For years and years we have been fed with the story that orthodox Christianity and other conservative and demanding religions were primarily, though not exclusively, the domain of the less educated, and that the highly educated were inclined toward more “liberal” and “postmodern” forms of spirituality that did not claim to be exclusively true. Now an essay by Andrew J. Cherlin and W. Bradford Wilcox says that the millennial generation may be turning this all on its head. It’s the way of the Wall Street Journal to not keep its materials online for the public for long, so I shall have to summarize.
People who have graduated from high school but not university don’t qualify for most professional and technical jobs, and their incomes have decreased. “These working-class couples still value marriage highly. But they don’t think they have what it takes to make a marriage work. Across all social classes, in fact, Americans now believe that a couple isn’t ready to marry until they can count on a steady income. That’s an increasingly high bar for the younger working class. As a result, cohabitation is emerging as the relationship of choice for young adults who have some earnings but not enough steady work to reach the marriage bar. The problem is that cohabiting relationships don’t go the distance.” Cohabiting relationships, it would seem, are less stable than even the notoriously unstable American Marriage, such as Elizabeth Taylor being the exception that proves the rule!
And then we read. “Church-going habits are changing, too. Traditionally, working-class couples who are married and have steady incomes have attended church, in part, to get reinforcement for the ‘respectable’ lives they lead. But now, when a transformed economy makes marriage and steady work more difficult to attain, those who in better times might have married and attended church appear to be reluctant to show up. Thus, working-class men and women aren’t going to religious services as often as they used to. The drop-off in attendance has been greatest among whites. . . . In the 1970s, 35% of working class whites aged 25-45 attended religious services nearly every week, the same percentage as college-educated whites in that age group. Today, the college-educated are the only group who attend services almost as frequently as they did in the 1970s.”
For a long time, ever since H. L. Mencken, we have been accustomed to thinking of traditional religion as primarily the province of the less educated. Anyone reading comment threads on, say, same sex marriage, will notice that those favoring it tend to dismiss those opposed to it as, among other things, less educated. And many of us are old enough to remember when some commentators dismissed evangelicals as “poor, uneducated, and easy to command,” and Ralph Reed made lapel buttons with those words and handed them out! If this is true, the younger generations are flipping this world entirely on its head. Are we becoming more like Britain, where the influence of John Wesley on the proletariat died away in the nineteenth century, and where showing up at church became a badge of middle-class respectability? Where there was a church and a pub on every corner, and now there’s just the pub? In farming and industrial areas of the United States, the Catholics, Baptists, and Holiness-Pentecostals had pretty much reached the working classes and kept this from happening. It is the Northwest and Rocky Mountain regions, based not on crop agriculture but on cattle and sheep raising, mining, and forestry, that have given us the “secular redneck” or less educated secularist. Southern California, despite its hedonistic reputation – as a native I can say not entirely undeserved – is the most churchgoing area on the West Coast except for the San Joaquin Valley. But it was largely settled by people from agricultural areas, and mining and forestry have never been big industries there.
One begs to know more. Where is the fall-off coming? Is it affecting mainly the Catholics? The Baptists? The Pentecostals and Charismatics? What will be the political impact of the unchurching of precisely the class which has sustained the Republican Party, the children of the famous Reagan Democrats? (Maybe the “tea party” is an effort to find new and different issues for these now unchurched classes.)
I confess to being curious as to what consumer goods are being bought less or going begging with the working class being less affluent than it used to be. As I have pointed out in more than one post, Warren and Tyagi
have pointed out that incomes have declined in relation to health care, tuition, and housing, and to some extent bracket creep, and that most consumer goods of the sort that one buys at Wal-Mart have stayed in step with incomes. And if that isn’t true, easily obtainable credit cards have been the “opium of the people” for these past 30 years. What are people buying less of? Cigarettes, maybe, but that wouldn’t account for it. Travel trailers, motor homes, and trailerable boats? Are these selling less than 30 years ago? I haven’t heard that many stories of economic woe from Traveland in Irvine, at least compared to any other business, especially real estate. It really would be interesting to know what kind of consumer goods, bought by the comparatively affluent working class of the 1970s, have much less of a market nowadays.