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date: 28 March 2017

Religion and Class in America

Summary and Keywords

Scholars pursuing questions on the links between religion and social class typically examine several distinct sets of dynamics. A main research focus has addressed how religious beliefs, behaviors, and experiences vary across different social class contexts. Studies in this tradition draw on quantitative and qualitative data to illustrate such differences. Statistical studies have demonstrated economic and educational differences in patterns of an array of religious beliefs, religious service participation, and other religious behaviors, and especially social and political attitudes on everything from gay rights to gun control to political party preference. Qualitative work typically delves into the lived religious experiences of individuals from different classes as well as examining the ways in which religious expression is itself shaped by class cultures.

A significant portion of this type of research examines how religion impacts the life and work experiences of those at the bottom of the class hierarchy, the working and nonworking poor. Here the way that faith shapes how poor people view the challenges of their lives and their views of the larger society are particularly central concerns. Addressing a second related set of questions, researchers also examine how participation in religious communities contributes to forms of social mobility in terms of socioeconomic status indicators. Statistical analyses dominate in this area, illustrating how denominational affiliation and measures of religious belief and practice predict views regarding income and wealth accumulation, educational attainment, and occupational choice. Another distinct area of scholarship examines the role religion has played in shaping the history of capitalism and the dynamics of the traditionally understood industrial working classes and the organized labor movement. Here, too, scholars examine how working-class individuals use religion as a way to understand their work and the evolution of global capitalism. Labor historians in particular have examined historical and contemporary instances in which religious leaders and organizations play active roles in industrial conflicts.

Whichever route one takes to explore religion and social class, studying their intersections has been of longstanding interest to social scientists, historians, religious studies scholars, and theologians for more than a century. This article bridges these approaches and provides an overview of their complex intersections in contemporary social contexts.

Keywords: social class, socioeconomic status, poverty, working class, labor movement, capitalism

Understanding Class

Before examining the intersection of religion and social class, one must come to terms with the complex reality that is represented by the term “class” both in terms of its lived experience for individuals and groups as well as in the minds of social scientists who have been debating definitions and meanings for more than a hundred years. Perhaps the most telling aspect of the state of our understanding of social class is that we have not moved beyond the debates over definitions. This leaves social class to be a neglected concept in the study of religion, despite its theoretical centrality to the social sciences, on the one hand, or a concept defined and measured in a myriad of ways, none of which overlap to any great degree, on the other. Perhaps this is why the study of religion and social class remains an arena that many scholars feel we need to know more about but very few scholars actually claim as their focus.

Class is best understood initially in a three-fold manner that includes objective, subjective, and relational aspects. First, classes themselves are collectivities, ranked in hierarchical order reflecting differences in various amounts of social power and economic resources. In this way, one can understand classes as relatively self-contained groups of people whose life experiences are shaped, both positively and negatively, by the different power each possesses. The outcomes of belonging to a particular social class, in terms of one’s lived experiences, is what social scientists refer to as life chances, the opportunities and vulnerabilities faced by individuals based on the forms of power and social resources at their disposal. Life chances are shaped by the collective impact of many different aspects of one’s social location, including gender, race, sexual orientation, and age. However, it is one’s access to economic resources, such as income and wealth, central to social class differences, that plays a unique role in shaping an individual’s advantages and disadvantages. Differing access to these resources also becomes the basis for the inclusion and exclusion of individuals into each class.

This approach underscores an objective understanding of social class—that, based on measures of economic power and resources, individuals can be identified as belonging to different social classes and can be expected to face unequal life conditions and experiences as a result. Traditionally, this is how American social scientists have operationalized the concept of social class by trying to define class boundaries in terms of each class’s access to resources. Given that the United States lacks a hereditary aristocracy as one still sees in European societies where class boundaries are fixed by birth, socioeconomic status has been used as a conceptual stand-in for class in many social scientific surveys. It is a quantitative index built on the combined effects of family income, educational level, and occupational status. The working assumption in using this concept is that the upper class is characterized by high levels of income and education as well as holding occupations that have high status. Lower-class people have low levels of income and education and tend to hold job which bring low status. Between the two extremes, however, are classes that vary on all three measures. A university professor may have a high level of education and occupational prestige but earn an income that is on par with or even below some skilled working-class occupations. Conversely, plumbers and carpenters may earn high incomes but have lower levels of education and occupational prestige. Such irregularities refer to what scholars call “status inconsistencies.”1 These examples show the challenges of using the components of socioeconomic status, alone or combined, as measures of class position. Family income or educational level on their own can lead to misidentifying the position of individuals or families in the class structure. It isn’t that they are not important distinguishing features of social class, rather they leave aside other important aspects of what helps define class.

