The column series Sightings lives week by week. In my other life as a historian for 60 years, I have lived by 250- and 500-year chunks of American life.
My colleagues and I know that you cannot write religious history, the history of religions and of religious people in America without reckoning with the social class of citizens.
As obvious as that is, it is not easily spoken about. Whether we listen casually or closely, we hear how instinctively the measuring of people and movements by class is part of the judgments we make.
If that paragraph sounds cautious, it is because talk about class is so perilous. Yet, there it is. And, like much about ethnicity and race in American history, so class is tangled with religious heritages and choice.
Mention that and you may be accused of being prejudiced or occasioning class war.
Fortunately, we get more and more data that helps us speak and write in informed ways.
This week let me lift out one illustration, informed by a new and extensive survey by the folks at Public Religion Research Institute. We will focus on “white working class men,” who are much observed these days.
Robert P. Jones and his PRRI associates first attack some myths, including that “white working-class Americans have abandoned traditional religiosity and a strong work ethic.”
In fact, they are more likely than Americans in general to attend church and they do not report that religion is less important than it was some years ago.
The PRRI survey makes it possible for Jones and company to confirm conventional wisdom. First, that the non-college group does embrace different consumer preferences, lifestyle choices and parenting choices than do white college-educated Americans.
They are less likely than the college-educated “to feel connected to government.” Surveyors find that 51 percent of the college-educated whites speak readily of “our government;” only 39 percent of those without college do.
More of them believe that blacks and other minorities get too good a deal from government than do the college alumni, with a count of 60 percent to 39 percent.
Interestingly, though they are economically disillusioned, they believe strongly in American exceptionalism. Let the politicians reckon with all this.
Only 19 percent of them will call themselves liberal, while their college-educated counterparts include 28 percent self-named “liberal.”
As for affiliation, 36 percent identify themselves as evangelical Protestant, while 19 percent see themselves as mainline Protestant or Catholic. Only 16 percent say that they are religiously unaffiliated.
To compare, according to PRRI findings, in college-educated counterparts, 21 percent are evangelical, 23 percent mainline Protestant, 23 percent Catholic, and 21 percent unaffiliated.
Interestingly, almost exactly one third of the college-educated white Protestants claim to attend church weekly as do the non-college cohort.
College experience or not, the religious activity numbers are also similar: 32 percent say they almost never or never attend church.
It is impossible to summarize all the findings and contentions related to this survey; the purpose of this admittedly brisk report is simply to remind ourselves that, while class-talk does not tell us everything, it tells us much, and we neglect it at our peril if we want to deal intelligently with politics, cultural life and, yes, church life, in our nation which is so rich in diversity.
Suppressing talk of class forces us to leave out many elements that can improve national life. When class comes up, we do well to talk.
Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. His column first appeared in Sightings.
Watch an EthicsDaily.com Skype interview below with PRRI’s Robert Jones, who discusses the survey.