Make money first, then find your church

By Razib Khan | May 17, 2011 11:42 pm

The New York Times has a weird article up, Is Your Religion Your Financial Destiny?, which digests the Pew Religious Landscape Survey descriptive statistics on the demographics of American religious denominations. It’s kind of a strange piece because the basic correlations have long been known. The traditional rank order in the “Social Register” way of looking at it would have been Episcopalian > Presbyterian > Methodist > Baptist. The article itself is frankly kind of embarrassing in a 10th grade paper sort of way. For example, “That stands in contrast to the long history, made famous by Max Weber, of Protestant nations generally being richer than Catholic nations.” I think this sort of fact should be introduced very carefully to the general audience. One can posit plausible explanations for why staunchly Catholic Bavaria is one of Germany’s most affluent states, or why it is that Protestantism is much more popular among lower class Chileans, and still maintain a Webberian model, but that obviously isn’t possible in a newspaper article. But these realities are often totally surprising to people who aren’t too “information rich,” but who have heard of Webber’s thesis at some point. And let’s not get into the specific point that Webber was focusing on Calvinist Protestants in particular, rather than Protestants more generally! I probably am on the skeptical side of when it comes to evaluating the core thesis of the Protestant ethic, but that’s neither here nor there.

The piece could have addressed some serious possibilities of the correlation between particular denominations and wealth being due to a “virtuous circle” or some sort. For example, Episcopalians and Jews using their religious institutions as important social networks for career advancement and prudent investment tips and advice (don’t tell that to members of the Fifth Avenue Synagogue!). In the town where I grew up it was rather clear that particular types of service professionals whose business was built around rapport and trust, such as insurance salesmen, benefited if they were members of the Church of Latter Day Saints, which provided a relatively large built-in local client base.

A few interesting demographic breakdowns within a religious group which might invite a lot of explanation occurs with Jews. The following comes from the American Jewish Identity Survey 2001. There are three classes of Jews in this: Jews by religion, Jews with no religion, and Jews with another religion. The majority of the last were Christians.

Jews by religionJews of no religionJews of other religions
% Married594559
% College Graduates585736
% Republican131340
Median household income$72,000$58,000$54,000

I’m particularly struck by the lower incomes and educational qualifications, and greater political conservatism, of Jews with “other religions.” This group is explicitly defined as “Of Jewish Parentage & Now of Other Religion,” but the majority seem to be the products of intermarriage (so therefore likely with the American religious majority, Christians). The sample size is small and there aren’t any crosstabs, but a minority of this class have two Jewish parents, so either their parents converted or they converted. This class would be particular informative for a “chicken & egg” analysis.

Finally, I want to leave you with some raw data. Below are the demographic profiles from the General Social Survey for religious and denominational groups limited to non-Hispanic whites only from the year 2000 on. The educational attainment proportions are self-evident. The vocab scores I amalgamated a bit. Dull = 0-4, Average = 5-8, and Smart = 9-10. In other words, smart individuals obtained 9 or 10 out of 10 on a vocabulary test. The income threshold is low, but that’s the GSS, not me. Finally there’s something called the “socioeconomic index.” It combines various metrics such as educational, professional, and monetary status into one statistic. The higher the value, the higher status. I’ve given you mean values for each class. In general I’ve omitted cells where the N < 100. I labeled people who knew they were Methodist, not which type of Methodist (e.g., Free vs. United Methodist), as “generic.” Finally, all columns except the last are percentages. The the cells across the row add up to 100% for each category (so if you it that 54 percent out of 100 percent of Catholics have a high school diploma only).

Non-Hispanic Whites Only
Highest educational attainmentVocab score

< HSHSAssociatesBachelorGradDullAverageSmart> $25,000Mean SEI
No Religion1150720121265227052
American Baptist18628842771247
Southern Baptist16579134227267047
Baptist, Other205851356447
Baptist, Generic2459863266956443
United Methodist750725111374137754
Methodist, Generic176071076746
American Lutheran855151767650
Lutheran, Missouri Synod849923107553
Lutheran, Generic115991757250
Presbyterian, Generic3541121127853

Comments (6)

  1. One way to view religious denomination demographic analysis is as the best, albeit flawed, disaggregation of socially relevant ethnicity within the non-Hispanic white category (and to a lessert extent disaggregating other racial and ethnic categories). This ethnicity element probably drives the numbers more than the content of what people who identify with a religious denomination do in connection with their church, or some sort of “virtuous circle” hypothesis.

    For example, many high socio-economic status non-Hispanic whites who have roots (distant or not so distant) in the Northeast United States self-identify as Episcopalian, even though they are strictly of the wedding/funeral/Christmas/Easter variety and have no regular involvement with the religious life of that denomination. Television and movies often use the Episcopalian liturgy as the “generic” American norm even though only a tiny fraction of Americans have that religious identification. (And, FWIW, the have much better traditional sacred music than the dumbed down efforts of most of the other denominations.)

    A Lutheran religious identification, similarly, is probably a fairly reliable indica of socially relevant Northern European ethnicity.

    A Baptist religious identification is a good way to track people who have roots in the American South but no longer live there.

    This kind is disaggregation is valueable because it reveals that there is far more substructure and heterogenity to the non-Hispanic white census category than one might otherwise suspect. But, because it is broken out statistically only infrequently compared to race and Hispanic origin, many people aren’t nearly as aware of it.

    Indeed, the divide between those who identify with conservative predominantly white Christian denominations and those who don’t (within which one can further break down Catholics and non-Catholics), is the single most significant dividing line in political identity and cultural values in the United States. The divide moreover, is far more a product of ethnic identity that the narrative of personal political and religious choice would suggest.

  2. There is the study that shows that atheists make more money, get divorced less, and live longer than theists. Then the idea that, while atheists comprise at least 15% of the general population, they are only 1 % of the prison population.

    There are flaws in all of these studies because of unasked questions, variable outside the scope of the study, how the surveys are phrased, conducted, and compiled. Nonetheless, atheists seem to generally do better in life without the stresses and delusions of religion. No surprise there.

  3. Robert

    Jews may have an SEI score of 62 to the Episcopalians 60 but in my experience the Episcopals belong to infinitely better golf clubs.

  4. nebbish

    It helps that the Episcopalians are less likely to face restrictions on their membership in such golf clubs, Robert.

  5. Robert

    “It helps that the Episcopalians are less likely to face restrictions on their membership in such golf clubs, Robert”

    You could always convert nebbish; after all, it’s an Episcopalian tradition:

  6. Pohranicni Straze

    My maternal grandfather- from a mostly German-American farm family- was raised Methodist; not sure what my maternal grandmother was raised, but given that she was from rural Arkansas, I’m guessing some sort of Methodist or Baptist. They later became, respectively, a successful physician and a high-level GOP official- and promptly became Episcopalians. A lot of the old country-club Republicans in Louisiana were Episcopalians, so it was a definite social marker.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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