How can churches become more welcoming to blue-collar Americans? The first step involves seeing them as “our people.” Nothing about the decline of America’s working class is irreversible. The middle-brow contempt for the working class must be replaced with a spirit of brotherhood and a sense that we are in the same boat. They are worried about the fate of the country, every bit as much as we are. They have an almost instinctive form of patriotism, just as many Christians do. All of us have souls, struggles with sin and hopes for salvation–these must be boldly expressed through the Christian lens. As the recent trucker rallies in Canada show, if there is hope for our civilization generally, hope lies, as Orwell has Winston Smith narrate in 1984, with the proles. So it is for a Christianity that has always found believers among the lower classes.
Kvetching about the rise of the religious “nones” distracts from the other challenges of the world increasingly hostile to Christianity. One challenge is that working-class Americans are increasingly unchurched.
It was not always thus. No gap between working class church attendance and attendance in other classes existed before the 1980s. Working class Americans were long faithful Christians. Working class Catholics were the backbone of many urban perishes. During the 1990s, my wife and I lived across the street from a faithful Catholic family with 21 kids and no twins. Fundamentalists in the country were devoted church goers and were much more culturally conservative than well-educated WASPs.
This is no longer the case. Poll after poll and book after book show that a yawning church attendance gap has opened in America. Just under 50% of the college educated attended church, while about 23% of those without college attended according to a study in the early 2010s. That gap has, if anything, widened in the past decade. My Lutheran parish has flipped in much this way: it has gone from a mostly blue-collar parish in the 1990s to a solidly, but not exclusively white-collar parish now. Evangelical churches in my area reflect the same thing.
The church attendance gap reflects America’s ongoing class division. Marriage rates among the lower classes are significantly lower, while cohabitation rates and divorce rates are significantly higher. Suicide rates among those without college education have soared, as has drug and alcohol abuse. Children of the lower classes do worse on standardized tests than the children of the upper class. Working class Americans have a much more difficult time finding and keeping steady work as well.
These are interlocking problems. The old American synthesis of conservative faith and family life combined with economic opportunity seems to be dying or dead. Faithful churches are fewer in number than fifty years ago. Family life and economic opportunity seem increasingly to be privileges of the wealthy.
Churches cannot solve the whole of the issue, but they can do their part. The first step is understanding. Imagine most American churches through the eyes of a working-class or blue-collar American man. He is a powerline worker, a plumber, an HVAC technician, or a roofer. Whom does he see when he enters modern churches? He sees many bookish men—men who read some theology or who are serious students of their professions. He also sees many emotional men, filled with their love of God and their connection to their wives. Christ fills an emotional need for such men—and churches arise to provide a psychological defense of the need for faith. Neither the bookish nor the emotional parishioners are copasetic with our working-class, would-be Christian. Just as he is a fish out of water when people begin to talk about the demands of their desk jobs, our working-class man cannot find a place in the modern church where there seems to be little to no place for the working man.
Seeing him as a “misfit” may be a charitable way of viewing the problem. Churchgoers may, in fact, actively contemn America’s working class. “Those people” may have liked Donald Trump’s “mean tweets.” They do not affect urbanity. They get their hands dirty without the typical middle-class politesse or anxiety.