Pierre Bourdieu provides a more nuanced approach by introducing the concept of social capital and cultural capital to class analysis.2 Simplistically, social capital is the idea of whom you know, while cultural capital addresses what you know and how you know it. Both forms of capital are objective forms of power in a class society. In the words of social commentator Paul Fussell in his humorous examination of the American class structure, “money doesn’t matter that much.”3 For Bourdieu and Fussell, classes are objectively differentiated from each other by the degree to which their cultures include some and exclude others. Class cultures include all of the social norms, values, and language that make members of one class feel comfortable with each other while setting up a clear “you don’t belong” dynamic for those who don’t share them. What you eat and how you eat it, what constitutes a desirable vacation as well as the number of them per year, where one lives, the car one drives, whether one has access to health care, the clothes one wears, how one speaks and the words one uses, and on and on—all make up the behaviors and attitudes that are culturally normative for each class and separate one from another. But what most people would commonsensically assume were differences in taste or personal preference, class analysts see as “physical markers of consumptive power.”4 In other words, food, clothing, cars, art, and a wide array of other consumer goods provide clear class signals to others in ways that can unite or divide them. Also, class is expressed not only in the physical cost involved in buying certain items over others, but also in the choice itself. An upper-middle-class person may purchase high-end clothing with designer labels, while a truly upper-class person may spend less money for plainer, good-quality, but less ostentatious apparel. It is through these choices that we communicate to others our social class position and, in doing so, come to feel connected to or separated from others.

Of course there is also a second, subjective aspect to social class reflecting the reality that in America, class identity is something that any given individual claims for him- or herself. Individuals who possess considerable power and wealth and others who possess very little will both define themselves as belonging to a vast American middle class. Such self-definitions occur independently of objective observations to the contrary and are rooted in the ideology that equates being middle class with being American. This paradox of objective and subjective definitions notwithstanding, class positions unite as well as divide people, creating feelings of belonging and comfort as well as feelings of isolation and anxiety. Here again Bourdieu’s concepts become especially salient. In social life, we don’t see “family income” or “educational level” or “occupational prestige” when we encounter others day to day. We do, however, see the style of clothing other individuals wear, the kind of car they drive, and the food they purchase in a grocery store, and we hear their choice of words and accents. These objective aspects of cultural capital contribute to the subjective feelings of class belonging, on the one hand, or status anxiety, on the other.

A third category that social scientists use in understanding the dynamics of social class focuses on its relational aspects. Classes exist in relationship to one another, and those relations are structured into the fabric of every social institution. This conceptualization is reflected in Marx’s analysis of social class within the context of capitalism.5 Put another way, the power and resources of the few at the top of the class structure is predicated on the relative powerlessness and lack of resources of those below them. This relational aspect to social class revolves around class exploitation through economic production and political domination. Eric O. Wright refers to the specific mechanisms through which exploitation and domination occur as “opportunity hoarding,” including the ability of classes further up the class structure to be able to control the activities of those below them.6 The economic power of the upper classes is produced through a set of concrete relations of corporations and markets within global capitalism in which profits accumulated by elite shareholders are produced through the labor of medium- and low-wage workers both domestically and internationally. Political domination also is linked to economic production in the United States, as elites use their economic resources to get into public office, to fund political campaigns, and to lobby for legislation and social policy that favors their interests and oppose those that hurt their interests. Such access to political power is unavailable to most others, who in turn rely on the power of their numbers to pressure elites to pursue particular courses of action. At times, mass movements, such as the Occupy movement, emerge to challenge the power of elite classes. The American labor movement, too, represents challenges from below, as workers have organized themselves on behalf of their own economic and political interests. Yet without such challenges, elites use their economic, political, and social positions to make decisions, enact policies, and pass legislation that further consolidate their own access to opportunities while limiting those of others. Furthermore, the upper and upper middle classes are in authority positions in organizations, which allows them to control the behaviors and life experiences of those below them. This is not always expressed as direct control or coercion today, but often it occurs through indirect means of paternalistic social relations in the workplace and through the culture of consumerism itself. Furthermore, when a corporation’s board of directors votes to close a factory and move it offshore, they directly control the employment status of their workers, but their decision-making process sets in motion a deterioration of life conditions that also impacts the communities and regions where those workers live. Class relations inevitably shape the lived experiences of Americans within a multitude of institutional settings, including religion.

Class Analysis and American Religion

Almost to a person, scholars from sociology or religion, religious studies, religious history, and theology unanimously champion the idea that “class matters” and that it has been neglected in each of these fields. However, that acknowledgment aside, very few have taken up the challenging theoretical and empirical tasks of laying out how class matters in religion or the religious dynamics at work in the class structure or in interclass relations. So for all that we know about these relationships, there is so much more we don’t know.

