Secular stereotypes about religion die hard. On February 1, 1993, Washington Post reporter Michael Weisskopf wrote that politically conservative Christians are “poor, uneducated, and easy to command.” Reinforcing the stereotype, during the 2008 presidential campaign, candidate Barack Obama said that working-class voters “cling to guns or religion.”
However, author Charles Murray shows that not only is this liberal trope false—it is less true than ever before. Unfortunately, that’s not all good news for Christians.
Murray, the W. H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of the just-released book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010, notes that while secularization has spread markedly across the United States over the last 50 years, its effects have been felt most strongly among the white working class—those traditionally viewed as having less money and education, but more guns. (Murray focuses on whites so that questions about race will not cloud the issue.)
To belong to the white working class, which Murray labels as Fishtown (a neighborhood in Philadelphia), you must have education no higher than a high school diploma. And, if you work at all, you must have a blue-collar or low-skilled service job. By contrast, to belong to the white upper middle class, which Murray calls Belmont (named after a tony suburb near Boston), you must possess, at a minimum, a bachelor’s degree and work as a manager, doctor, lawyer, engineer, architect, scientist, college professor, or member of the media. For both groups, you must be between the ages of 30 and 49.
The General Social Survey, which measures American values and attitudes, finds that the share of those who profess no religion or who go to religious services no more than once a year has increased at both ends of the economic and social spectrums. In the ’70s, 29 percent of the more affluent group fell into the secular category, increasing to 40 percent by 2010. But the strongest secularization trend is among the working classes, growing from 38 percent about four decades ago to a whopping 59 percent two years ago.
This is not good news, even if you are a confirmed secularist. Murray notes “that about half of American philanthropy, volunteering and associational memberships is directly church-related, and that religious Americans also account for much more nonreligious social capital than their secular neighbors. In that context, it is worrisome for the culture that the U.S. as a whole has become markedly more secular since 1960.”
And so, because of the uneven secularization trend, the church has become wealthier and better educated than society as a whole. Not coincidentally, the white working class is lagging behind the wealthier and more educated group in areas besides religion, too.
By nearly every social measure, the gap between Fishtown, which constitutes about 30 percent of the white population in the U.S., and Belmont, which claims 20 percent, has increased over the last five decades. In 1960, 94 percent of the people in Belmont were married. That has slipped somewhat, to 83 percent in 2010. But in Fishtown, the marriage rate has plummeted, from 84 percent in 1960 to just 48 percent two years ago.
The share of births to unmarried females with no more than a high school education (Fishtown) has increased from 6 percent in 1970 to 44 percent by 2008—compared with 1 percent and 6 percent among college-educated women, respectively. Among men in Fishtown, the share of those “out of the labor force” quadrupled, from 3 percent in 1968 to 12 percent in 2008. (The number has no doubt gone even higher during the current economic meltdown, which has hurt working-class men more than almost any other group.) Among men in Belmont, however, the share of those who have dropped out of the work force held steady, at about 3 percent.
Then there is the disparate impact in violent crime. In Fishtown, it sextupled between 1960 and 1995, while remaining basically unchanged in Belmont. Today the rate in Fishtown is 4.7 times higher than it was in 1960.
Clearly, life at both ends of the spectrum is different. One group is religious, well-educated, and materially comfortable, with stable families that are largely protected from crime. The other has increasingly removed itself from American cultural institutions such as church and family and is struggling with a host of economic and social obstacles.
Murray says this cultural inequality goes well beyond economics or politics and encompasses our personal habits and where we choose to live. Rich and poor are headed in different cultural directions.
“Over the past 50 years, [our] common civic culture has unraveled,” Murray says. “We have developed a new upper class with advanced educations, often obtained at elite schools, sharing tastes and preferences that set them apart from mainstream America. At the same time, we have developed a new lower class, characterized not by poverty but by withdrawal from America’s core cultural institutions.”
What does all this mean for America’s Christians, large numbers of whom live in Belmont rather than in Fishtown? At a minimum, it means that our church-planting efforts must include all economic and social classes—in Belmont, Fishtown, and in every other “neighborhood.” Not only are there more “fish” in Fishtown, there are more needs of all kinds among the working class. From those of us who have received much—whether in church, money, or education—much will be required.
We need to resist the temptation to stay in our well-to-do cocoons and instead serve our neighbors across the cultural divide. As the Book of James says, “My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, ‘You sit here in a good place,’ while you say to the poor man, ‘You stand over there,’ or, ‘Sit down at my feet,’ have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man.”
In a roundabout way, Murray is instructive on this point. “There remains a core of civic virtue and involvement in working-class America that could make headway against its problems if the people who are trying to do the right things get the reinforcement they need—not in the form of government assistance, but in validation of the values and standards they continue to uphold,” he says. “The best thing that the new upper class can do to provide that reinforcement is to drop its condescending ‘nonjudgmentalism.’ Married, educated people who work hard and conscientiously raise their kids shouldn’t hesitate to voice their disapproval of those who defy these norms.”
Who is better positioned to provide this kind of spiritual and practical help than the church?
Articles on the BreakPoint website are the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Chuck Colson or BreakPoint. Outside links are for informational purposes and do not necessarily imply endorsement of their content.