The same class disparities when it comes to marriage are also true, somewhat surprisingly, of religion. While President Barrack Obama famously ridiculed poor whites as “clinging to their guns and religion,” the statistics paint the opposite picture: After the upheavals of the 1970s subsided, church attendance among upper-income, college-educated whites has actually increased in recent years while church attendance among blue collar workers has plummeted to historic lows.
Using data from the General Social Survey from the National Opinion Research Center, and the National Survey of Family Growth, Cherlin and Wilcox discovered that church attendance among the poor and least educated dropped from 38 percent to 23 percent over the past four decades. In contrast, church attendance by higher-income whites with college degrees barely dipped at all, dropping from 50 percent to 46 percent in the same period. More recent studies of the past five years shows church attendance actually increasing slightly.
In their report, “No Money, No Honey, No Church: The Deinstitutionalization of Religious Life Among the White Working Class,” Cherlin and Wilcox argue that the decline in church attendance among poorer Americans and the middle class is important for many reasons but they highlight three:
First, “religious institutions typical supply their members with social and civic skills, and often a worldview that motivates them to engage the political or civic spheres, that increase their civic and political participation.”
Second, “Religious institutions appear to foster higher levels of physical and psychological health among their members, both by providing social support and by furnishing people with a sense of meaning,
Third, “some research suggests that least and moderately educated Americans are especially likely to benefit from the social support and civic skills associated with religious institutions. The non-college-educated often lack the degree of access to social networks and civic skills that the college-educated have; and religious activity can compensate for this deficit.”
Put simply, without the reinforcement provided by broader cultural communities, especially religious communities, individuals are less likely to develop the moral habits that make strong families possible. Thus each generation sees a gradual increase in single parent households, childhood poverty, high school dropout rates and unemployment.
All this leads Charles Murray to denounce the “hypocrisy in reverse” of America’s cultural elites: they do not “preach what they practice,” he says. While they make mega-fortunes “preaching” sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, their actual lives are often as boring and traditional as Ozzie and Harriet. In other words, it’s all an act, an absurd pose, to make money. Sex sells. Rebellion sells more.
Many teenagers were shocked, when MTV produced a reality television show about the home life of legendary rocker Ozzie Osborne and his long-suffering wife, Sharon, precisely because it revealed a prosperous, privileged life of almost stultifying domesticity with nary a groupie in sight. It’s a common theme in Hollywood and the entertainment industries: TV actors and executives who won’t let their own children watch the trashy programmes they make.
Murray’s point is that the overachieving children of Silicon Valley techies and Hollywood executives are often raised in stable families, sent to elite private schools, and go to church or synagogue regularly, yet these same elites wouldn’t be caught dead recommending such conservative lifestyle choices to the general public. It would hurt sales.