In theoretical terms, many of the underlying assumptions and approaches to the religion–class relationships were shaped by Marx’s ideas of religion as a tool of class domination within capitalism and Weber’s dialectical idea that religion both shapes and is shaped by class relations.7 In both cases, religion in its theology and aesthetics reflects differing degrees of class power and powerlessness. For Marx, religion was the “opium of the masses,” an ideological sedative that kept the working classes passive in the face of exploitation while providing them with a promise of a better life in the next world.8 For Weber, religion provides ethical beliefs and behavior mandates which influence class behavior but also legitimate the relative positions of elite, middle, and disprivileged classes in society. Most if not all early and contemporary studies of religion and class still return theoretically to these two classical theorists.

Perhaps the most prominent early examination of class differences within Christianity is the work of H. Richard Niebuhr. Although the context for his analysis is the denominational schisms within European Christianity following the Reformation, Niebuhr differentiates between the churches of the poor—or, in his language, the “disinherited”—and the churches of the middle class. The religious traditions of the upper and lower classes vary distinctly in terms of their liturgical and theological forms, their organizational structures, as well as their ethical concerns.9

Many classic studies of community life in towns and cities on the East Coast and the Midwest focused at least a portion of their attention on religion and class.10 To a large degree, these studies also addressed class differences in religious affiliation as well as in beliefs, practices, organizational structures, and aesthetics. In study after study, the elite in these local communities belonged to Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Methodist congregations—mainline Protestant traditions—underscoring the descriptive label, the “Protestant establishment,” while the working classes clustered in Evangelical and Roman Catholic congregations. These patterns provide a basis for understanding the social distribution of religious traditions among differing social classes. It is clear from these older works as well as from more recent studies that these patterns have not changed in radical ways. Among mainline Protestants, Episcopalians still speak of their “carriage trade” congregations, that is, their members who belong to the American old money class that at one time would have been brought to services in fine carriages. Presbyterians and United Methodists also claim ties to the industrial and financial elite, as do American Jews. Evangelical and black Protestant as well as Roman Catholic congregations still include an overrepresentation of the middle class and the working class compared to these other groups.

Within these institutional-level links between social class and denomination, one also can identify differences in economic resources, in occupational status, and in education at the individual level. The same Christian denominations as well as Jews that long made up the Protestant establishment still reflect the highest levels of earnings, educational attainment, and occupational prestige.11 Other denominations, such as Southern Baptists, many varieties of black Baptists, and Pentecostals all continue to reflect among the lowest levels of these class resources. Such findings have been corroborated again and again.12 But establishing that there are basic relationships between religious affiliation and socioeconomic status outcomes does not help address why these trends remain consistent over time. Sociologists have examined the causal forces that reproduce these class outcomes. Darnell and Sherkat, for example, identified strong negative relationships between belonging to a conservative Protestant congregation and educational attainment.13 Conservative Protestant youth report lower educational aspirations and are less likely to enroll in college preparatory courses than other youth. The impact of growing up within these more fundamentalist traditions limits the educational and occupational choices of young people by providing sets of cultural standards for them that rule out certain options as inappropriate or incompatible with their religious beliefs. Lisa A. Keister, in her work Faith and Money, reported that mainline Protestants, Jews, and increasingly white Roman Catholics all demonstrate patterns that reinforce wealth accumulation, including maintaining small family size, completing high levels of education, and holding high-status occupations.14 The religious cultures of these groups shape the values and decision-making opportunities for individual members in ways that keep them in high-socioeconomic-status positions. In contrast, conservative Protestants, black Protestants, and Hispanic Catholics operate within religious cultures that limit their access to social and economic resources, which in turn limits opportunities for upward mobility and wealth accumulation.

But of course times have changed, and despite the consistency of these patterns, one important evolution in the landscape of religion and class is that today, at the community level, it is more likely for individual congregations rather than entire denominations to be segregated by social class. Reflecting larger patterns of class segregation in neighborhoods, one will find upper-middle-class Roman Catholics, for example, attending a particular congregation in a community, while middle- or working-class Catholics will attend others. It is equally as likely to identify status inconsistencies within whole denominations as within individual congregations. As Smith and Faris point out, members of nondenominational and Assemblies of God congregations have lower levels of education but moderate or high incomes and/or occupational prestige.15 At the other class extreme, one finds the very poor and destitute who, while sometimes maintaining a private religious faith, often don’t attend any congregation at all, whether out of nonbelief, embarrassment regarding their perceptions of how others would view them, a lack of access to transportation, or some combination of these factors.16 Congregations remain class-segregated places for most Christians and Jews. Whether these patterns of class segregation hold for other religious groups—like Muslims, Hindus, or Buddhists—in the United States remains an unanswered question. Recent data from the Pew Forum on Religion and American Culture suggest that greater percentages of American Hindus and Buddhists earn over $100,000 a year and hold at least a bachelor’s degree compared to mainline Protestants.17 However, not many studies have attempted to explore class divides within these and other traditions in any systematic fashion.

