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Where You Go to Church Tells How Much Money You Make

May 27, 2011

Last week, the New York Times magazine reported on a study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life that looked at the links between economics and religious denominations. The results are in, and – surprise! – Reformed Judaism came out at the top of the heap, with over sixty-seven percent making more than $75,000 a year. And sorry,
Pentecostals, but you were dancing around at the bottom of the financial-religious heap, right next to the JW’s and the Baptists.

So it turns out that your religious affiliation has something to do with how much money you make.

Right behind the Orthodox Jews were the Hindus. I always thought those Episocopals were the Protestant high-rollers, and sure enough, they came in third behind the Hindus, and ahead of all the other denominations.

Interestingly, the Protestants as a whole were poorer than the Catholics, which blows that whole idea of the Protestant Work Ethic.

Not that any of this is important.

Or is it? After all, Jesus went around praising the poor and the meek and the humble. They are the ones who will inherit the earth, after all, so You Go, Jehova’s Witnesses and Pentecostals!

But this study was not just about money. It also measured education, which was directly correlated to income. The Reformed Jews and Hindus were the highest educated, followed by the Episcopalians. And a shout out to all the Unitarians, because they were next in line. Even if you don’t think the Uni’s qualify as a real religion.

The author suggests that these income differences stem from subcultures, seeing that some faiths might emphasize formal education more than others.

But it got me wondering: Why wouldn’t a church emphasize education, to encourage their young parishioners to improve themselves, to become more than self-sufficient, and to achieve their full potential? Spiritual growth is important, sure, but shouldn’t churches also be the first in line to inspire folks to become more influential, to be leaders contributing to society?

Image courtesy of Matt Banks.

29 Comments leave one →
  1. May 27, 2011 6:20 am

    There is sooooo much I shouldn’t say here. Fascinating post, Brad.

    • LeRoy permalink
      May 27, 2011 7:17 am

      Very interesting. But I can see how this is based on experience. We went to a church of a denomination that had a number of schools of their own.
      The revival preacher we had in that week was telling the congregation one evening that he would never send his children to a secular university. He would rather they be ignorant and uneducated. But it would be ok to send them to one of the denominational schools which were quite a bit more expensive.
      Now for a guy that graduated from a state university, that statement was not what I really wanted to hear. But…
      I have heard that time and again. People afraid their children will fall away from the church if allowed to go somewhere where there is a different thinking or exposed to a different way of life. Can understand but then that is why you prepare the child for the world.

      • May 29, 2011 9:17 am

        LeRoy – You said two key phrases here: “Afraid of different thinking” and “Prepare for the world”. They are, in my opinion, mutually exclusive. Being afraid of evolution, or “secularism”, or philsophy or math or science or cultural exposure that will introduce new ideas is not going to hurt us – it will expand us. Those who are afraid of education tend to look down on any critical thinking, period. If we only surround ourselves with those who believe the same as we do, then we will never grow – spiritually, or otherwise.

        As for you second phrase, I wholeheartedly agree- the education is what prepares the child for the world, to be in it, to think for themselves, to have a mind that can absorb information and then apply it in a way that contributes to the world.

        Thanks for your comment here, LeRoy!

    • May 27, 2011 7:34 am

      Come on Kelly, say it! We love it when you speak your mind.

    • May 29, 2011 9:17 am

      Say it! KEL! KEL! KEL!

  2. Mark Russell permalink
    May 27, 2011 7:13 am


    This is a fascinating report and it’s a bit bothersome on two levels. First, your point on education is right on. Shouldn’t faith produce a desire for learning, achievement, etc. resulting in a well educated populace.

    Second, this does somewhat challenge the notion of the Protestant work ethic and I’m not totally sure what to do with that. Any thoughts there?


    • May 29, 2011 9:23 am

      Mark – Could be that the Protestant Work Ethic is about work, and not education, which is what ultimately ends up corellating with income. In other words, all that emphasis on hard work did not translate into any sort of intellectual expansion. All statistical evidence that I’ve seen tracks income very closely to educational level. Compare that to the Catholic emphasis on education with all of it’s schools and Jesuit colleges….

      That would be my guess.

