Why is churchgoing falling off among less educated whites?


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Aug 22 2011 - 6:19pm

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.


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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.”


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