Class dynamics do more than simply shape the religious identities, beliefs, and practices of individuals. Class differences also influence how people of faith engage with community issues at the congregational level in ways other than through the effects of their individual-level income, education, or occupational status. The social class makeup of entire congregations shapes its group culture in ways that can encourage or hinder particular forms of outreach or civic participation of its members.18 High levels of civic involvement are often related to whether congregations are in economically strapped neighborhoods or more well-off ones, where the pressing needs of the local environment spur congregations to action.19 Among elite congregations, class can work against community engagement, with class boundaries being reinforced by geographic boundaries. As was the case in the 19th century, elites tend to see a limited role for congregations in the social service and civic sectors of the public sphere, typically to address people’s spiritual needs and to provide services to help individuals, but no role in the economic sector that creates such needs among the poor as a class.20 However, economic elites also made use of the religious sensibilities and values of their employees to create a moral foundation of service and cooperation in the workplace among those who otherwise face low wages, minimal benefits, and other challenges of work in the industrial and service sectors of American capitalism.21

While there is merit to identifying the ways in which socioeconomic status is linked to religious affiliation, certain religious beliefs and practices, they do not tap the cultural aspect of this relationship. Consequently, these quantitative studies do not get beyond using income or education as single variable proxies for the much broader concept of class. As noted above, much of the work on social class today borrows from Pierre Bourdieu’s conceptions of how class differences are displayed through cultural capital. In addition to shaping and being shaped by economic dimensions of class, congregations also reflect the cultural norms, values, and language of the classes associated with them. These cultural dimensions to religion are reflected in the architecture, worship practices, linguistic styles, and other aesthetics of congregational life. Tim Nelson has written one of the only essays that discusses how class differences are reflected in the aesthetics of religion.22 However, even his essay is a secondary analysis of the earlier community studies mentioned above. The evidence is clear that class cultural differences appear in the physical space of religious groups, in the appearance of members when they attend services, and in the stylistic and linguistic differences in the worship styles of congregations. In one further study, Susan Crawford Sullivan, in Living Faith: Everyday Religion and Mothers in Poverty, interviewed single mothers living in poverty regarding the role of faith in their everyday life. These low-income women who are religiously devout frequently express their feeling that church attendance and participation reflects middle-class cultural norms that make them feel out of place. The norms of dress, speech, and lifestyle all work to create boundaries for these women.23 Congregations express class differences through their organization and liturgical cultures, reinforcing social comfort or discomfort, which is inviting for those who share that culture and excluding for those who do not.

Religion and Class Relations

Studies of religion and class relations often have been shaped by a classically Marxist understanding of religion and tend to focus on the singular manner in which religion, especially Protestant Christianity, worked to maintain the class power of elites in society while functioning to block efforts by the working class to challenge the exploitative industrial relations of capitalism. Labor historians Mike Davis and Philip Foner, in their respective works, both take this view.24 Foner, in History of the Labor Movement in the United States, concluded that Protestant clergy at best offered class collaboration as the only acceptable moral and practical goal for nascent labor organizations. Liston Pope’s 1929 analysis of the mill town Gastonia, North Carolina, identified the clear links between clergy and the textile workers in that community who were striking for better working conditions. He argued that: “Gastonia ministers were willing to allow the power of religious institutions to be used against those who challenged this economic system, and they assisted in such use. At no point did they stand in opposition to the prevailing economic arrangements or to the drastic methods employed for their preservation. In no significant respect was their role productive of change in economic life—they contributed unqualified and effective sanction to their economic culture.”25 For American religious historians, Paul Johnson’s much-debated argument in A Shopkeeper’s Millennium well illustrates this approach in maintaining that the evangelicalism of the Second Great Awakening revivals “was order-inducing, repressive, and quintessentially bourgeois” and worked in the interests of employers but against the interests of working people.26 Gary Gerstle similarly summed up what can only be described as the fearful inertia of many religious leaders at that time: “French-Canadian clergy, the trusted spokesmen of the French-Canadian communities who knew well the hardships experienced by those who toiled in mills ten to twelve hours a day, might have called upon the corporatist values of their ethnic culture, emphasizing the primacy of group loyalty over individual advancement and of communal welfare over pecuniary gain, to develop a critique of industrial capitalism. But they chose not to.”27

The clear message of American labor and religious history underscored Marx’s view that religion was an obstacle to organizing workers to challenge class inequality and therefore irrelevant to questions of class relations. However, this unilateral dismissal of religion generated a scholarly debate between those who maintained the view that religion was a force that opposed social change and those who, after witnessing the central role of religion in the American civil rights movement, wanted to argue that religion could facilitate change. New studies, spurred by a revival of labor activism in the late 1980s and ’90s, set out to show that religious leaders and people of faith generally were crucial to labor activism at that time. Labor historians building on the work of Herbert Gutman revisited the 19th and 20th centuries to examine cases where religion helped to build what Rick Fantasia called “cultures of solidarity,” helping to unite workers engaged in conflicts with employers as well as building coalitions with religious leaders and communities to win these conflicts.28 For example, Fantasia illustrates the way in which a Methodist minister in Clinton, Iowa, became an important outsider who provided moral legitimacy for a striking union and mobilized his church community to assist in establishing material support for families hurt by the strike. In another study, when the steel industry in Youngstown, Ohio, shut down plants in the early 1980s, local clergy built coalitions with union locals when local government and national union leadership lacked strategies for confronting the crisis.29

