Church, class, and bourgeois virtue

Jim Henley cites some recent research showing that church attendance correlates with income and “familistic and bourgeois values”; he goes on to offer some speculative explanations of why church might be inhospitable to working-class folks. I think there’s a lot of truth there, but I also have to ask, if this is a recent phenomenon (as the research Jim cites suggests), then what changed? Why are churches losing ground among the working class now? Is this something specific to churches, or are people who have lost ground economically losing faith in all the institutions in society (church, government, business)? After all, divisions between rich and poor in the church go back at least to the church at Corinth.

There are a few possible additional explanations I can think of, but it would also be helpful if we knew whether this phenomenon is evenly distributed among different kinds of churches. Are liberal mainline churches doing better or worse among working class people than conservative evangelical ones? While it might seem plausible, for example, that poorer people would find “prosperity gospel” preaching alienating, my sense is that this variety of Christianity actually is more appealing to those trying to better their economic condition than it is a post facto rationalization for wealth already accumulated, though it may also be that. (See this Peter Berger article on prosperity-type teaching among pentecostal Christians in the global south for a provocative take on that.) Meanwhile, I can think of reasons why lower-income working people might find the “peace and justice” preaching of some comfortably upper-middle-class liberal churches less than fully relevant to their lives.

Whatever the explanation, there’s clearly evidence that churches often become “self-selecting circles of the economically and socially successful,” as Jim puts it. What should–but apparently doesn’t–go without saying is that this is a far cry from the kind of community that Jesus gathered around himself and which Christianity at its best has embodied. The church isn’t primarily–if at all–supposed to be a training ground for bourgeois virtue, although it has certainly functioned that way for much of American history. If there’s a silver lining here it may be that this model of the church is finally dying a well-deserved death. But what, if anything, will replace it?

Any other thoughts?

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One thought on “Church, class, and bourgeois virtue

  1. I haven’t finished the paper yet, but I find that it emphasizes, a lot more than Henley does, that this is specifically a phenomenon of white people. And it must be admitted that relations between working-class and affluent white people have gotten pretty bad over the last 50 years. I know that you, like me, have been through a number of liberal mostly-white Protestant churches — have you ever known one that ministered deliberately to poor white people? I haven’t. So they get left to the evangelical and Catholic churches, which, as has been pointed out, take a hard line against behaviors that are increasingly prevalent and accepted among working-class whites.

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