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Who is going to church? Not who you think, study finds

Who is filling the pews in American churches? It is increasingly likely that they won’t be working class white people, according to new research.

While religious service attendance has decreased for all white Americans since the early 1970s, the rate of decline has been more than twice as high for less educated, lower and lower-middle class whites compared to more educated and presumably more affluent whites, according to a study presented Saturday at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Las Vegas.

“My assumption going into this research was that middle America was more religious and conservative in general than more educated America,” study author Brad Wilcox told “But what is surprising about this is that when it comes to religion as well as marriage, we find that the college educated are more conventional in their lifestyle than middle Americans.”

In the last four decades, monthly (or more) participation in religious services dropped from 50 percent of moderately educated (high school and perhaps some college) whites to 37 percent, according to the study, “No Money, No Honey, No Church: The Deinstitutionalization of Religious Life Among the White Working Class.” Attendance by the least educated (high school dropouts) dropped from 38 percent to 23 percent, by sociologists Wilcox, of the University of Virginia and Andrew Cherlin of Johns Hopkins University found.

Church attendance by higher-income whites with at least a bachelor’s degree barely dipped, from 50 percent to 46 percent.

The figures represented those aged 25-44 and were gathered from two national surveys, the General Social Survey from the National Opinion Research Center, and the National Survey of Family Growth, which is conducted by the U.S. government's National Center for Health Statistics. The new study focused on white Americans because black and Latino religious worship is less divided by education and income, the researchers said.

Most whites who report a religious affiliation are Catholic, evangelical Protestant, mainstream Protestant, Mormon or Jewish.

In their paper, Cherlin and Wilcox attribute the falloff to two things: “the deteriorating labor market position of the moderately educated, and cultural changes that have made non-marital family forms more acceptable.”

This is a kind of melding of the two researchers' differing world views. Wilcox, who is affiliated with the Institute for American Values founded by David Blankenhorn, a leading opponent of same-sex marriage, argues that the loosening of sexual and marital norms, and less restrictive divorce laws, have had disastrous effects on society -- such as higher divorce rates, and extramarital sex -- and have lessened religion’s influence on the average American.

Wilcox thinks part of the church-going falloff may be due to the reluctance of divorced people to join congregations where most people are married.

Cherlin tends to emphasize the impact of unemployment and wage struggle as a social disrupter. People who have been unemployment at some point over the last 10 years go to religious services less often, the researchers found.

Stephanie Coontz, professor of history and family studies at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, thinks there has been a general and widespread loss of faith, not just in religion, but in many institutions.

“I relate it to all the certainties [Americans once had], the sense of entitlement people held in the post- World War II era,” Coontz, author of “A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s,” said. “We thought the world would get better, and there was solidarity in this country. Inequality was decreasing and if you were willing to work, you could get a job.”

The wealthier one is, the more one is likely to think that this social compact, which included church-going, still holds. But for many this no longer exists. As it has eroded, Coontz said, it has taken commitment to traditional religious institutions along with it.