More recent work in sociology highlights the ongoing relationship that religious individuals and organizations have with the labor movement in efforts to shape conditions in the expanding service economy. The examples are plentiful and show consistent themes. Congregations have provided cash support, food donations, and other needed resources to striking workers. Engaged clergy addressed labor issues in sermons, showed up to support workers at rallies and on picket lines, and spoke at community hearings on behalf of workers. In one specific case, Steven Lopez (2004) argues that clergy moral authority is what helped Kane Hospital workers successfully oppose the privatization of their hospital in Pittsburgh.30

Moving beyond the links between religion and labor new lines of scholarship address how working-class people make sense of their own experiences in the workplace. On the one hand, whether working-class individuals come from Christian, Jewish, or Muslim backgrounds, their faith informs how they think about their work and how their work shapes their faith.31 Working people must negotiate the challenges of hard work, increasingly depressed wages, limited benefits, and long hours. Faith, more than commitments to union membership, becomes the means for thinking about and sometimes challenging these conditions. Work is often the location and the means through which working-class people demonstrate their religious commitment despite the many obstacles they encounter. God, in this lived working-class theology, provides strength to the faithful and also provides the means to survive within capitalism. Workers’ faith also provides them a basis for formally embracing or challenging the everyday practices they see in the workplace. For some, the encouragement of Walmart executives for both workers and managers to be service-oriented strengthens the ties of the many faithful employees to the company. In contrast, Muslim, Christian, and Jewish workers all draw on their own traditions to critique injustice when they see and experience it at work. Faith, mirrored through class position, actively shapes how believers of all traditions understand their experiences within global capitalism. Though we know a lot about how this happens for the working class and the poor, we know less about how these processes work for contemporary upper- and upper-middle-class Americans.

Theoretically, scholars have moved beyond the conceptual binaries presented by earlier theorists in examining religion and social class as scholars today come to grips with the complexities of mutual influence. We now understand that religion can simultaneously inhibit and empower labor activism depending the type of religious groups in a community; the content of these groups’ theology and history of engagement regarding work, economics, and social relationships between employers and employed; whether or not there is a strategic effort by the labor movement itself to mobilize a “religious” dimension to a particular labor conflict or reform; and the political-economic context of the specific labor protest.

The study of religion and class remains a central feature to understanding the American religious landscape. It is showcased in complex and often subtle ways that differences in economic and cultural resources shape the lived experiences of entire congregations and individual people of faith. Class differences in American society also continue to be reproduced and transformed through the workings of religious groups, not only through economic and political institutions. One cannot fully understand religion without understanding class, nor can one understand class without religion.

Review of the Literature

Most of the initial social science scholarship on religion and social class in America remains rooted in the social theories of Karl Marx, Max Weber, and, later, Antonio Gramsci. In these three men’s works, religion alternatively reflects class power within society, provides meaning and reinforces the economic actions of difference social classes, or provides a means for different classes to assert their own interests in society. As with much of the work of these thinkers, religion and class have been studied at a societal level. While Weber perhaps more than the other three concerned himself with examining these relationships in the context of different religious traditions, the legacy of these classic approaches for later scholars was to lay the conceptual framing of religion as a social institution that either could reinforce or challenge the class structure.32 Particularly important for shaping how American scholars think about class and religion is H. Richard Niebuhr’s The Social Sources of Denominationalism. Niebuhr argues that denominational divisions with Christianity are influenced more by economic differences than anything else.33 Furthermore, although most of his analysis focused on the evolution of post-Reformation Protestant traditions in Europe, Niebuhr does assert that his analytic divides between the churches of the disinherited (the poor) and those of the middle classes were mirrored in the denominational differences in the United States.

From the 1920s through the 1960s, however, the study of the intersections between religion and class moved away from the purely theoretical to the community level. In this line of scholarship, class differences in social life and in religion were both central features of the analysis. The classic study Middletown is perhaps one of the best known of this body of work. But studies of communities in Connecticut, North Carolina, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts all returned to observing important religious differences among elite, the middle classes, and the working classes.34 Contemporary case studies of class and religion continue this important form of analysis, especially in the field of American labor history.

