Study sees working class drifting away from church attendance

By Benjamin Mann

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Credit Michael Swan (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

New research presented at the American Sociological Association's Aug. 20 to 23 annual meeting shows a large portion of less educated U.S. workers abandoning religious practice more often than other Americans.

“Our study suggests that the less educated are dropping out of the American religious sector, similarly to the way in which they have dropped out of the American labor market,” says University of Virginia Sociology Professor W. Bradford Wilcox, lead author and researcher of the paper entitled “No Money, No Honey, No Church: The De-institutionalization of Religious Life Among the White Working Class.”

Wilcox and three collaborators studied trends in religious service attendance among white U.S. residents, focusing on “moderately educated” Americans who have a high school diploma but not a college degree. The lead author presented the findings to the association on August 21.

The researchers conclude that religion “is becoming increasingly de-institutionalized among whites with moderate levels of education, which suggests further social marginalization of this group.”

Whatever their personal beliefs, in other words, individuals in this category are attending worship services less and less often.

“We find that religious attendance among moderately educated whites has declined relative to attendance among college-educated whites,” Wilcox and his co-authors state.

The study's authors speculate that lower-educated whites' loss of economic opportunities, and increasing difficulty in marriage and family formation, has drawn them away from a lifestyle and worldview in which typical American religious practice made sense.

In their paper presented at the American Sociological Association meeting, the researchers pose the question: “Why might religious participation have declined more among moderately educated (white) Americans than among their college-educated peers?”

They theorize that “the transformation of the economy and the resulting decline in marriage have played a central role in eroding the structural and cultural connections between religious institutions and moderately-educated men and women.”

Their basic argument is that “shifts in economic opportunities and in family formation over the last four decades have made many of the moral logics associated with American religious institutions both less realizable and less desirable among moderately educated whites.”

Wilcox and his collaborators point out that churches and other religious institutions often promote a morality focused on marriage and family life, stressing the “middle-class” virtues of education and self-control. But this message may be losing relevance among economically-struggling individuals frozen out of the marriage market.

Just as importantly, they point out, “working class whites may also feel uncomfortable socializing with the middle and upper class whites who have increasingly come to dominate the life of religious congregations in the U.S. since the 1970s.”

Co-author Andrew Cherlin, a professor of sociology and public policy at Johns Hopkins University, sees the findings as “troubling for our society.” He says they show the “social marginalization of less-educated Americans who are also increasingly disconnected from the institutions of marriage and work.”

Wilcox says other sociological findings show the human benefits of giving church another chance,  since religious institutions “may be one of the few institutional sectors less educated Americans can turn to for social, economic, and emotional support in the face of today’s tough times.”

But his new findings may also demonstrate a need for churches themselves to change, by finding new ways of reaching out to economically and culturally marginalized people who feel out of place in the congregation.

The study notes that “white churches in the United States” have historically “functioned as bulwarks of bourgeois respectability,” giving “white married couples ... a way of displaying to their fellow congregants, who are often their neighbors and friends, their sense of responsibility and their commitment to familism,” and a way to “gain reinforcement for their moral view of the world.”

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