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Afflict the Comfortable

Both sides responding to new sociological data on religiosity get it wrong.

Church,Wooden,Bench
(Maleo/Shutterstock)

The political scientist Ryan Burge this week used national survey data to argue that religion in America “has become an enclave for people who have done everything ‘right’”—for people who have gotten married, college degrees, and middle-class jobs.

The numbers are striking.

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Burge found that 42 percent of non-high school graduates, in the most recent survey, identified as atheists, agnostics, or according to no religion in particular. By contrast, just 32 percent of post-graduate-degree holders did the same. The gap was similarly large in weekly church attendance, with less than 20 percent of non-high school graduates attending weekly compared to 30 percent of people with post-graduate degrees. Both gaps persisted over a decade's worth of survey data.

The poor were also significantly less likely to attend religious services weekly than were the wealthy. Middle-class professionals making between $60,000 and $100,000 a year were more likely than both the poorest and richest survey participants to attend weekly religious services. The only demographic for which Burge reported this wasn't true was people with a high school degree or less, who were even more likely to attend weekly worship services if they made more than $250,000 a year than they were if they made between $60,000 and $100,000.

Perhaps the least surprising of the three findings was the association between marriage and religiosity. Burge reported that across all age groups, married people are more likely to attend weekly services than those who are separated, divorced, or never married. About 30 percent of married 40-year-olds attend weekly services, for example, compared to just 15 percent of 40-year-olds who fall into one of the other three categories.

These are pitiful numbers across the board—a third of married adults going to church does not a religious revival make—but it's clear that, bad as things are, religious observance is worse among the downwardly mobile than it is among the middle and upper-middle classes.

There have been two popular responses to that fact, and to Burge's write-up of the results. Burge himself, and many progressive respondents on Twitter, said the data illustrated that churches are at fault, and are becoming, as Burge put it, “hospital[s] for the healthy.” In Burge's mind, churches have become “less and less inviting to those who did life another way,” and are pushing people away who would otherwise attend weekly services.

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The “conservative” response has been to suggest that Burge has the causation backwards—that it's the religious observance that leads to better socioeconomic outcomes, not the other way around. Going to church is associated with religious observance, and religious observance, on this view, is associated with chastity (not sleeping around), fidelity (not getting divorced), and industry (making a living for oneself and one's family). It's little wonder, they argue, that people who go to church regularly are more “successful" than those who don't, since the values promoted by Christianity are also those most conducive to temporal success.

Both responses ultimately miss the point. To those who argue that churches need to be more “welcoming” to those on the “margins,” it depends on what exactly they mean. If they're talking about placing a greater emphasis on God's preference for the poor, that's one thing. If they're talking about omitting parts of Matthew 19 to avoid upsetting divorcees, that's another. Placing “inclusion” before the truth can, as Burge said, provide a space where “people from a variety of economic, social, racial, and political backgrounds can find common ground”—but, to borrow from Flannery O'Connor, “if it's just a symbol, to Hell with it.”

And the “conservative” response, which is right inasmuch as following Christian sexual ethics is all but a guarantee that one won't get divorced, is wrong to identify Christianity with worldly success. One way to square one of the great paradoxes of Christianity—that Christ simultaneously asks you to “pick up your cross” while telling you His “yoke is easy”—is that it's the picking up of the cross that makes the burden light. For example, if you “pick up your cross” and resist the impulse to cheat on your wife, you'll enjoy the “easy” yoke of not having to tell your wife you cheated on her. If you “pick up your cross” and forgive those who harm you, you'll enjoy the “easy" yoke of not holding a grudge.

The mistake of the conservative response is to apply that principle to earthly success, when Christianity is predicated on what Burge rightly calls the “great inversion”—the idea that the meek will inherit the earth, that's it's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God, that many who are first shall be last and many last first. Not only is there no guarantee that following Christianity will result in a person's economic success, that success, according to Christ, may well hinder his ability to live out the Christian life.

There is something to be said for those who see the rigor demanded by Christian life and decline to submit. It's not praiseworthy, certainly, but it's honest. Some people have sat down and counted the cost before constructing the building. Maybe the question is not why those on the “margins” decline to attend church services, but why so many living bourgeois lifestyles find themselves comfortable following a religion that is anything but.

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