western cultures.

“Although the reach of government pales in comparison with the potential reach of God, these two external systems represent the broadest sources of order and control that exist in the developed world,” they write. When a political system fails to serve this fundamental need, people turn to religious belief to provide the reassurance they crave.

Kay and his colleagues describe four experiments supporting this hydraulic-relationship concept. In one, 48 Canadians read one of two fictitious news articles, which suggested the nation’s government was or was not likely to fall in the near future.

They were then asked several questions measuring their belief in divine intervention, including: “To what extent do you think that the events in the universe unfold according to God’s, or some type of nonhuman entity’s, plan?” The results: “Participants who read that an election may occur at any point showed stronger beliefs in a controlling God.”

This duplicated the findings of a Malaysian study, in which data was collected two weeks before and two weeks after that nation’s 2008 election. “When government instability was perceived to be high, immediately before an election, people were more likely to believe in a controlling God,” the researchers write.

In a second Canadian study, 79 participants read one of two articles ostensibly published in the journal Science. One stated that science increasingly believes in the existence of a God or God-like entity who is “continually making changes to alter the course of cosmic history.” The other explained that while God may exist, the laws of physics mean he could not interfere in man’s affairs.

Afterward, the participants answered a series of questions, including eight that measured their support for the current national government.

“When participants were led to believe that scientists have concluded that God is unlikely to intervene in the world’s affairs, participants showed higher levels of government support,” they report. “When God was depicted as a source of control and order, participants less ardently defended the legitimacy of their government.”

Kay and his colleagues concede that in the U.S., “religious commitment does not appear to be waning as secular systems develop and stabilize,” which is what one would expect if their thesis is correct. They note, however, that this pattern is “almost exclusively limited to the United States,” and they cite two factors that drive it: the “consistent influx of immigrants from less-developed countries” with fragile governmental and economic systems, and the growing gap between rich and poor.

“This has led to a substantial proportion of the population that has not experienced more personal stability as the country has developed overall,” they write. That perceived lack of personal control would explain the nation’s high level of religiosity.

If Kay’s concept of a terror-management teeter-totter is correct, Americans’ belief in an all-powerful God will only increase during our current period of economic and political instability. The idea that our fates and fortunes are largely determined by random forces is one we are strongly inclined to deny. If Congress can’t provide the sense of security we yearn for, there’s always the church.