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Religious Income Stratification in the United States

Hausarbeit 2015 20 Seiten

Soziologie - Religion



1. Introduction

2. Theory
2.1 Socio-Cultural Theories of Religious Inequality
2.2 Conflict Theory of Religious Inequality

3. Religious income stratification in the U.S.

4. Interpretation
4.1 Income Inequality as a Result of Religious Ideology
4.2 Religious Ideology as a result of Income Inequality

5. Conclusion


1. Introduction

Scholars have been investigating the relationship between religion and socioeconomic status ever since Weber's work on the economic consequences of the Protestant work ethic (Weber 1905/2009). However, most modern day social stratification researchers focus on the three „classic“ forms of inequality - race, class and gender – and religion as a factor, which influences the social and economical chances of an individual is often overlooked. It is argued, that modern societies are increasingly secular, and therefore religion lost its importance in public life. While this is in general true for most western societies it has only limited validity for the United States. Furthermore, in recent times, a religious backlash, capturing sections of society, can be an examined in many parts of the world. It is also argued, that religious affiliation is a matter of personal choice. Research on the religious field recently focused on religion as a part of the lifestyle of an individual - or on sects, new religions and fundamentalism. In this context, religion is often rather seen as a result of a specific social status than its cause. Bourdieu (1991: 12) argues, that in every class, religion has a different symbolic and function. Higher classes have the tendency, to emphazise a more rationalized approach towards religion. For lower classes on the other hand, religion just not only play a bigger a role in everyday life, but they have a more mystical conception of religion as well (cf. Keister: 2011). Following this argumentation, it may be true, that being determines consciousness. But in this paper, I will understand "a religion" not as an individual ideology, which is highly dependent on one's social status, but as a (official) social group. In this understanding, religion is the basis of group affiliation and an important component of people's identities (cf. Taylor 2009). Only when this distinction is made, the contradiction can be resolved, that the more affluent and educated religious groups have a lower church attendance, while at same time affluent and educated individuals within a religious group have a higher church attendance - and that people who are not affiliated to any religious group, have an income and educational level which is about the same than the national average (Glaeser/Sacerdote: 2012).[1]

The affiliation to a religious group is still to a high extend a permanent and ascribe status and most people do not change their religion in their life course (Keister: 2011).

The question in the paper will be, how belonging to such a group shapes one's changes for economic well-being. Nevertheless, because the possibility of switching the religious group exists, it makes the dissolving of effect and cause not always easy. This is may for example be the case for Evangelical (which can further be grouped as Conservative and Fundamentalist) Protestants. This group has a steady and permanent inflow rate, primarily from the more impoverished parts of Mainline Protestantism (which can further be grouped as Liberal and Moderate). Given the low rate of inter-generational income mobility, the relatively low economic status of their members cannot only be seen as an effect of their religion but as cause for their religious choice (or the choice of their ancestors) as well. Religion compensates individuals for relative deprivation and for status inconsistency. Therefore, sectarian movements are usually participated in by the lower classes (Yinger 1970: 283).

A religion provides an institutionalized set of practices and discourses, who effects their members (Bourdieu 1991). Thus, a religion can be seen as a moral community, even when individual religious beliefs can vary and depend on one's taste and social position. A large body of literature exists, about how religion shapes habits towards partner selection, marriage, divorce, fertility, women's work at home or in labour markets, consumption, spending and investments, occupational choice, entrepreneurship and education (Lehrer 2004, 2010, Sherkat 2004, Keister 2011). Furthermore, religion always has been a cause of prejudice and discrimination. All these factors influence the income and wealth of a person.

2. Theory

Both, the functionalist or sociocultural who explains religious inequality as a result of a different set of values which leads to different economic performances, as well as the non-Marxist conflict theoretical approach, explaining religious inequality as an result of the different ability of groups to comply their interests, have their roots in the work of Max Weber. While the former refer to the "Protestantische Ethik" (1905/2009) and "Die Wirtschaftsethik der Weltreligionen" (1921/1988), the latter concentrate their interest on Weber's conception of conflict and power, formulated in "Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft" (1922/2009). While functionalists have faced severe critic other fields of social inequality since the 1950s (eg. Mills 1956/2000, Dahrendorf 1961), most sociologists still seem to prefer sociocultural and functionalist explanations on the religious field. Conflict theoretical approaches and discrimination are often only consulted as an explanation religion is inseparably interwoven with ethnicity or race.

