The Bad Faith of the White Working Class

Church attendance has fallen substantially among the members of the white working class in recent years, just when they need it most.

Though many working-class whites have lost any ties to church, they haven’t necessarily abandoned their faith. More than one in three identify as evangelical, and well over 75 percent claim some Christian affiliation. But that faith has become deinstitutionalized. They may watch megachurch broadcasts or join prayer circles on Facebook, but they largely avoid the pews on Sunday. Consequently, many absorb the vernacular and teachings of modern Christianity, but miss out on the advantages of church itself.

 

I think I was 11 when, teary-eyed and exhausted, I asked my grandmother whether God loved us. It had been an unusually terrible day for my sister and me. Our mother had called us worthless, threatened us, and then nearly crashed our car during a violent outburst. Things like this happened often in my family and among my friends, but not all on the same day.

At the time, it was a profoundly important question. The evangelical Christian faith I’d grown up with sustained me. It demanded that I refuse the drugs and alcohol on offer in our southwestern Ohio town, that I treat my friends and family kindly and that I work hard in school. Most of all, when times were toughest, it gave me reason to hope.

I’m hardly alone in benefiting from that faith. Research suggests that children who attend church perform better in school, divorce less as adults and commit fewer crimes. Regular church attendees even exhibit less racial prejudice than their nonreligious peers. The M.I.T. economist Jonathan Gruber found that for many of these traits, this relationship is causal: It’s not just that privileged kids who attend church skew the data, but that attending services produces good character.

These benefits apply broadly, across a range of faiths, so the phenomenon appears unrelated to doctrine or place. Undoubtedly, church fish fries and picnics help build social cohesion. It was at my dad’s medium-size evangelical church — my first real exposure to a sustained religious community — that I first saw people of different races and classes worshiping together. The church even collected money to help families in need and established a small school and home for single expectant mothers.

Despite these benefits, church attendance has fallen substantially among the members of the white working class in recent years, just when they need it most. Though working-class whites earn, on average, more than working-class people of other ethnicities, we are in a steep social decline. Incarceration rates for white women are on the rise, white youths are more likely than their peers from other groups to die from drug overdoses and rates of divorce and domestic chaos have skyrocketed. Taken together, these statistics reveal a social crisis of historic proportions. Yet the white church — especially the evangelical church that claims the most members — has seemingly disappeared.

Though many working-class whites have lost any ties to church, they haven’t necessarily abandoned their faith. More than one in three identify as evangelical, and well over 75 percent claim some Christian affiliation. But that faith has become deinstitutionalized. They may watch megachurch broadcasts or join prayer circles on Facebook, but they largely avoid the pews on Sunday. Consequently, many absorb the vernacular and teachings of modern Christianity, but miss out on the advantages of church itself.

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