Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Where Have all the Workers Gone?
A recent study of religious life among the white working class – “No Money, No Honey, No Church” – by researchers at the University of Virginia, John’s Hopkins, and the University of North Carolina caught my attention. Here’s the bottom line: While worship attendance has decreased for all white Americans since the early 1970’s, the rate of decline has been more than twice as high for less educated, lower and lower-middle class whites compared to more educated and presumably more affluent whites. What’s going on?
At the risk of dangerously oversimplifying a rather sophisticated argument, the authors hypothesize that two factors are at play. First is the relentless decline of the economic fortunes of non-college educated, middle and lower working class persons over the last three to four decades. As the working class has grown more and more disenchanted with American economic life and structures, more alienated from the work place which used to offer a secure sense of value and worth, and less trusting that economic institutions and government will protect them against the impact of the economic restructuring that has marked post-industrial, post-manufacturing America, they have lost faith in the church as a place either to help access the benefits of the American dream or as a place to find validation for lives that don’t reflect that dream. Churches increasingly populated by upper middle class and affluent, well educated individuals, hold little appeal for those whose lives are battered and bruised by economic institutions that have largely abandoned them.
A second, related factor, is the decline in conventionality around marriage found in the white working class. Since the 1970’s moderately educated, working class white Americans are markedly less likely to get and stay married as adults compared to college educated adults. Unemployment and underemployment, along with declining wages for the working class contribute significantly to this trend. Meanwhile, white churches have, according to the authors, “functioned as bulwarks of bourgeois respectability. . . promoting a family-centered moral logic that valorizes marriage and parenthood.” And they continue to function in this way. One can argue that this has even been reinforced among progressive churches, often criticized for failure to support “family values,” as they have promoted efforts for marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples. Rather than fostering a culture of diversity, queer critics and others observe, marriage equality has simply encouraged gay and lesbian persons to become coopted into long standing patterns of familial conventionality (think of the popular TV show “Married with Children!”). It is quite possible that the mantra of inclusivity around LGBTQ persons, so prevalent in progressive church circles, has ironically made these churches appear even less welcoming to a white working class increasingly marked by high levels of singlehood, divorce, cohabitation, or other forms of “non-conventional” family life.
The authors of this study have their own worries about this trend and its implications for broader cultural life and the connection – or disconnect – of large numbers of Americans to sustaining institutional supports. For those of us in the church, particularly predominantly white Protestant and Catholic communities, these findings are and should be deeply troubling as well, confirming what many of us have quietly noticed for years: In the church, class is one of the most pernicious, though unspoken barriers to full participation. Even churches that have managed to create diverse congregations in terms of race, sexual orientation, and age, are struggling to cross the class lines. H. Richard Niebuhr, writing eighty years ago in The Social Sources of American Denominationalism, claimed that the church in many of its American forms remained “the religion of the middle class which excludes from its worship, by the character of its appeal. . . , those who live within the lower ranges of economic and cultural respectability.” The current study suggests that the situation is only getting worse as the disconnect between economic realities for working class people and the projected image of social respectability in the church grow further and further apart.
How ironic that, for all the pronouncements on economic justice emanating from the Catholic and Protestant mainline, and for all the efforts on the part of some of these churches to acknowledge and affirm familial diversity, the white working class, at least, still tends to experience predominantly white churches as communities shaped by conventionally bourgeois economic and family values that have become either unattainable or unwanted. “No Money, No Honey, No Church” is not only one more sociological study raising unnerving questions about the institutional future of the church. It is also a serious call to examine the nature of the beloved, welcoming, or inclusive community we seek to become. It may well be that the brutal cultural wars we have all been fighting over sexuality have distracted us from an equally important struggle to make our congregations more of a vision of God’s realm and less a fading mirror of a dying American dream.
John. H. Thomas