2.1 Socio-Cultural Theories of Religious Inequality

In Weber's work on the religious field, he explores the connections between religious and economical development. In particular, why the modern capitalist culture evolved in Europe and why Protestants tend to be more economically successful than Catholics in this economic system. Weber (1921) sees religion as a systemized ideology. This ideology forms the ethos of the individual members and influences the individual's bevavior. He argues, that Protestantism emphasis individualism, since in Protestantism, the relation to god is not mediated through an authority or the church, but rather every individual is creator of his own faith. The "intellectual autonomy" (Lenski 1963: 350) of Protestants, in contrast to the obedience of Catholics, made them more likely to choose a scientific and technical professions or autonomous entrepreneurship. Furthermore, Weber notes, that Protestantism favors rationalism, because it rejects a mystical understanding of God, and beliefs, that God's action can be comprehend by logic and experiment (cf. Merton 1938/2001). Protestantism also rejects traditionalism and fatalism by looking at the world in a more progressive perspective and thinks about the future as something what can be rationally transformed, what emphasis delayed gratification and sublimation. Furthermore, Weber (1905) also notes, that Catholics prefer humanist education, while protestants are in favor of a more technical and practical education.

Since pragmatic and progressive thinking, rational organization and self-responsible management, are crucial for economic success, the economical inequalities between Protestants and Catholics could be explained over their different set of values. While these are features, Protestants have in common, Weber argues, that Martin Luther adjusted them, since the average person had difficulties adapting to this radically new worldview. According to Weber, only in the teachings of Calvin, the protestant ethos is fully developed. Furthermore Calvin added the doctrines of ascetism and double predestination, in which, from the beginning, God chose some people for salvation and others for damnation. Calvin's followers started to believe, that ones predestination is indicated by his worldly success. That led to a culture of diligence and frugality, in which children were nurtured towards rigorous work discipline. The combination of ascetism and hard-work made Calvin's followers more likely to accumulate wealth. Calvins's teaching should inspire several protestant groups like Quaker, Baptists, Methodists, Pietists and Puritans (who again evolved - among others - in Concretianalists and Presbyterians). Weber has faced critique (eg. Coleman 1990/1994) out of several reasons, for example for the lack of empirical foundation in his thesis. Other pointed out, that his thesis only apply to Central Europe, while other in regions, denominations builded out other traits. Furthermore, it was noticed, that modern capitalism started out in the 14. century Italy and not in Great Britain. Nevertheless, the Protestant Work Ethic remains an influential thesis.

There have also been serious attempts to link other religion's set of values to economic failure or success. Different socio-cultural explanations have been offered to explain the economic success of (Ashkenazi) Jews in the Western World. Fergusion (2008) noted, that after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, Jewish culture replaced its emphasis on ritual with an emphasis on study and scholarship. Unlike the surrounding cultures, most Jews, even farmers, were taught to read and write in childhood. Talmudic scholarship became a leading key to social status. Thus, Jews have placed a high priority on making investments in the human capital of their children, especially with emphasis on reading and analyzing Hebrew texts. This high priority of education would go on until today (cf. Keister 2011).[2] Other theories link the high economic status of Jews in the U.S. to the marginalization and discrimination Jews suffered from in the past. From the 12. century until the Age of Enlightenment, in most parts of Central Europe, local rulers, religious authorities and guilds ostracized Jews from agriculture and craftsmanship, what forced them to search more innovative and intellectual occupations. In addition, the Catholic law prohibited their adherents marginal occupations considered socially inferior, such as tax and rent collecting or lending and exchanging money against interest, making this positions available for some Jews, while others became entrepreneurs and merchants (Fromm 1922/1999). Similar argue Botticini and Eckstein (2003), that, because of the persecution and the limited opportunities Jews faced, they had to put more effort and innovation to survive and be outstanding. Out of this reasons, they argue, the Jewish community developed a tradition of business entrepreneurship and being suited for financial, managerial and intellectual occupations.

In case of the Islam, Kuran (2010) argues, that in the tenth century, Islamic legal institutions, which had benefitted the Middle Eastern economy in the early centuries of Islam, began drag on economic growth. He argues, that the Islamic law started to inhibited large-scale production and capital accumulation, lacks of a concept of corporation and forbids usury. This would not only prevented financial markets and banking institutions, but also led to a culture, were individuals tend to avoid profit-orientation and entrepreneurship.

Some have tried to trace the high educational attainments of Eastern Asian Americans (which do not transmit one-to one in an high income status) back to Confucius (Chao 2009, Li et. al. 2008). The 5th-century B.C.E. philosopher taught that human beings should strive their whole lifetime to improve or perfect themselves. In Confucianism, social problems are seen far and foremost as educational problems, therefore problems can be resolved through discipline, hard work and self-improvement. This led to the trait, that Asian-American parents still value education highly and seeing it as the means to a good life. Confucius also valued harmonious relations, achieved when people fulfill the responsibilities of their hierarchical roles. That means children owe respect and obedience to their parents. Honoring his parents is an important priority in Confucianism, thus not only parents tend to have high expectations towards its children, but also children strive to meet the expectations of their parents.

