Why is churchgoing falling off among less educated whites?

2011-08-22 18:19

Attendance in this nation at religious services has been declining – sometimes steeply – since the 1970’s. But it might surprise readers to know that the falloff is greatest among white, working-class Americans. A new study presented Saturday at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Las Vegas sheds some surprising light on churchgoing demographics.

Sociologists Brad Wilcox, of the University of Virginia and Andrew Cherlin of Johns Hopkins University found that monthly (or more) participation in religious services dropped from 50 percent of moderately educated (high school and perhaps some college) whites to 37 percent over the last four decades. And attendance by the least educated (high school dropouts) dropped from 38 percent to 23 percent.

Here comes the surprise statistic: church attendance by higher-income whites with at least a bachelor’s degree barely dipped, from 50 percent to 46 percent, much more substantial than the 23 percent of high school dropouts.

The figures represented those aged 25-44 and were gathered from two national surveys, the General Social Survey from the National Opinion Research Center, and the National Survey of Family Growth, which is conducted by the U.S. government's National Center for Health Statistics. The new study focused on white Americans because black and Latino religious worship is less divided by education and income, the researchers said.

The generation represented falls roughly into the category popularly known as Generation X. Individuals associated with Generation X have political experiences and cultural perspective that were shaped by events such as the end of the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and a series of US economic calamities such as the 1973 oil crisis, the 1979 energy crisis, the early 1980s recession, Black Monday (1987) and the savings and loan crisis. These events instilled a sense of economic uncertainty and a reduced expectation of long term fidelity between employers and employees.

Authors William Strauss and Neil Howe of the book Generations call this generation a “reactive” generation, meaning that it is characterized by a reaction to the upheaval of the 1960’s. According to their theory, its members tend to be pragmatic and perceptive, savvy but amoral, more focused on money than on art. It is also the most educated generation to date, statistically holding the highest education levels when looking at age group.

Given these facts, it is all the more stunning that they should be the more church-going than their less-educated peers.

Most white churchgoers who report a religious affiliation are Catholic, evangelical Protestant, mainstream Protestant, Mormon or Jewish.

In their paper, titled, “No Money, No Honey, No Church: The Deinstitutionalization of Religious Life Among the White Working Class,” Cherlin and Wilcox attribute the falloff in church attendance by the working class to two things: “the deteriorating labor market position of the moderately educated, and cultural changes that have made non-marital family forms more acceptable.”

Wilcox, who is affiliated with the Institute for American Values founded by David Blankenhorn, a leading opponent of same-sex marriage, argues that the loosening of sexual and marital norms, and less restrictive divorce laws, have had disastrous effects on society -- such as higher divorce rates, and extramarital sex -- and have lessened religion’s influence on the average American. Wilcox thinks part of the church-going falloff may be due to the reluctance of divorced people to join congregations where most people are married.

Cherlin tends to emphasize the impact of unemployment and wage struggle as a social disrupter. People who have been unemployed at some point over the last 10 years go to religious services less often, the researchers found.

Stephanie Coontz, professor of history and family studies at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, thinks there has been a general and widespread loss of faith, not just in religion, but in many institutions. “I relate it to all the certainties [Americans once had], the sense of entitlement people held in the post- World War II era,” Coontz says. According to her, the wealthier one is, the more one is likely to think that this social compact, which included church-going, still holds. But for many this no longer exists. As it has eroded, Coontz adds, it has taken commitment to traditional religious institutions along with it.

The picture is probably even more complicated than these conjectures. I do not for a minute, however, believe that just because people are poor, they stop going to church. Surely, millions, nay, billions of churchgoing and dirt-poor people around the world are proof of that. And likewise wealth does not necessarily equate with conservative values. The San Francisco Bay Area is home to a great deal of liberal-minded, churchgoing wealth.

One point the researchers have not brought up is the disintegration of community among the poor and less educated as a compelling factor in the drop in church attendance. Churchgoing is a very communal activity, and most people attend church for the social and communal perks and advantages it brings. A nomadic individual, or one whose community is fragmented or shifting, as happens in the lives of the poor, lives in a fairly chaotic and ever-changing world. Getting oneself to church on Sunday in such circumstances becomes a luxury, whether from a social or economic perspective.

Likewise, for the better-educated and more financially endowed, attending church is not a financial or social hardship. Such families can afford to get themselves to the church without expending a substantial portion of their cash or labor time on the endeavor. Let’s remember that the working classes must very often work nights –and weekends, for very little pay.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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