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Why so many empty church pews? Here’s what money, sex, divorce and TV are doing to American religion

America’s churches are in trouble, and they are in trouble in communities that arguably need them the most.

One of the tragic tales told by Harvard scholar Robert Putnam in his important new book, “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis,” is that America’s churches have grown weakest in some of the communities that need them most: poor and working-class communities across the country. The way he puts it, our nation’s churches, synagogues and mosques give children a sense of meaning, belonging and purpose — in a word, hope — that allows them to steer clear of trouble, from drugs to delinquency, and toward a bright and better future, warmer family relationships and significantly higher odds of attending college.

The tragedy is that even though religious involvement “makes a bigger difference in the lives of poor kids than rich kids,” Putnam writes, involvement is dropping off fastest among children from the least privileged background, as the figure below indicates.

The picture of religion painted by Putnam, a political scientist and the foremost scholar of American civic life, is part of a broader canvass in his book showing that kid-friendly institutions — not just churches, but also strong families and strong schools — are withering, but almost entirely in less-affluent communities. American children from better-educated and more affluent homes enjoy decent access to churches, families and schools, which lifts their odds of realizing the American Dream, even as kids from less-privileged homes are increasingly disconnected from these key institutions, making the American Dream that much more difficult for them to pursue.

Why is it that the country is witnessing not only a religious decline, but one that is concentrated among its most vulnerable men, women and children? Four factors stand out in understanding the emptying out of the pews in working-class and poor communities across the United States: money, TV, sex and divorce.

Money matters

In “Our Kids,” Putnam assigns much of the blame for the unraveling of America’s religious, communal and familial fabric to shift from an industrial to an information economy. The 1970s saw declines in employment for less-educated men, divergent incomes for college-educated and less-educated men, and a “breathtaking increase in inequality” — all of which left college-educated families and their communities with more financial resources, and poor and working-class communities with fewer resources. The figure below, taken from Nicholas Eberstadt’s essay on men’s employment, shows that work dropped precipitously for men in the 1970s.

A key reason that working-class men are now less likely to attend church is that they cannot access the kind of stable, good-paying jobs that sustain a “decent” lifestyle and stable, married family life — two key ingredients associated with churchgoing in America.

But the retreat from religion stems from much more than money, my research (with colleagues) suggests. Consider, as the figure below shows, that dramatic declines in religious attendance began in the 1960s, well before the economic factors stressed by Putnam kicked in a decade later.

The timing of religious declines — paralleled and reinforced by the retreat from marriage that also began in the 1960s, leaving more and more kids in single-parent homes — suggests that America’s religious and familial capital was suffering well before the economic shocks of the 1970s.

The rise of television

Ironically, one of the best guides to the non-economic factors driving the nation’s retreat from religion is none other than… Robert Putnam. In his 2000 blockbuster, “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” he pointed to the growing popularity of TV over the past five decades as a major “ringleader” behind declining rates of civic engagement, including religious attendance. Television and the pop culture encouraged “lethargy and passivity” and “materialist values,” which are both in tension with a vibrant religious life.

What Putnam largely overlooked in the “Bowling Alone discussion of TV, however, was the class angle: Television viewing was (and is) dramatically higher among working-class and poor Americans. The growing presence and power of TV, then, could have taken a large toll on churches serving less-affluent Americans.

Sex, culture wars and divorce

In another book, “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us,” Putnam and David Campbell chronicled the immediate and long-term religious fallout connected to the cultural revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s — from the sexual revolution to the divorce revolution.

In the immediate wake of the sexual revolution, many young adults steered clear of churchgoing, sensing a tension between their own experiences with “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” and traditional religious life. In more recent years, the culture wars that emerged from the 1960s — over sex, abortion and gay marriage — have left many young adults viewing religion as an intolerant force they want nothing to do with: In Putnam and Campbell’s words, many “[young] Americans came to view religion… as judgmental, hypocritical, and too political.”

But, again, Putnam and Campbell miss the class angle. The divorce revolution has had a particularly devastating toll on lower-income family life and relationships. Not only was divorce higher among working-class and poor families in the wake of the divorce revolution, but the children of divorce have proven less likely to attend church than their peers from intact families.

The tumult in families during the past four decades helps account for the growing detachment of working-class Americans from churches, my research suggests. The legacy of the divorce revolution has fueled a pervasive “crisis of trust” in working-class relationships, as David and Amber Lapp have noted, that corrodes young adults’ faith in people, marriage and other institutions — including the church. The family fallout, then, of the cultural revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s seems to have significantly damaged the vitality of religious life in poor and working-class communities across America.

The fragility of contemporary religious life in working-class and poor communities in America is rooted not only in the “economic hammer blows” dealt to communities by the new economy, but also in the technological and cultural changes that have undercut the virtues, values and institutions that sustain churches, synagogues and mosques — including strong and stable marriages and families.

Efforts to revive religious life in our nation’s most vulnerable communities must not only address the declining economic prospects of working-class and poor young adults, but also seek ways to revive the relational climates in these communities. Holistic approaches are the best way to bridge the religious divide now separating “our kids” when it comes to connecting them to the social and spiritual goods associated with religious life in America.

Interested in more articles about religion? Read more from Acts of Faith:

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