There’s a Growing Class Divide in Church Attendance
Religious participation is falling much more rapidly among those without a college degree
There are few institutions better positioned to transform individual lives and reshape communities than America’s churches and places of worship. In Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, Robert Putnam documents the unique contributions made by places of worship. He writes:
Religious communities in America are important service providers for young people and the poor. Weekly churchgoers are two to three times more likely to volunteer to help the poor and young people than are nonchurchgoers, holding other things constant, and are much more likely to contribute financially to those causes. This religious edge appears for volunteering and giving through secular organizations, as well as for volunteering and giving through religious organizations. And the crucial ingredient seems not to be theology but rather involvement in a religious congregation.
Yet increasingly, these benefits are not spread evenly across American society. As religious participation in the US continues to fall, some Americans are much more affected by its absence.
For much, if not most, of our history, religious congregations could be found in every corner of the United States, crossing barriers of class, race, and geography. As Putnam notes, “Religious engagement has traditionally been less class-biased than virtually any other sort of community or extracurricular activity.” But that’s no longer the case.
Today, religious participation and membership vary greatly by educational attainment. College graduates are much more involved in religious practice than those without any college experience. Although religious membership has fallen nationally since the late 1990s, the decline has been much steeper among those without a degree: less than half of Americans without a college degree report being a member of a church or other place of worship.
The educational divide in religious participation is even wider within certain religious traditions. A Pew study found that college-educated evangelical Christians were 13 points more likely than those without a college degree to attend religious services regularly. The educational divide among Mormons was nearly 20 points.
It has long been presumed, and in some cases feared, that higher education—and the widespread availability of information and knowledge via the Internet—would undermine religious commitments. Actual evidence for this is lacking. While religious doubting has grown in recent years, the most educated Americans show up to services most often. Even as they report less certainty in their religious beliefs, they participate more regularly in worship services. Higher education appears to reinforce regular religious participation.
Why is this Happening?
The simplest explanation is that college-educated Americans are more likely to prioritize religious participation and to pass these experiences on to their children. Last year, we documented a significant generational gap in formative religious experiences. Millennials and Gen Z had far less robust religious experiences in childhood than previous generations. But, this religious gap is especially pronounced among those without a college education. College-educated Millennials and Baby Boomers are about equally as likely to report regular religious attendance growing up. But, Boomers who did not go to college are far more likely than non-college educated Millennials to have worshipped regularly with their family (64 percent vs. 47 percent, respectively). The same is true for participating in a religious education program, like Sunday school. Boomers with a college degree are only a bit more likely than Millennials to have attended Sunday school. Yet, the gap among those further down the education ladder is massive: more than two-thirds (68 percent) of Boomers without a college degree attended Sunday School or a similar type of youth-oriented education program; only 43 percent of Millennials were involved in this type of religious education program.
These results are certainly consistent with Putnam’s finding that, “young people’s church attendance ... has fallen twice as fast among kids from lower third of the socioeconomic hierarchy as among kids from the upper third.”
The growing class gap in religious attendance is partially attributable to plummeting marriage rates in non-college households. Three decades earlier there was only a modest gap in marriage rates between Americans with a college degree and those without. The gap has since tripled in size and continues to grow. For a number of reasons, married people tend to be more religiously active, whether it’s due to having greater personal and financial resources, more social stability, or firmer desire to raise children in a religious community.
The rising educational gap in religious participation and membership is also a story of changing neighborhoods. As American neighborhoods became more segregated by class, local civic and religious organizations serving these communities were affected. Deteriorating social trust, rising rates of crime and drug use, and lack of public investment presented new problems for churches that they were less able to address. Churches not only help build vibrant communities but are sustained by them.
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One thing that seems clear is that the decline of churches will likely make inequality worse. College-educated Americans are more active and involved in every sphere of American social and civic life, from book clubs and PTA meetings, to sports leagues and town halls. On average, they have more friends, broader social networks, and more extensive ties to the places where they live. If you want a fuller accounting of the abundant ways college graduates reap these social capital benefits, check out this recent report: “The College Connection: The Education Divide in American Social and Community Life.” Churches offer one way to bridge the gap, but fewer Americans are turning to them.
When religious participation is habitual and communal, woven into the fabric of daily life, its social and civic forces are widespread. But, if it is treated as an extracurricular activity, most of the social benefits of membership extend to people who need them least.