In sociology, quantitative studies based on survey research make up a significant portion of the work on religion and social class. Scholars have taken one of two main approaches to the question. A majority of these studies examine how an individual’s income, educational level, and occupational status, the components of socioeconomic status, are statistically linked to their religious identity, beliefs and practices, and social attitudes. Alternatively, other scholars have reversed the causal relationship to explore how one’s religious affiliations, identity, and beliefs and practices impact wealth accumulation, educational attainment, and occupational choices.35

Also, buried in the historical and sociological literature are suggestions that the very rich and the very poor are less likely to be involved in faith communities. Religious participation, traditionally understood, seems to be the province of the upper middle class down through the upper tiers of the working class. This doesn’t mean that religion is irrelevant to classes at the extremes, but that faith plays a different role in each of these class cultures. This is one of the least explored areas of this field. We simply do not know as much about the religious culture and practices of the elite and the poor as we do about faith among the middle and working classes.36

In terms of the interplay of religion and class relations, contemporary social science analyses on religion–labor links draw from framing theory, resource mobilization theory, or some combination of them both. Those of us who have used these approaches have relied heavily on Chris Smith’s Disruptive Religion, in which he details twenty-one religious assets for activism, the ideological and material resources potentially available to social movements of all kinds.37 Building off of resource mobilization theory, Smith elaborates six broad types of religious resource: motivational, organizational, identity-constructing, social and geographical positioning, privileged legitimacy, and institutional self-interest. Each category of resource has at some point been observed in labor conflict and protest. Further examining the instrumental use of these resources, including the limitations on their use in social conflicts, is another area in need of further attention.38 New historical analyses by William Mirola, Christopher D. Cantwell, Heath Carter, and Janine Drake all push our understanding of the role of religion in working-class history.39

As an alternative to the approaches taken by labor historians and social movement scholars, the work of religious historians like Bethany Moreton tracks the ways in which evangelical Christianity shaped the emergence of the new service economy and the commitment to free market capitalism both domestically and around the world.40 Analyses of religion as a part of the history of contemporary global capitalism illustrate the complex ways that an ethos derived from evangelical Christianity creates an ideological and practical foundation that allows corporate elite to prosper in the new world economy while minimizing resistance from their employees.

Finally, the vast majority of this work focuses on American Christianity, past and present, and Protestant forms of Christianity at that. A new set of working-class historians explore the links between faith and work among workers outside of mainline Protestantism. Robert Bruno’s work provides insights into how religion shapes the experiences of contemporary working-class Catholics, Muslims, and Jews.41 As the diversity of traditions on the American religion landscape increases, so too does it become imperative to see how class differences play a role in this change.

Further Reading

Beckford, James A. Religion and Advanced Industrial Society. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989.Find this resource:

Billings, Dwight B. “Religion as Opposition: A Gramscian Analysis.” American Journal of Sociology 96 (1990): 1–31.Find this resource:

Bruno, Robert A. Justified by Work: Identity and the Meaning of Faith in Chicago’s Working Class Churches. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Cantwell, Christopher D., Heath W. Carter, and Janine Giordano Drake, eds. The Pew and the Picket Line: Christianity and the American Working Class. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016.Find this resource:

Coreno, Thaddeus. “Fundamentalism as Class Culture.” Sociology of Religion 63 (2002): 335–360.Find this resource:

Davidson, James D., and Ralph E. Pyle. Ranking Faiths: Religious Stratification in America. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011.Find this resource:

Demarath, N. J., III. Social Class and American Protestantism. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1965.Find this resource:

Gutman, Herbert. “Protestantism and the American Labor Movement: The Christian Spirit in the Gilded Age.” American Historical Review 72 (1966): 74–101.Find this resource:

Keister, Lisa A. Faith and Money: How Religion Contributes to Wealth and Poverty. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Lareau, Annette, and Dalton Conley, eds. Social Class: How Does It Work? New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2008.Find this resource:

Marx, Karl. “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction.” In The Marx-Engels Reader, edited by Robert C. Tucker, 53–54. New York: W. W. Norton, 1978.Find this resource:

McCartin, James P., and Joseph A. McCartin. “Working Class Catholicism: A Call for New Investigation, Dialogue, and Reappraisal.” Labor 4 (2007): 99–110.Find this resource:

McCloud, Sean. Divine Hierarchies: Class in American Religion and Religious Studies. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.Find this resource:

McCloud, Sean, and William A. Mirola. Religion and Class in America: Culture, History, and Politics. Boston: Brill, 2009.Find this resource:

Moreton, Bethany. To Serve God and Walmart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Niebuhr, H. Richard. The Social Sources of Denominationalism. Gloucester, MA: Henry Holt, 1987.Find this resource:

Pope, Liston. Millhands and Preachers: A Study of Gastonia. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1942.Find this resource:

Rieger, Joerg. Religion, Theology, and Class: Fresh Engagements After Long Silence. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.Find this resource:

Schieman, Scott. “Socioeconomic Status and Beliefs About God’s Influence in Everyday Life.” Sociology of Religion 71 (2010): 25–51.Find this resource:

Schwadel, Philip. “Poor Teenagers’ Religion.” Sociology of Religion 69 (2008):125–149.Find this resource:

