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Faith and Money:
How Religion Contributes to Wealth and Poverty

by Lisa A. Keister
Cambridge, 254 pages, $27.99

In the age of Occupy Wall Street, remarking on American inequality has become our national pastime. Look at how wide the gap has grown between rich and poor. And what are the causes? Should we blame institutional racism? A glass ceiling for women in the workplace? A regressive tax code? The government favoring bankers over factory workers? Blaming factors that are in some sense beyond individual control has been the most popular explanation for the cause. But what about those factors that allow some individuals to transcend their circumstances while others remain stuck? Like culture? And religion?

Enter Lisa Keister, a professor of sociology at Duke University and director of the Markets and Management Studies program there. Her new book, Faith and Money: How Religion Contributes to Wealth and Poverty , rests on a promising enough premise: “A person’s general approach to the world”their cultural orientation”would be related in predictable ways to their wealth . . . . In the United States, because religion is an important part of cultural orientation, it follows that religious beliefs should affect material well-being.”

One needn’t be a preacher of the prosperity gospel, though, to realize this. For example, religious emphasis on the importance of marriage before having children and the positive impact of regular churchgoing on marital stability will increase a family’s financial security over time. Keister’s analysis, though, goes much further than these connections.

As she makes clear, a person’s wealth is defined by and derived from much more than the money in his bank account. It comes from long-term decisions about home ownership, saving for retirement, investing in education, charitable giving, work habits, and so forth. In often excruciating detail, she explains how people of different faiths make different decisions about these matters.

Three variables of childhood socioeconomic status significantly affect an adult’s socioeconomic status: the parents’ median income, their level of education, and whether the child inherited any money. Examining the data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth from 1979 to 2004, Keister shows that parents of conservative Protestants had a median income of $15,700, white Catholics of $17,500, mainline Protestants of $20,000, and Jews of $35,000. In fact, Jews ranked at the top in all of the measures. Black Protestants, with a median parental income of $9,000, ranked at the bottom of all the measures.

Keister’s conclusions are not exactly counterintuitive”except perhaps to members of the academy who can’t bring themselves to think of religion as a significant factor in the world. Some people start their adult lives with an advantage because of their parents’ wealth and maintain that advantage because they are more likely to understand finances, but even controlling for these and all other factors, religion is still a significant factor in economic success.

As she writes (it is an academic treatise), “I control for everything (possible) that affects wealth ownership, including religion. Because the other processes that should explain why religion matters (e.g., education, fertility, marriage behavior) do not make the religion effect insignificant, the remaining religion effect is extremely an effect of religious values.”

Unfortunately, Keister seems only mildly curious as to how religion affects wealth. A quarter of the way through the book, we have the first analysis of the ways in which religious people themselves say religion has affected them. Keister shows the results of a survey asking (1) whether religion influenced a respondent’s career choice and (2) whether he or she thinks a lot about what the Bible teaches about work. Eighteen percent of conservative Protestants said yes to the former compared to only 2 percent of Jews. Among black Protestants, 28 percent said they think a lot about what the Bible teaches about work, compared to only 9 percent of white Catholics and 8 percent of Hispanic Catholics.

The pattern revealed by this survey naturally leads us to ask crucial questions. Why is the poorest religious group in America the one that thinks the most about what the Bible teaches about work, and what do they believe the Bible teaches about it? Do the conservative Protestants who were influenced by religion choose to earn less by becoming pastors or teachers at Christian schools or by taking jobs that allow them to spend more time with their family? Or do the men choose to earn more so that their wives can stay at home with their children?

Keister, unfortunately, leaves these questions unanswered. When she does venture into the world of actual religious beliefs, she reveals a surprising lack of depth. Twenty years ago, this was fairly typical of social scientists at major American universities. But there has been a remarkable growth in both the quantity and the quality of sociological research in this field recently. Her superficial acquaintance with the religions she is speaking about is disappointing.

While speculating about why conservative Protestants tend to have lower levels of wealth, she points out that they believe in biblical inerrancy and that the Bible includes passages like “To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it.” She repeatedly cites Evangelical commentator Randy Alcorn’s gloss on the text: “We are God’s money managers. He wants us to invest His money in His kingdom.” So conservative Protestants have lower levels of wealth because they’re giving their money to support the missions of the church.

That’s not entirely implausible, but Keister has hardly pointed to something unique to conservative Protestantism. Other religious leaders regularly note that “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil” and that “a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” Rather than simply rely on a couple of interpreters like Alcorn (a minor figure), she might have consulted a few more sources or tried some field research into what actually goes on at Evangelical churches.

Keister occasionally tantalizes the reader with brief descriptions of the work of other researchers. In explaining why Jews tend to have greater financial success, she says one common scholarly explanation is that “aspects of the Jewish faith . . . emphasize mutual assistance and this-worldly pursuits as traits leading to success.”

This would suggest that there are faiths out there that place emphasis on another world . That some religious people believe this world is only a temporary stopping place on the way somewhere else might affect the way they view money. But Keister skips over the point entirely. As if the time and the significance of your stay in this world are irrelevant.

In reading through all of the dozens of survey questions and tables that Keister has included in this book (and I should clarify that, for better or worse, she is simply picking from surveys that have been done by others), there is one that I kept longing to see. One axis would have wealth and the other would have a breakdown of how respondents answered some variation on this question: “When do you think the Messiah will arrive?”

Last year two scholars, Paul Froese and Christopher Bader, published a book called America’s Four Gods . In it, they suggested that we can be divided by how we view God: as loving and involved in our day-to-day lives, loving and uninvolved, vengeful but uninvolved, or vengeful but involved. They found that the poorest Americans were most likely to believe in the last, the angriest God. So do the poor believe that God has it in for them and use that belief to explain their poverty? Or do they believe that they are somehow divinely destined for a difficult life and therefore do not put much effort into making money?

While the authors conceded that it was difficult to sort cause and effect, they decided to do something that Lisa Keister evidently did not. They hit the road. At one church in a poor area of Colorado, for example, they observed the pastor preaching: “It shouldn’t be about health, wealth and prosperity here , but in the next place.” “By focusing so intensely on the afterlife,” the authors observed of the congregants, they “seemed somewhat resigned to their earthly troubles.”

A person’s view of God is obviously not the sole or necessarily the primary determinant of how strenuously he will pursue financial success, let alone of the likelihood he will achieve it. But the claim with which Keister begins her study”that a person’s religious beliefs will exert some influence on whether he will pursue material wealth and how he will go about doing so”seems eminently reasonable. “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God,” Paul admonished the Corinthians.

Should we be troubled that those believers who report taking the Bible’s teaching on work most seriously are also the poorest religious group? Do our metaphysical views affect how seriously we pursue material goods? These are all questions suggested by the studies and statistics marshaled in Faith and Money . Unfortunately, Keister never attempts to answer them.

Naomi Schaefer Riley is the author of The Faculty Lounges: And Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Paid For .