The stereotype, held apparently by none other than the President of the United States, is that religious people are less educated and less affluent than cosmopolitan and sophisticated seculars. The bitter clingers handle snakes, guns and Bibles in West Virginia; the seculars discuss literature and economics at swank parties in Georgetown.
In fact, some recent research reveals, it is almost the other way round. According to the American Sociological Association, the uneducated and the poor (often of course the same people) are dropping God like a hot brick; the ‘bitter clingers’ are increasingly better educated and more affluent than the unchurched.
As far as I can see, this is bad news for everybody. Atheists and agnostics like to think of themselves as smarter than the God-bothering trailer trash on Tobacco Road, and deeply dislike the thought that they are losing the argument among the most intellectually qualified and best prepared; religious people have to be concerned for the future of religion when whole social classes are dropping away.
It is also very bad news for the poor. The rich can actually get along without much religion; one of the nice things about being rich is that money can frequently shield you from the consequences of a weak character and bad decisions. If you are rich enough, you can do very poorly in high school but Daddy will have a nice chat with the college president after which the school gets a new gym and you get a slot in the freshman class. You can be pretty sure that the college won’t flunk you out or expel you without a lot of second chances and counseling.
Oh, and if somehow you booze and flirt your way through college and don’t pick up any useful skills, don’t worry. You won’t have any student loans to repay and Daddy will make sure that you find something to do.
The poor aren’t so lucky. The poor kid who wants to get ahead actually has to achieve something. He or she has to sacrifice, defer gratification, learn useful skills, and endure the scorn of classmates who think he or she is a geek and a nerd. Some of us are able to do all that and more without the strength and focus that comes from faith in God — but most of us need all the help we can get.
Holding what the release from the American Sociological Association rather clunkily calls ‘familistic beliefs’ (the quaintly old fashioned idea that people who are intimate with one another should make and keep a lifelong commitment of fidelity and support and jointly raise any children that their union brings forth) is key to social mobility and economic well being in the US as around the world. Those beliefs are stronger among the religious, and the American lower classes are moving away from both. This means that their children will be much more likely to grow up poor and in single-parent households.
It also means poor households are increasingly cut off from the strongest and most helpful informal and non-governmental networks of mutual support that our society has. W. Bradford Wilcox, the lead researcher behind the findings, is deeply and in my judgment rightly concerned:
Wilcox views this disengagement among the less educated as troubling because religious institutions typically provide their members with benefits—such as improved physical and psychological health, social networks, and civic skills—that may be particularly important for the less educated, who often lack the degree of access to social networks and civic skills that the college-educated have.
“Today, the market and the state provide less financial security to the less educated than they once did, and this is particularly true for the moderately educated—those who have high school degrees, but didn’t graduate from a 4-year college,” Wilcox said. “Religious congregations 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, yet it appears that increasingly few of them are choosing to do so.”
These trends are more than ‘troubling’; they are bad. They are not unrelated to the social breakdown in the inner city and they are also have some bearing on the potential for violence in our cities as economic conditions fail to improve despite the beautiful speeches of our political leaders. There are many points one can points one can make; let me stick with two.
It is the most scorching indictment of America’s religious communities I can think of that more has not been done to reach out to those most in need of both the spiritual and the social benefits of faith. Every member of a religious congregation in this country should be asking how he or she could be doing more.
Second, the increasing disconnect between many poor and poorly educated Americans and the values and ideas that make for success in this society is in part a consequence of efforts by well meaning liberals to keep religion out of schools. By what we teach and what we don’t teach, what we talk about and where the silences are, we convey clear messages to young children. We have been broadcasting a clear message to two generations of young people that religion doesn’t matter.
The greatest victims of this fraud and deceit are, as usual, the most vulnerable and needy among us.
To put these two observations together, it seems clear that American religious communities need to become much more deeply involved in the education of the children of the poor. The stakes for all of us are incalculably high.