Schwadel, Philip, John D. McCarthy, and Hart M. Nelsen. “The Continuing Relevance of Family Income for Religious Participation: U.S. White Catholic Church Attendance in the Late Twentieth Century.” Social Forces 87 (2009): 1997–2030.Find this resource:

Smith, Drew. “Churches and the Urban Poor: Interaction and Social Distance.” Sociology of Religion 62 (2001): 301–313.Find this resource:

Sterne, Evelyn Savidge. “Bringing Religion into Working-Class History.” Social Science History 24 (2000): 149–182.Find this resource:

Sullivan, Susan Crawford. Living Faith: Everyday Religion and Mothers in Poverty. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Thompson, E. P. The Making of the English Working Class. New York: Vintage, 1966.Find this resource:


(1.) Robert W. Hodge and Donald J. Treiman, “Class Identification in the United States,” American Journal of Sociology 73 (1968): 535–547.

(2.) Bourdieu, Pierre, “The Forms of Capital,” in Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education, John G. Richardson, ed. (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1986), 241–258.

(3.) Paul Fussell, Class: A Guide Through the American Status System (New York: Touchstone Books, 1983), 28.

(4.) Mary Patillo, “Race, Class, and Neighborhoods,” in Social Class: How It Works, ed. Annette Lareau and Dalton Conley (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2008), 266.

(5.) Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party (New York: International Publishers, 1976).

(6.) Eric O. Wright, “Logics of Class Analysis,” in Social Class: How It Works, ed. Annette Lareau and Dalton Conley (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2008), 336.

(7.) Karl Marx, “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978), 53–65; Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967).

(8.) Marx, “Contribution,” 54.

(9.) H. Richard Niebuhr, The Social Sources of Denominationalism (Gloucester, MA: Henry Holt, 1987).

(10.) See, for example, W. Lloyd Warner and Paul S. Lunt, The Social System of a Modern Community (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1941); Robert S. Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd, Middletown: A Study in American Culture (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1929); Arthur Vidich and Joseph Bensman, Small Town in Mass Society: Class, Power, and Religion in a Rural Community (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1958).

(11.) See Christian Smith and Robert Faris, “Socioeconomic Inequality in the American Religious System,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 44 (2005): 95–104; Ralph E. Pyle, “Trends in Religious Stratification: Have Religious Group Socioeconomic Distinctions Declined in Recent Decades?” Sociology of Religion 67 (2006): 61–79; James D. Davidson and Ralph E. Pyle, Ranking Faiths: Religious Stratification in America (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011).

(12.) See, for example, Lisa A. Keister, “Religion and Wealth: The Role of Religious Affiliation and Participation in Early Adult Asset Accumulation,” Social Forces 82 (2003): 175–207; Thaddeus Coreno, “Fundamentalism as Class Culture,” Sociology of Religion 63 (2002): 335–360; Kraig Beyerlein, “Specifying the Impact of Conservative Protestantism on Educational Attainment,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 43 (2004): 505–518; Smith and Faris, “Socioeconomic Inequality”; and Lisa A. Keister, Faith and Money: How Religion Contributes to Wealth and Poverty (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

(13.) Alfred Darnell and Darren E. Sherkat. “The Impact of Protestant Fundamentalism on Educational Attainment,” American Sociological Review 62 (1997): 306–315.

(14.) Keister, Faith and Money, 220.

(15.) Smith and Faris, “Socioeconomic Inequality,” 101.

(16.) Susan Crawford Sullivan, Living Faith: Everyday Religion and Mothers in Poverty (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2011).

(17.) Cited in Davidson and Pyle, Ranking Faiths, 132.

(18.) See Laura Olson, Filled with Spirit and Power: Protestant Clergy in Politics (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000); Elfriede Wedam, “The Religious ‘District’ of Elite Congregations: Reproducing Spatial Centrality and Redefining Mission,” Sociology of Religion 64 (2003): 47–64; Omar M. McRoberts, “Understanding the ‘New’ Black Pentecostal Activism: Lessons from Ecumenical Urban Ministries in Boston,” Sociology of Religion 60 (1999): 47–70.

(19.) See Sue E. S. Crawford and Laura R. Olson, “Clergy as Political Actors in Urban Contexts,” in Christian Clergy in American Politics, ed. Sue E. S. Crawford and Laura R. Olson, 104–119 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003); Drew R. Smith, “Churches and the Urban Poor: Interaction and Social Distance,” Sociology of Religion 62 (2001): 301–313.

(20.) William A. Mirola, “Shorter Hours and the Protestant Sabbath: Religious Framing and Movement Alliances in Nineteenth-Century Chicago,” Social Science History 23 (1999): 395–433; William A. Mirola, “Religious Protest and Economic Conflict: Possibilities and Constraints on Religious Resource Mobilization and Coalitions in Detroit’s Newspaper Strike,” Sociology of Religion 64 (2003): 443–462.

