Houses of Worship Shouldn’t Mirror the Class Divide

From a Wall Street Journal essay by Ryan Burge headlined “Houses of Worship Shouldn’t Mirror the Class Divide”:

One of the most striking and consequential shifts in U.S. society over the last five decades is the increasing share of Americans who have abandoned religion. In 1972, just 5% of Americans reported that they had no religious affiliation, according to the General Social Survey. In 2021, that number had skyrocketed to nearly 30%. In 2020, the number of Americans who never attend religious services reached 75 million, while the number who attended weekly was 65 million, according to the Cooperative Election Study.

This shift has not been uniform across American society. Survey data from the last decade shows that the people most likely to be found at religious services are the well-educated and the well-to-do. In 2022, 30% of people with a college degree and an income of at least $60,000 a year attended services weekly; among those with a high school diploma making less than $30,000, only 20% did.

This development has implications beyond religion itself. One of the strongest predictors of increased economic mobility is whether an individual has access to economically diverse social spaces. People at the lower end of the economic spectrum benefit greatly when they can build personal relationships with those who have higher incomes.

In an article published in the journal Nature last year, a team of researchers examined the Facebook connections of over 70 million users to find where they were most likely to encounter people with a higher income than their own. Neighborhoods, schools and workplaces turned out to offer very little economic diversity. The one venue that did was houses of worship. But as American religion is increasingly dominated by educated, middle-class worshipers, the likelihood that a person facing financial struggles will show up for services is growing smaller by the year.

Being economically and educationally stratified means that houses of worship are becoming more politically homogeneous as well. If someone walked into an average Protestant or Catholic church in the 1980s, they were just as likely to sit next to a Democrat as a Republican. That’s no longer the case: In almost all majority-white Protestant churches, political conservatives dramatically outnumber those who are left of center. In 1978, 50% of white weekly churchgoers were Democrats and 40% were Republicans. Today, 60% identify as Republicans and just 25% as Democrats.

This is true even in denominations like the United Methodist Church, which used to be known as a more politically diverse religious tradition. In the last year, at least 20% of the United Methodist congregations in the U.S. have broken away to join a new denomination, the Global Methodist Church, which has positioned itself as a more conservative refuge for those do not support the UMC’s stance on issues like same-sex marriage. The end result is that congregations will become more ideologically homogeneous.

When religion becomes so politically uniform, it can have corrosive effects on democracy. The conservatism of white Christian churches has helped to lead tens of millions of liberal Americans to leave religion behind entirely and join the ever-increasing ranks of the non-religious. In 2021, 51% of people who identified as politically liberal said that they had no religious affiliation, compared with just 12% of people who identified as conservative.

In general, Americans are becoming less tolerant of people who are different from us. Social scientists theorize that coming into direct contact with a member of a different group will reduce intolerance, prejudice and skepticism toward that group. That’s likely why American views on same-sex marriage moved so rapidly: More and more Americans personally knew someone who was lesbian, gay or bisexual, and thus they became more willing to support same-sex marriage.

Houses of worship would thus be ideal spaces for social contacts to flourish. If churches, synagogues and mosques were once again full of people from across the economic and political spectrum, it would help build bridges not just in the congregation but in the larger community.

As a Baptist pastor, I know that houses of worship are ideal places to build community. Many churches have gymnasiums, commercial grade kitchens and large yards. Why not set aside a portion of the annual budget for purely social gatherings? Cook-outs, carnivals or back-to-school bashes are ideal events to welcome a diverse cross section of the community. At Ravenswood Covenant Church in Chicago, for example, a weekly farmers market for local vendors features live music and activities for kids as a way to create opportunities for social interaction.

Such events are primarily about the horizontal part of religion (individuals building relationships with each other), not the vertical part (individuals strengthening their relationship to God). They create space for people to get to know each other and create social bonds, without any real agenda or time constraint. The theology can (and should) come later.

Religious leaders need to remember the crucial role that houses of worship play in holding our society together. The future of American religion—and maybe American democracy—depends on it.

Ryan Burge is a pastor, an associate professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University, and the research director for Faith Counts. His books include “The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going.”

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