Saturday, November 13, 2010

Evangelicalism and Social Class

(More from American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us)

For most of the first half of the 20th century, the gap between the rich and the poor in America narrowed.  However, in the 1970s, a rapid increase in income inequality began and continues to this day.  To illustrate, in the late 1970s, the richest 10% of Americans had about 33% of the nation's wealth.  By 2010, the richest 10% of Americans owned 50% of the nation's wealth.

Along with a great inequality in wealth distribution, the authors note that residential segregation by income was also increasing.  Those in poverty and those with wealth increasingly lived in separate geographical areas.  Furthermore, the social distance between the rich and poor has been increasing.  Intermarriage between social class (measured by income and educational levels) has steadily decreased since the 1960's.  To sum up, the authors note, "Over the last three to four decades, Americans have been increasingly polarized into haves and have-nots--living increasingly segregated and unequal lives."   

What would the Gospel have to say about this?  Historically and Biblically, Christians have a rich prophetic tradition of speaking out against such social inequality.  As the authors themselves say, "Many contemporary secular progressives have forgotten that the history of religion in America is replete with powerful examples of evangelical revival promoting social reform and equality.  Indeed, it is harder to identify purely secular progressive movements in American history than to find progressive movements infused with deep religious commitment and undergirded by religious institutions."

Perhaps surprising to some, as the gap between social classes has widened in the past 30 years, it has been the upper classes who have shown greater religious observance.  Weekly church attendance among the college educated has stayed essentially flat since the late 1970s, while church attendance among those without college has dropped by about one third.  The authors conclude that "this trend is clearly contrary to any idea that religion is nowadays providing solace to the disinherited and dispossessed, or that higher education subverts religion.  Secularization seems to be proceeding more rapidly among less educated Americans."

What role then does religion, and particularly evangelical religion, play in bridging the gap between rich and poor?  According to the authors, a (relative-to-others) positive role.  They note that among the upper and middle classes in America, those who are religiously observant are more likely to report friendship and social interaction with those who would be in the lower classes.  Not only that, but the authors also say that "this religiously based class-bridging is heavily concentrated among evangelical Protestants....evangelical churches, because they are both socially diverse and socially active, appear to be one important exception to class segregation in America."

There is much that evangelicalism in America can be chastised for.  However, in this case at least, evangelicalism appears to be somewhat faithful to its biblical calling.  If the church is truly a place where there is "neither rich nor poor" but all are one in Christ, then those who fall under the evangelical umbrella would be wise to recognize and take responsibility for leading the charge against an American society that divides and separates the haves and the have-nots.  If the Gospel tells us anything, it's that we all are have-nots, with nothing to boast of except Christ and His work on the cross.