This past spring, the renowned sociologist Robert Putnam made waves with a claim that American churches had dedicated “all their resources”to fighting about abortion, gay marriage, and other matters of sexual morality, when they should have been addressing poverty and social inequality.
The claim was clearly untrue—and how a person who studies the impact of community institutions for a living could err so wildly on this matter remains somewhat mysterious. But the assumptions underlying Putnam’s claim should inspire faith communities, and all those who value witness in the public square, to reflect on how—or how effectively—we have responded to the societal changes Putnam is concerned with.
During the Civil Rights era, Sunday mornings were called “the most segregated hour in America.” Fifty years later, racial segregation among believers has declined. But in the meantime, church pews have become microcosms of an America that is increasingly self-sorting in socioeconomic and cultural terms. The “most segregated hour”is now divided by class lines.
With church-going disproportionately a middle-to-upper-class phenomenon, congregations increasingly tend to wear the same clothes, drive the same cars, and experience the same levels of well-being and social status. The result? A lack of empathy that compromises efforts to build community, harming individual flourishing and undermining the credibility of churches and the faithful.
Critics wonder: Have churches fallen down in responding to the hollowing-out of the middle class, and the divergent paths of intact and broken families? Are religious bodies addressing contemporary challenges to community-building, or are they relying too much on models from fifty or a hundred years ago?
With the rise in the religiously-unaffiliated, and the broader breakdown of the family, it could be argued that churches have more pressing concerns than the effects of social polarization and isolation. But the barriers erected by class-based stratification are closely related to those which keep working-class parents from joining churches or forming stable families. If faith communities are serious about strengthening the family as the cornerstone of a virtuous society, they must address the challenges posed by socioeconomic segregation.
For individuals, one of the strongest indicators of “success”—and of church attendance—is to have grown up in an intact household. Conversely, the breakdown of the family in fraying communities contributes to a vicious cycle.
For poor kids, models of stability and self-sufficiency are few and far between. Many children born into unstable families will never encounter role models who have prospered by obtaining an education, holding down a job, and delaying childbirth until marriage.
At the other end of the spectrum, children in middle-to-upper-class families grow up knowing that college, work, and a strong family are all desirable and attainable. They participate in extracurricular activities, such as church youth groups, and spend their summers interning or working. Poorer kids spend their summers hoping to stay out of trouble—or playing Minecraft.
Wealthier families may not be doing everything right, but they have the resources and mentorship to adjust when things go wrong. Lacking the same framework, poorer families cannot adjust. When a line is flubbed, rich families ad lib; poor families never even received the script.
Socioeconomic stratification does not come down to “Two Americas,”the “haves”and the “have-nots.”Researchers have found no inherent link between high income inequality and low social mobility. There is, however, a real cultural separation between those who shop at Whole Foods and those who buy in bulk at Walmart, even when the two classes live within a few miles of each other. This lack of common experiences may become pernicious when it turns into a lack of empathy for those on the other side of the socioeconomic divide.
Just as metaphors about shepherds and mustard seeds require some mental agility in a post-agrarian society, Scriptural references to “the least among us”and “feeding the hungry”fail to resonate when we live in suburban cocoons. There is nothing wrong with living in a nice house in a desirable neighborhood. But with that blessing comes a responsibility to encounter those living on the margins and avoid the narrow horizon that defines “community”as merely the other members of the homeowner’s association.
An effort to make church a place where socioeconomic distinctions are broken down—where blue-collar and white-collar, rich and poor, are equal before their Creator—advances the double objective of building authentic communities and recognizing the dignity of every person.
Researchers David and Amber Lapp have written convincingly of the need to address the alienation felt by working-class American families:“There’s no substitute for the service of being a good neighbor.”This is a challenge that neither community organizations, nor grassroots efforts, nor government bodies could ever meet. It requires a moral summons to leave a comfort zone for the sake of the community.
It is a challenge that churches must take as their own. Here are some suggestions:
Most difficult to address is the broader trend of falling religious participation, especially—and strikingly—among the working class. Much has been written about the importance of re-introducing Christ’s love to a society that increasingly associates religion with intolerance and repression. That work needs to be done. One way of doing it is by bringing together families from different walks of life—truly supporting families, especially those on the margins—by fostering personal relationships and an inclusiveness that transcends class.
Increasing socioeconomic diversity and promoting opportunity for those in need will never be the primary purpose of a community of faith. Salvation is. But true solidarity is not just good messaging; it’s good spiritual practice. The routine of a parish situated in a lukewarm, homogeneous comfort zone inspires only a rare few toward saintliness.
Within this zone, efforts to create situations of encounter may be met with reluctance or discomfort—but a socioeconomically segregated community is not one that sees Christ in the face of the poor, the hungry, the needy. Ignoring social polarization leaves broken families and communities without positive examples, opportunities, or hope. If we are truly a people with hope to bring, let us do so.
Patrick T. Brown is a non-profit communications professional writing from Princeton, New Jersey.