This thesis has received critique, because some studies suggests, that when the legal, occupational and educational status of first-generation migrants by entering the USA is taken into account, the educational outcome of East-Asians doesn't vary significantly from other groups anymore (Zhou 2007).

Many of the newer research on the religious field (for example Lehrer 2010, Sherkat 2012, Keister 2011) referring to Lenski's "Religious factor" (1961), who supports Max Weber thesis in seeing varying economic success as a byproduct of values inherent in the religious beliefs, but added religious specific family values like fertility rates, age of marriage, attitudes towards female wage labour and homeschooling as explanatory variables. Distinctive rates in these categories would limit the economic advancement of families. The traditional image of women and family are sometimes taken as explanations for the the relatively low socioeconomic status of Mormons, Evangelical Protestants and Muslims (Keister 2011).

2.2 Conflict Theory of Religious Inequality

With Conflict Theory, there is a persuasive alternative explanation for religious stratification existing. It can be assumed that, wherever different religious groups living in the same territory, some of them accumulate more wealth, power and prestige than others (Noel 1968). For conflict theorists, religious stratification in an interplay of religious prejudice, competition and different power levels. When religious attachment is accompanied by feelings of loyalty and superiority towards the own group, and antipathy and inferiority towards others, religious prejudice tends to occur. Competition occurs, when these groups interact in striving to achieve the same scarce goals. In such an competition the group who can accumulate more power on the base of access to resources, level of organization and group size will dominate others (Ibid.)

In case of the United States, Davidson and Pyle (2011) arguing, that the different power levels are a result of: a) the size of the wealth a group brought to the new world, b) their date of appearance in America, c) the size of the group, d) geographical advantages in the distribution (north vs. south; urban vs. rural; coastal vs. hinterland), e) the chohesion and institutionalization within a group and f) the level of deviation powerful groups are seeing in other groups. The last point can be seen as the source of prejudice between theists and atheists, sectarians and members of established churches, Christians and Jews, Catholics and Protestants, Calvinists and Lutherans, Liberal and Conservative Protestants, as well as between English and German or Dutch speaking denominations. These features define, who is seen as an outsider, how big is deviance is and for that reason has no access to society’s resources. When all factors from a) to e) are taken into account, the religious stratification (indicated by tax revenue and political power) in the 18. century America can be perfectly explained. On the top of the social strata were the Anglicans (with episcopalian as their main subdivision), Congregationalists and Presbyterians. This three groups are often refered to as "The Protestant Establishment" (Ibid.). In the upper middle were the Quakers and Unitarians, in the lower middle Dutch and German Reformists, Baptists, Methodists and Lutherans. At the bottom of the social strata where Jews, Catholics and non-religious affiliates. Weber's approach fails explaining, why some groups inspired by Calvin, like German and Dutch Reformists as well as Baptists (who mainly settled in the rural south), had a much lower social status than Anglicans, whose doctrine takes in a middle ground between Catholicism and Protestantism, but where among the first immigrants, settled mainly on the North-East Coast, had a high grade of organization and were favored by the British Government when America still was a dependent territory. 95 percent of the man who signed United States Declaration of Independence had been of Anglican, Congregational or Presbyterian denomination. The Protestant Establishment also made up for 85 percent of the delegates in Constitutional Convention of 1787, while at the same time accounting for only about 9 percent of the U.S. population. The pattern of religious stratification showed a high persistence throughout the 19. and early 20. century (Ibid.). Once religious inequality is established, the inequality easily becomes institutionalized in forms of laws, ideologies and customs in a religious stratification. Prejudice, competition and differential power are mutually reinforcing. Competition often leads to harsh negative feelings among groups, while strengthening the solidarity within the group. Different power levels not only shaping the group access to resources, are also leading to feelings of superiority and inferiority as a justification of the stratification, what serves at the bases of further prejudice. The dominant group is living in the believe, that their entitled to their position and makes sure, that it stays that way. The Protestant Establishment could implement their values in the educational, political, judicial and economical system. It was able to shape the national culture and institutions in a way, that they fitted their own values and interests and rationalized the status quo (Noel 1968).


[1] The relation between education and believing in god or a higher entity is not clear. While some studies found, that not-believing in god has a slightly positive relation with higher education, other studies found a negative correlation. An interesting finding, since some Atheists explain their rejection of religion in terms of superior learning.

[2] Although Jews comprise only 0.2% of the world's population, over 20% of the Nobel Prize laureates have been Jewish (Harrison 2008: 112)


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Institution / Hochschule
Eberhard-Karls-Universität Tübingen – Institut für Soziologie
religious income stratification united states



Titel: Religious Income Stratification in the United States