How Does Social Class Shape Religious Affiliation?

The social class of a person can affect religious practice.
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The factors at play between religious affiliation and class are by no means concrete. Although certain thought processes related to class affect religious beliefs, other things such as time, mobility and economic change all contribute to the association between the two. This often leads to a change in the beliefs or practices of individuals, as well as the makeup of educational institutions.

1 Changes in Religious Affiliation and Class

Although the relationship between class and religion has never been strict, there are some trends in religious affiliation and class structure. Catholics, who were in the lower socioeconomic class before WWII, began to rise into the middle class in the Post-WWII period. Jews’ station in life also rose, thus making their already upper-class status more concrete. Mormons -- a fairly new denomination of Christianity -- improved their status as well during that time. Presently, a confluence of factors lead J.Z. Park and S.H. Reimer to state in the 2002 edition of the "Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion" that the relationship between class and religion continues, while C.Smith and R. Faris argued in the 2005 edition of the journal that the connection had dissipated.

2 Beliefs Affecting Affiliation

Karl Marx, a philosopher and economist, considered religion to obfuscate the realities of economic exploitation, preventing people from properly seeking help for their situations. In the "Social Sources of Denominationalism," H. Richard Niebuhr expressed the belief that people from the lower class are likely to be attracted to religious affiliations that strongly adhere to dogmas and strict doctrinal interpretation, while middle and upper class members of society tend towards more bureaucratic religious affiliations. As such, the lower class may have less room than those of the middle or upper classes to look outside of religion for answers to problematic economic situations. The concept of religious theodicy explains that people adopt beliefs that coincide with their status in life. Wealthier classes lean toward beliefs that justify their economic situations, while the lower classes lean toward those that promise wealth in the hereafter.

3 Mobility and Denomination

The expanded social circle that comes from church membership may aid people who are determined to improve their social status. As the idea of theodicy implies, the affiliation and participation level a person claims may change as they become more successful. In the 1980s, liberal denominations that typically had a middle class membership saw a decrease in well-educated participants as people began to embrace individual religious practice, which hinted that the trend was tied into class.

The social-climbers who continue going to a church often conform to the religious views of their new circle, which means that people who once considered themselves Baptist, for example, may begin to attend churches with a more upper class appeal, such as the Presbyterian church. Those who maintain their prior religious affiliation tend to move away from practices within the tradition that are considered outside the norms of their new class structure or are too emotionally charged; often evangelical practices are shunned as well.

4 Education and Denominations

Historically, Episcopalians and other Protestants dominated the upper class and were more likely to receive college degrees, particularly from top universities. Elite universities such as Brown are now seeing an increase in the evangelical student population. Improved economic conditions in largely evangelical areas of the country, such as happened in Texas during the oil boom, helped to overturn this disparity. Evangelicals are now more likely to be degree holders than in years past, which increases their economic position. Pentecostal Assemblies of God members, in example, tend to have a higher level of education and greater economic success than the general public.

Rachael DeBrouse graduated with honors from Christopher Newport University where she obtained a B.A. in English, writing concentration, and a minor in philosophy and religious studies. She has been studying religion and spirituality independently and in academic environments since high school.