Trickle down morality
Conservatives aren’t the cause of liberals leaving the church
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The Wall Street Journal in August published an article, “Houses of Worship Shouldn’t Mirror the Class Divide,” by Ryan Burge, a Baptist pastor and associate professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University.
He begins by noting two trends. First, more people than ever in the United States have no religious affiliation. We’re informed that only 5 percent of Americans in 1972 said so, but by 2021, that percentage had sky-rocketed to 30 percent. At the same time, those who attend church weekly are overwhelmingly better off financially and enjoy higher levels of education than those who do not.
Puzzlingly, Pastor Burge is as troubled by the second trend as the first. But considering it has been conventional wisdom among atheists that religion is only found in the company of ignorance and poverty, the fact that religious belief is correlated with financial strength struck me as something to celebrate—or at least to note with interest.
But Pastor Burge takes these data to imply that churchgoing people—particularly white conservative churchgoing people—are somehow complicit in the decline in church attendance. He notes, “In 1978, 50% of white weekly church-goers were Democrats and 40% were Republicans. Today, 60% identify as Republicans and just 25% as Democrats.”
The way he frames the matter begs the question. Left unnoted is that, generally speaking, mainline churches have trended left for those same 50 years. When I’m on the town green of most New England towns, my eyes are assaulted by Pride flags and Black Lives Matter lawn signs at the white clapboard church. It seems that a great many churches are trying to reach those disaffected Democrats. But according to Pastor Burge’s research, they’re failing.
Speaking of Democrats, I remember them quite well. I sat next to them in the little blue-collar evangelical church I attended in 1978 in western Pennsylvania. They were family-oriented in the old-fashioned way and patriotic. What made them Democrats was their union cards. But they identified primarily with Norman Rockwell’s America. What has changed since then wasn’t the churches. (In most cases, anyway.) What changed was the Democratic Party. I’m old enough to recall Ronald Reagan’s quip, “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party left me.” And that’s true for the folks I knew. In fact, most of them voted for Reagan, who won by landslides.
The concern that Pastor Burge expresses for low-income people is one I share. I lived in public housing as a kid and was in foster care. And that little blue-collar church I mentioned earlier made all the difference for me. But those folks had more than the church going for them—as important as that was. They also had healthy, traditional families headed by a father who could support them on his income alone. They didn’t have much by some standards—a modest home, a car, and perhaps a truck. But they had self-respect. Those families are harder to find today.
Drug addiction and family breakdown have decimated the working class. Let’s put the spotlight where it belongs.
It’s not a lack of jobs that hurts. The jobs are there. But the people who could fill those jobs are either unwilling to or not qualified. And the qualification I’m thinking of is sobriety. A friend’s son just graduated from a trade school. A local defense contractor is so desperate for workers that it hired his entire class—all 16 of them. But only one passed the drug test—my friend’s son—the one from the churchgoing, intact family.
As a pastor, I’m pleased to say that I have had a good number of working-class men in my churches over the years. But I’ve also had corporate executives, wealthy entrepreneurs, and college professors. I enjoy ministering to them all, in part because I can relate pretty well to all of them. I’ve been a frame-in carpenter, a building contractor, a real estate investor, an author, a college professor, and, of course, a pastor. So, I’ve seen what Pastor Burge would like to see.
But while I’m all for churches doing what they can to reach people, we need cultural renewal more broadly. Churches can and should prophetically call for that. For the last 50 years, America has focused on self-expression at the expense of just about everything else. And working-class America has paid a price. Elites on the left may parade fashionable beliefs, but to their credit, they fail to practice what they preach. That’s evident in their tendency to wait for marriage to have kids. And even when it comes to substance abuse, they practice remarkable brinksmanship—principally because education and money give you a wide margin for error. Working-class people have no margin for error. They live perpetually on the brink. And this is precisely why elites of every political persuasion should preach the virtues of self-control.
What working-class America needs more than farmer’s markets on church lawns or AA groups in church basements is a nationwide recovery of old-fashioned virtues such as thrift, timeliness, honesty, family loyalty, patriotism, and above all, piety, including church attendance. If elites can preach unfashionable beliefs and live them, we will see a trickle-down effect that will, morally, and even financially, raise all boats.
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