Thursday, August 25, 2011

Education Makes White People Dumb

You will eat, bye and bye,
In that glorious land above the sky;
Work and pray, live on hay,
You'll get pie in the sky when you die
- Joe Hill song
This interesting study of patterns of church-going and attitudes to family values is interesting. It demonstrates that American whites (probably like most people) defy the usual stereotypes. In particular its widely assumed that the poorer you are in America the more conservative, backwards and religious that you are. I have a distinct memory from watching Religulous, the Bill Maher doc that attacks religion, of Maher talking to some truckers who had a little evangelical church behind a truck stop. Maher, first of all, represents everything that is wrong with American (or Canadian) liberals - he is a smug, self-important snob, and a windbag to boot. The guy just never shuts the hell up to let anyone else talk. His only analysis is a smirk and condescension.

Besides the fact that Maher was a prick to the truckers, it is also inaccurate to portray truckers and rural workers as the base of evangelical religion. In fact, the higher up the income ladder you go, the study found, and the higher the education level achieved, the more likely were the people to attend church services.

Relying on nationally representative data from the General Social Survey and the National Survey of Family Growth, the study finds that moderately educated whites—those who have a high school degree but who did not graduate from a 4-year college—attended religious services in the 1970s at about the same rate as the most educated whites—those who at a minimum graduated from a 4-year college—but they attended at much lower frequencies in the 2000s.
The least educated white Americans—those who did not graduate from high school—attended religious services less frequently than both the moderately educated and most educated in the 1970s and that remained the case in the 2000s. "The least educated have been consistently less religiously engaged than even the moderately educated, meaning the gap between the least educated and most educated is even larger than the one between the moderately educated and most educated," Wilcox said.
In the 1970s, among those aged 25-44, 51 percent of college-educated whites attended religious services monthly or more, compared to 50 percent of moderately educated whites, and 38 percent of the least educated whites. In the 2000s, among those aged 25-44, 46 percent of college-educated whites attended monthly or more, compared to 37 percent of moderately educated whites, and 23 percent of the least educated whites.
Now, just to be clear, I don't think that going to church means you're dumb - well, not always. The Civil Rights Movement was organized through the Black Baptist Church in the Southern USA. The courageous demonstrations against the Assad regime in Syria are organized in significant part through the mosques, ditto in Egypt during the revolution earlier this year. But the church of rich, white Americans is another story.

For one thing, American protestantism is profoundly conservative, emphasizing the most cartoonish aspects of American "can do" ideology and fetishizing the ideal of a family structure that has long ago ceased to exist for most people in America.

Indeed, the study points out that modern religious institutions tend to promote a family-centered morality that valorizes marriage and parenthood, and they embrace traditional middle-class virtues such as self-control, delayed gratification, and a focus on education.
Over the past 40 years, however, the moderately educated have become less likely to hold familistic beliefs and less likely to get and stay married, compared to college-educated adults. During the same period, wages have fallen and rates of unemployment have risen markedly for moderately educated men, while wages have remained stagnant for moderately educated women. For the least educated—those without high school degrees—the economic situation has been even worse, and they have also become less likely to hold familistic beliefs and less likely to get and stay married, compared to college-educated adults.
In other words, the failure of US Protestantism, or rather those streams favoured by whites, to connect with the daily lives of white workers has alienated them from the church. The study found, for instance, that workers who had been unemployed in the last ten years were much less likely to be church goers. When you find that the God of Americanism has foresaken you to the unemployment line - and that he thinks it's your own damn fault, you're probably not so keen to go visit him in his house.

It also indicates an interesting cognitive dissonance in American culture - the impression one gets from the media and from politicians is that religious observance is actually on the upswing in America when, for most Americans, it is becomes less of a factor in their lives. This points to the fact that the narrative that gets play in the media - and which fits the rich, white boys who dominate both houses of Congress - is a narrative of the upper classes. (As Marx once said: "those who control the means of production, also control the means of mental production"). But this also indicates that a gap has opened up culturally and ideologically between rich and poor in America. Frankly, that's a good thing. It suggests that American workers are less culturally identified with the American ruling class than at any other time since the Second World War. The weakening of that ideological hegemony (domination) is a pre-condition for winning workers to an alternative worldview that emphasizes their interests.


RedMaistre said...

Excellent observation about how American Christianity  is marginalizing the voice of the poor and weak, making a mockery of the Gospel they proclaim with their tongues among non-believers and turning the Word of God into a mental contagion of pride and avarice for those within the churches. I am Roman Catholic, and so I have seen less of the overt apologetics for capitalism by its official teachings, the clergy, or by the theologians than exist in among certain Protestant circles. I think the contrasting strains of both romantic medivealism and Liberation theology that permeate Catholic discourse moderates approval of liberalism. The various immigrant communities within the Church probably factors in. Not that there are not other ways the Catholicism colludes with ruling class ideology of course... It does not help during the era of the "War on Terror" that the Crusades and Reconquestia are part of the history of the Catholic Church, a heroic history, sadly, for some.

Nice Blog by the way. 

Shawn Whitney said...

Thanks for you contribution and observance viz your own religion. It's interesting to note the way that history, social class and ethnicity profoundly effect the kinds of messages that are emphasized within a given religion or sect. Back at the turn of the 20th century, Protestantism wasn't so totally incorporated into pro-capitalist and pro-imperialist politics. There was the Social Gospel movement, for instance, which gave us the NDP up here in Canada. Sadly, that liberatory strand of Protestantism has been occluded for a long time. Hopefully it will make a comeback!

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