Why is upper-class white America more religious and pro-family than lower-class white America?

by Ryan Streeter on March 19, 2012. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

Yuval Levin has kick-started a much-needed discussion among conservatives about one of the implications of Charles Murray’s book, Coming Apart, that most commentators have missed: the decimation of faith, family, and work in the white working class is an indictment of social conservatism – and, by extension, of American churches.

Murray’s thesis is by now well-known among policy circles and starting to work its way out beyond them: while upper-class white America has continued to marry and have children within marriage at nearly the same rates as they did in the 1960s, lower-class white America has gone from near statistical parity with the upper class in the 1960s to a bottoming-out today. The bottoming-out can be seen in everything from church attendance to work habits, as well. I’ve written about this quite a bit over the past year as Murray began releasing results of his study before he published the book.

Levin’s point is that this breakdown must have sources in a failing church – the original and most powerful source of American civil society.

Ross Douthat followed up with two perceptive posts (first here, then here) in which he affirms Levin’s point and makes additional observations in support of the claim from his forthcoming book, Bad Religion.

Others have begun to comment, and my hope is that much more debate on the matter follows (for instance, Rod Dreher is largely sympathetic to Levin’s claim, though he goes a step further and wonders if a big part of the problem is that there may not be ears to hear the message social conservatism brings. Andrew Sullivan finds himself sympathetic to both Douthat’s and Levin’s claims and thinks Douthat has quite a bit of courage to suggest the church bears some of the blame – rather than the state – for the moral breakdown in lower-class white America that Murray’s book details).

One thread in this conversation has been whether and how clergy and churches in upper-class America can help reinvigorate lower-class America. This is a good discussion to have, and you should read through the links above to get a sense of it if you haven’t already.

But all of this dances around a question I’ve had – and have wanted to write about more if I could find the time – since Murray began releasing his research: what in the world has been going on in upper-class white America?

Upper-class white America looks a lot like it did in the 1960s in terms of marriage rates, childbearing, and so forth (it’s gotten more secular at a faster clip, but not to the same degree as lower-class America). This is the same upper class that goes to college, for starters. Hardly anything gets social conservatives more wound up than the rampant liberalism on college campuses, and yet the effects of the that liberalism have hardly been seen in the family formation trends in the upper class. The secularism on campus has had some effect, but it’s the people not going to college who are becoming godless at a faster rate.

We could go on. The main question, which I hope Douthat and others who have been making American religion their study recently will address, is what explains why college-educated, more affluent whites are more likely to stay married and go to church? We can understand why they work harder and longer hours than the lower class: they stand to gain more financially and professionally. But they are the ones who can afford (financially, emotionally, socially) to have children out of wedlock and cope with life’s hardships without the comfort of faith more easily than people who are worse off. So why aren’t they?

I actually think this is the more puzzling question in Murray’s book. I for one have not been all that surprised about his findings in lower-class America. Anyone who grew up middle class in the midwest or has spent any considerable time in stagnating middle class zip codes personally or professionally has probably seen the deterioration coming – though its degree has been somewhat surprising.

But the state of the upper class is much more surprising. One could make purely sociological arguments about how the upper class is more capable of evaluating the benefits of marriage and faith. But my gut tells me it’s got to be more than this. Yet it would seem to be going to far to say that upper-class Americans are now somehow inherently more religious and conservative. Or would it? I look forward to more on this topic.