(21.) See, for example, Bethany Moreton, To Serve God and Walmart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009).

(22.) Timothy J. Nelson, “At Ease with Our Own Kind: Worship Practices and Class Segregation in American Religion,” in Religion and Class in America: Culture, History, and Politics, ed. Sean McCloud and William A. Mirola, 45–68 (Boston: Brill, 2009).

(23.) Sullivan, Living Faith, 156–172.

(24.) Mike Davis, Prisoners of the American Dream (New York: Verso, 1986); Philip Foner, The History of the Labor Movement in the United States (New York: International Publishers, 1982).

(25.) Liston Pope. Millhands and Preachers (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1942), 330.

(26.) Paul Johnson, A Shopkeeper’s Millennium: Society and Revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815–1837 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978), 138.

(27.) Gary Gerstle, Working-Class Americanism: The Politics of Labor in a Textile City, 1914–1960 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 35.

(28.) Herbert Gutman, “Protestantism and the American Labor Movement: The Christian Spirit in the Gilded Age,” American Historical Review 72 (1966): 74–101; Rick Fantasia. Cultures of Solidarity: Consciousness, Action, and Contemporary American Workers (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).

(29.) Fantasia, Cultures of Solidarity; Thomas G. Fuechtmann, Steeples and Stacks: Religion and the Steel Crisis in Youngstown (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

(30.) See, for example, Ruth Milkman and Kent Wong, “Organizing the Wicker City: The 1992 Southern California Drywall Strike,” in Organizing Immigrants: The Challenge for Unions in Contemporary California, ed. Ruth Milkman, 169–198 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000); Dan Clawson, The Next Upsurge: Labor and the New Social Movements (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003); Mirola, “Religious Protest”; Steven Lopez, Reorganizing the Rust Belt: An Inside Study of the American Labor Movement (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).

(31.) Robert Bruno, Justified by Work: Identity and Meaning of Faith in Chicago’s Working-Class Communities (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2008); see also Moreton, To Serve God and Walmart.

(32.) Marx, “Contribution”; Weber, Sociology of Religion; Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (New York: International Publishers, 1971); see also Dwight B. Billings, “Religion as Opposition: A Gramscian Analysis,” American Journal of Sociology 96 (1990): 1–31; James A. Beckford, Religion and Advanced Industrial Society (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989).

(33.) Niebuhr, Social Sources of Denominationalism, 26.

(34.) Lynd and Lynd, Middletown, Lloyd and Lunt, Social System of a Modern Community; Pope, Millhands and Preachers, Vidich and Bensman, Small Town in Mass Society; and also Mark S. Schantz, Piety in Providence: Class Dimensions of Religious Experience (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000).

(35.) Smith and Faris, “Socioeconomic Inequality”; Beyerlein, “Specifying the Impact of Conservative Protestantism”; Darnell and Sherkat, “Impact of Protestant Fundamentalism”; Elton Jackson, William S. Fox, and Harry J. Crockett Jr., “Religion and Occupational Achievement,” American Sociological Review 35 (1970): 48–63; Keister, Faith and Money; Pyle, “Trends in Religious Stratification”; James A. Riccio, “Religious Affiliation and Socioeconomic Achievement,” in The Religious Dimension: New Directions for Qualitative Research, ed. Robert Wuthnow, 199–228 (New York: Academic Press, 1979).

(36.) Wedam, “The Religious ‘District’”; Smith, “Churches and the Urban Poor”; Sullivan, Living Faith; Coreno, “Fundamentalism as Class Culture”; Sean McCloud. Divine Hierarchies: Class in American Religion and Religious Studies (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007).

(37.) Christian Smith, Disruptive Religion: The Force of Faith in Social Activism (New York: Routledge, 1996).

(38.) Gutman, “Protestantism and the American Labor Movement”; Jama Lazerow, Religion and the Working Class in Antebellum America (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995); William A. Mirola, “Asking for Bread, Receiving a Stone: The Rise and Fall of Religious Ideologies in Chicago’s Eight-Hour Movement,” Social Problems 50 (2003): 273–293; Mirola, “Religious Protest and Economic Conflict”; Evelyn Savidge Sterne, “Bringing Religion into Working-Class History,” Social Science History 24 (2000): 149–182; William R. Sutton, Journeymen for Jesus: Evangelical Artisans Confront Capitalism in Jacksonian Baltimore (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998); E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (New York: Vintage, 1966).

(39.) William A. Mirola, Redeeming Time: Protestantism and Chicago’s Eight-Hour Movement, 1866–1912 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015); Christopher D. Cantwell, Heath W. Carter, and Janine Giordano Drake, The Pew and the Picket Line: Christianity and the American Working Class (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016); Heath W. Carter, Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

(40.) Moreton, To Serve God and Walmart.

(41.) Bruno, Justified by Work.