Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Undumbing of a Generation

For a long time the caricature of evangelical Christians in the United States has been that they are a bunch of uneducated hicks. Certain individuals have delighted in trying to rub the lack of educational achievement among middle America in the faces of Christians everywhere.

Now it has to be said that Christianity is not Mensa. There is no intellectual requirement to join, and I'm sure God's graciousness extends even to those unable to discuss the differences between Arminianism and Calvinism. That said, such claims annoy people like myself, who finds intellectual discussion very satisfying.

However, as the song says, the times they are a changing and New Yorks Times commentator Ross Douthat observes that conservative evangelicals are becoming increasing prominent among the educated classes.

In the 1970s, for instance, college-educated Americans overwhelmingly supported liberal divorce laws, while the rest of the country was ambivalent. Likewise, college graduates were much less likely than high school graduates to say that premarital sex was “always wrong.” Flash forward to the 2000s, though, and college graduates have grown more socially conservative on both fronts (50 percent now favor making divorces harder to get, up from 34 percent in the age of key parties), while the least educated Americans have become more permissive. There has been a similar change in religious practice. In the 1970s, college- educated Americans were slightly less likely to attend church than high school graduates. Today, piety increasingly correlates with education: college graduates are America’s most faithful churchgoers, while religious observance has dropped precipitously among the less-educated.

However, as the educational levels of believers has increased, those in the lower classes are not just becoming less religiously observant, they're also forsaking the moral principles that middle America cherishes.

But as religious conservatives have climbed the educational ladder, American churches seem to be having trouble reaching the people left behind. This is bad news for both Christianity and the country. The reinforcing bonds of strong families and strong religious communities have been crucial to working-class prosperity in America. Yet today, no religious body seems equipped to play the kind of stabilizing role in the lives of the “moderately educated middle” (let alone among high school dropouts) that the early-20th-century Catholic Church played among the ethnic working class. As a result, the long-running culture war arguments about how to structure family life (Should marriage be reserved for heterosexuals? Is abstinence or “safe sex” the most responsible way to navigate the premarital landscape?) look increasingly irrelevant further down the educational ladder, where sex and child-rearing often take place in the absence of any social structures at all.

This is something for Christians to keep in mind. Christianity is not just an intellectual exercise (although it is a very satisfying one) but a complete social structure that has a place even for those poor and ill-educated. That group provides much of the violent crime in society, so reaching them and including them in the societal framework provides a motivation to improve their lot, and see themselves as contributing responsible members of the group.