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Baylor survey finds faith shapes work, play, politics

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Published:   |   Updated: March 20, 2013 at 11:21 PM

Starting a small business in this sluggish economy may not be the most prudent thing.

But Gail Lykes, who opened Inspired Christian Gifts in South Tampa in March 2010, relied on something beyond spread sheets and economic forecasts in her choice to take such a bold step.

"I prayed a lot," she said. "God seemed to keep opening doors, so the prayers kept getting answered that it was the right thing to do."

Turns out, Lykes isn't alone in seeking a little divine guidance in her work life.

Baylor University today released one of the most extensive surveys ever conducted on American religious attitudes. Respondents tackled more than 300 questions on several subjects – including work, politics, health and equality – to help researchers gauge how Americans feel about their lives in these tumultuous times, and how religion affects their well-being.

A total of 1,714 randomly chosen adults participated in the survey, which was conducted by The Gallup Organization a year ago.

One of the findings: Entrepreneurs tend to pray more.

While American entrepreneurs look very similar to non-entrepreneurs in their belief in God, religious affiliation, frequency of worship attendance and view of the Bible, they are different when it comes to prayer and meditation. The survey showed that 34 percent prayed at least several times a day and 32 percent practiced meditation.

Maybe it's that the stress and the struggle of a new business venture "drives people to their knees," said Kevin Dougherty, an associate professor of sociology at Baylor.

"What we found most significant is that there's this belief that work consumes so much of people's times that they have nothing left over to participate in religion," he said. "That appears to be the opposite. If anything, we're showing even more participation."

The survey also revealed an "absence of talk" about work and business practices in congregations. Considering how much our lives revolve around work, Dougherty suggested that faith groups should consider making it part of the conversation.

"We've been so caught up on how faith affects social issues and politics that we've put its connection to work on the back burner," he said. "We're not talking about the bottom line, but rather, the ethical questions. How much do our faith beliefs affect our business practices? How does our faith impact how we treat employees and co-workers?"

David Osterweil, founder of Fitlife Foods in South Tampa, is a fourth-generation member of Congregation Schaarai Zedek. His business provides fresh, healthy meals and snacks to go, along with nutrition counseling. A second store is scheduled to open next month in Carrollwood.

"Do I pray? You better believe it," he said. "Every day."

He views his fledging business as an extension of the values he learned at home and in the synagogue. It's not just about financial success; it's also about providing jobs and opportunities, creating a product that will have a meaningful impact on people's lives and serving the community.

To that end, Osterweil said he donates some of Fitlife's meals to the Ronald MacDonald House at Tampa General Hospital and gift cards to charitable fundraisers. Even though the company is just getting established, he puts high importance on giving back.

"This is where I grew up. This is where I live and I worship. I like integrating my own personal traditions and my business to make this community a better place," he said.

That's a belief more prominent in this part of the country, according to the Baylor survey. Researchers found that more people from the American South pursue excellence in work because of faith (43 percent). And at least 30 percent view their work as a mission from God.

Some of the other findings in the survey included: People who worry are less likely to attend church; liberals are more "cynical" about American society and less likely to believe in an afterlife; belief in heaven far outweighs belief in hell; and attitudes toward gays and lesbians are expected to grow more favorable – if a genetic explanation for homosexuality is established.

Religion's connection to mental health got some attention as well. It found that Americans who believe they have a "strong relationship" with an active God who loves them and is responsive to their needs report significantly fewer mental health issues.

With the 2012 elections coming up, the survey took an extensive look at how faith in God sustains the American dream. The data showed that those who believe strongly in God's plan earn less and have less education, and they are most likely to believe that the government is intrusive, healthy people don't deserve unemployment benefits and anything is possible with hard work.

And while they believe success may be based on that hard work and ability, they also are the strongest believers that some people are just meant to be rich and some to be poor.

Some of the findings set a mood for the political season, said Paul Froese, as associate professor of sociology and a research fellow in the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor. He says some of the candidates are already ramping up their "God talk" to appeal to voters who want less government.

"When they talk about God, it's shorthand for conservative economic policy. They're embracing a free-market society like a religious faith," Froese said. "And religious language is going to be found on both sides of the aisle. We've already got (Michele) Bachman and (Rick) Perry holding prayer rallies, and President Obama quoting Scripture."

This is the third wave of the Baylor surveys. Two other comprehensive reports were released in 2006 and 2008. For more details on the current project, go to http:///www.baylor.edu/2011religionsurvey.


mbearden@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7613

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