It has long been accepted wisdom that less-educated, working-class white Americans are the nation’s most faithful churchgoers. However, a study released Sunday at the American Sociological Association’s annual convention dispels that widely-held perception.
Over the past four decades, monthly church attendance by moderately educated whites – defined as those with high school diplomas and maybe some college – has declined to 37 percent from 50 percent, according to the study co-authored by sociologists W. Bradford Wilcox of the University of Virginia and Andrew Cherlin of Johns Hopkins University.
Church attendance by the least educated whites – defined as those lacking high school diplomas – fell to 23 percent from 38 percent.
The data was culled from the National Opinion Research Center’s General Social Survey and the National Center of Health Statistics’ Survey of Family Growth. The just-released study focused on white Americans, the authors explained, because attendance of religious services among such minority groups as blacks and Latinos is less likely to be linked to education and income.
What particularly surprised the authors is that church attendance actually is more frequent among more educated whites than those with less education. Their research found that 46 percent of the college-educated attended church at least once a month in the 2000s, which is only slightly less than the 51 percent four decades ago.
“My assumption going into this research was that Middle America was more religious and conservative than more educated America,” said Wilcox, in an interview with MSNBC. “But what is surprising about this is that, when it comes to religion as well as marriage, we find that the college-educated are more conventional in their lifestyle than Middle Americans.”
In their study, “No Money, No Honey, No Church: The Deinstitutionalization of Religious Life Among the White Working Class,” the authors attribute the dichotomy to “the deteriorating labor market position of the moderately educated, and cultural changes that have made non-marital family forms more acceptable.”
They note that, since the 1970s, both the moderately-educated and least-educated have become decreasingly likely to get married and stay married compared to college-educated whites. Over the same span, the jobless rate for working class white males – both the moderately-educated and least-educated – has increased while their inflation-adjusted wages have decreased.
The correlation between job dislocation and declining church attendance is especially pronounced among less-educated whites, the study found. Those that have been unemployed at some point during the past 10 years attend religious services less often than those with stable employment.
The study’s authors say that the growing disconnect between working class whites and the church is a troubling trend because religious institutions typically provide their members certain benefits, including improved physical and psychological health, social networks and civic skills, that are particularly important for the less educated who all too often lack the degree of access to social networks and civic skills that the college-educated have.
“The existence of a large group of less educated Americans that is increasingly disconnected from religious institutions is troubling for our society,” said Cherlin. “This development reinforces the social marginalization of less educated Americans who are also increasingly disconnected from the institutions of marriage and work.”
The Christian Post contacted the study's authors but received no immediate response.