Study: Residents in Catholic, Mainline Church Communities Live Longer

People who live in areas that have a larger number of Catholic and mainline Protestant churches live longer, a new study shows.

Troy C. Blanchard, an associate professor of sociology at Louisiana State University, found that mortality rates were lower in communities with these types of congregations because they have what he calls a "worldly perspective."

"Instead of solely focusing on the afterlife, they place a significant emphasis on the current needs of their communities," offered the study's author.

Catholic and mainline Protestant churches are known to be active in social justice issues in their communities by combating homelessness, poverty and racism.

These religious congregations, added the professor, also create "bridging ties" that pave the way for collaborative community efforts.

In contrast, Blanchard found that places with more conservative Protestant churches – namely Fundamentalist and Pentecostal congregations – have higher mortality rates.

He attributed the difference in mortality rates to a stronger emphasis by typical Fundamentalist and Protestant churches on individualistic faith and the belief that a personal relationship God comes first.

"Fundamentalist congregations tend to be more reclusive, and this insularity is linked with higher mortality rates," Blanchard said.

Although evangelical churches may also be considered as conservative Protestant ones, they had lower mortality rates like their mainline counterparts.

"Evangelical congregations do a better job of engaging the broader community and promoting social connectedness that is so essential for longer life expectancies," Blanchard explained.

One notable example is Saddleback Church, pastored by Purpose Driven Life author Rick Warren. The evangelical megachurch based in Southern California runs over 200 ministries that include prison outreach, healthcare and HIV/AIDS programs.

Warren, who recently launched his P.E.A.C.E. Plan to address global poverty among other social ills, has often stressed that the mission of mainline Protestant churches and evangelical churches should be one of the same.

"Somehow we got divided like Jesus didn't care about society or members of society didn't need Jesus. I think we need both," he said during a church forum in Washington, D.C., early this year.

While living near community-active churches doesn't guarantee a person a longer lifespan, the results of the study should be taken seriously, according to Blanchard and his study associates. Lawmakers and citizens need to recognize the impact of religious environment on the well-being of people in the community, he said.

"In this era of faith-based initiatives, our findings highlight the critical importance of religious organizations to the social service infrastructure," said Blanchard.

President Bush recognized this correlation early on in his office, creating faith-based programs to allow religious charities to apply for federal funding for social programs. In 2007, the U.S. government awarded nearly $2.3 billion toward participating religious groups.

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama last week promised to expand Bush's faith-based programs in an effort to get religious charities on-board a campaign to fight poverty. However, some Christian conservative groups have criticized Obama on a program restriction that prohibits religious groups to hire and fire based on faith.

The study was co-authored by John Bartkowski from the University of Texas at San Antonio and other researchers from the University of West Georgia and the University of Alabama. The results were published in the June issue of Social Forces.