For God and Country: Religiosity and Job Satisfaction Among Public Servants

By Michael E. Bednarczuk

[Image credit:  AP Photo/Alex Brandon]

Over the last few months, America has been transfixed by the drama of the potential impeachment of President Trump. One of the more visually arresting aspects of this has been witnessing career civil servants marching to Capitol Hill to testify in those hearings. A common theme from those deposed is that they are speaking out due to a sense of public service. It is also possible that some may have been motivated to step forward by their spiritual beliefs. Like most people of faith, it seems reasonable to assume that public servants may be motivated or impacted by their religious beliefs. If they are, how might their faith shape their work?

This was the question that motivated me to write this recently published article in the Journal of Public and Nonprofit Affairs. What I found was that religiosity had a direct impact on the work attitudes of public servants. In examining this question, I had to initially understand how to view religiosity in the workplace. I then had to determine where religion might manifest itself, and then I had to see if it did.

Previous studies had found that public servants were more spiritual and more religious than those in the private sector. Additionally, bureaucrats were more likely to agree with statements such as, “I try to carry my religious beliefs over into all my other dealing in life,” than those in the private sector. But why was this the case? I argued that it could be based on an ethos of service.

One of the differences between those who are religious and those who are not is service, as the former are more likely to possess both attitudes and behaviors associated with assisting others. Those that are religious are more likely to think beyond themselves and focus on other people. They are also more likely to help neighbors or the homeless, to volunteer, or to be civically engaged, to name a few dimensions of service.

If religious bureaucrats are more motivated out of an ethos of service, might this also manifest itself directly in their work? Bureaucrats are typically working in and for their community. They might perhaps see this sort of work as a type of service as well. If so, since this ethos of service is stronger among religious bureaucrats, then they may find work in the public sector to be more fulfilling than do non-religious bureaucrats. This would suggest that job satisfaction would be higher among the religious.

Motivated by that hypothesis, I analyzed data from the General Social Survey (GSS) to see if there was a link between religiosity and job satisfaction. Using surveys from 2000 through 2016, I used both church attendance and frequency of prayer to capture both the public and private dimensions of religiosity and then compared job satisfaction between both of these groups.

Figure One provides a look at the descriptive statistics for worship attendance and job satisfaction. Over half of all public employees say that they are “very satisfied” with their jobs. However, those that attend worship services are about seven percentage points more likely to be “very satisfied” than those who do not.

Figure One: Job Satisfaction Among Government Employees By Public Religiosity (Worship Attendance)

The same relationship holds when looking at the descriptive statistics for frequency of prayer and job satisfaction. Those that pray at least once a day are about eight percentage points more likely to say that they are “very satisfied” with their jobs than those who do not.

Figure Two: Job Satisfaction Among Government Employees By Private Religiosity (Daily Prayer)

I also used an ordered logit model to account for other variables that may also have been impacting job satisfaction, such as income and hours worked. Both measures of religiosity were statistically significant, suggesting that religiosity does play a role in job satisfaction. For example, those that did not pray daily had a predicted probability of being “very satisfied” of about 0.53; that number jumped to 0.61 for those who prayed daily.

What are the implications of these findings? Practically speaking, those in the public sector should be aware of the role that religion may play in the lives of their coworkers and make sure that the workplace remains a tolerant and respectful place. More broadly, it is commonly accepted in the public administration literature that bureaucrats are not neutral instruments and that discretion shapes the implementation of policies, so scholars should not shy away from studying how faith may impact the delivery and denial of government services.

It also merits considering how President Trump’s relationship with bureaucrats may impact the association of public service and religion. Trump does not shy away from denigrating career civil servants who he believes have crossed him; for example, he has claimed that many that have testified as part of the impeachment proceedings were “Never Trumpers.” Additionally, the government shutdown from earlier this year brought on by Trump’s call for increased border funding had a negative effect on employee morale in the federal government; about 10 percent of bureaucrats were looking for other work due to it. Given the potential fear of speaking out against Trump or the turmoil associated with the unpredictability of employment as another potential shutdown looms, fewer people may want to work for the government.

That said, religiosity may play a nuanced role in this. While Trump’s actions may make civil service less appealing, he does enjoy his highest approval ratings among white Evangelical Protestants. If those who support Trump are then motivated to work for the government, then the share of public servants who are religious may increase. Such a change would have a further effect on the demographics of the civil service, as it is currently more racially diverse than the private sector.

Public servants are motivated by a commitment to service. Those who are religious share that commitment at high rates. By examining when these commitments intersect, hopefully we can advance greater understanding about both.

Michael Bednarczuk (@mebednarczuk) is an Instructor of Political Science at Grace College. His current research agenda focuses on public management with a concentration in the work motivations and actions of those in the public sector. His work has been published in journals such as The American Review of Public Administration, Journal of Public and Nonprofit Affairs, Administration & Society, and Public Administration Quarterly.


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