  3. May 27, 2011 7:33 am

    Interesting. I missed this study but I can’t say I am completely surprised. In the “church” (whatever that means) I’ve found that we sometimes look down on education as worldly or secular — it’s just not “spiritual” to invest in higher education or advanced degrees (unless, of course, it’s for the “ministry”). And in many cases, we’ve shot ourselves in the foot. Think about how God used Paul’s education and training to set the New Testament church on fire.

    • May 29, 2011 9:26 am

      Yes, Susan, I was thinking the exact same think about Paul – he was so highly eduated, and that’s one of the things that made him so influential in the early church. That’s probably the reason Jesus showed up in a blinding light to convert him after his resurrection – because Paul was educated, and none of his other disciples had the same level of influence! If he wanted to pull this Christianity thing off, he needed an intellectual heavy-hitter on the team.

  4. May 27, 2011 8:04 am

    All the caveats I learned in stats class are screaming inside my head….but I know that’s not your point here 🙂

    As for your final question…cannot spiritual growth and higher education integrate, in the mind and heart of any given believer?

    • May 29, 2011 9:28 am

      Sheila, I think that is the hope. To me, the idea of spiritual growth goes hand in hand with intellectual growth. I would shrivel up and blow away if I was limited to a handful of spiritual ideas without being able to pursue a deep and wide breadth of intellectual stimulation to challenge and stretch my beliefs. Which will ulimately grow my faith, not shrink it.

  5. May 27, 2011 8:51 am

    The protestant work ethic is really about working hard, and the compensation is a lesser goal.

    The Hindus…i just don’t know. I know far-east immigrants aren’t afraid of work and work far more hours than we do.

    We need to work for God and let the money come whatever way it does.

    • May 29, 2011 9:30 am

      Regarding the Hindus- just look around at the university campuses.. They have a huge emphasis on the value of higher education.

  6. May 27, 2011 10:27 am

    First, it’s important to keep in mind the concept of cause and effect. For example, Reformed Judaism doesn’t cause you to be rich any more than JW causes you to be poor. I think it has more to do with the fact that people attract similar people. These numbers are an effect of a broader socio-economic tendency.

    “…but shouldn’t churches also be the first in line to inspire folks to become more influential, to be leaders contributing to society?”

    Absolutely. This has been a burden on the hearts of many at our church lately and we are doing everything we can to begin inspiring and training people to advance in influence in their jobs, schools, families, and communities. I don’t think Jesus’ definition of humility was to be financially poor and uneducated; rather he just didn’t want the alternative to take precedence over him.

    • May 29, 2011 9:31 am

      Yes, there is no nobility in poverty, as the saying goes. I would love to find out more about your church, and what it is doing in the area – or, to be more specific, WHY it is choosing to go down this path. I think it’s great!

  7. May 27, 2011 2:47 pm


    Interesting post. On the question of churches inspiring a pursuit of education, where is the balance between the benefits of publicly offered education versus embracing the secular culture? There are a host of topics one could discuss here, but let’s take evolutionary theory for simple example. Should the church be encouraging its members to enroll in a system that teaches against a fundamental belief of Christianity?

    • May 29, 2011 9:34 am

      Yes, I think the church should not be afraid of science or evolution. I will not go into a tirade here, but I must travel in quite different circles than you, because most of my Christian friends believe in evolution to various degrees as part of God’s design of creation. It’s undeniable science. The question of whether or not it was the absolute means of creation, and how it stacks up to the literal translation of Genesis, well, that is another post for another blog.

      I don’t think Christians should run scared away from any intellectual teaching that challenges them. We should welcome challenge, and learn and grow from it. I think the worse sin is to be entrenched in a one-dimensional subculture that shuns anything that threatens it.

      • May 29, 2011 7:28 pm

        Bradley – I agree that Christians should be open to other viewpoints and learn from them. In many cases, this only serves to strengthen one’s faith and convictions. I also believe there is no limit to education and the possibilities it offers. My question is more on the method and the church’s role in encouraging or discouraging behavior – and I am definitely questioning, because I don’t have an answer yet.

        We have chosen to homeschool our children, for many reasons, but among them are better quality of teaching, more one on one time, more freedom to allow our children to pursue divergent interests in their studies, educating with a biblical foundation, and reducing exposure to violence, drugs, and secular thinking that is incorrect. This may indicate that the discussion varies depending on whether we are talking all education or only higher education.

        I think the keys here are: Are parents laying enough of a Biblical foundation before college that their children will know how to answer secular teaching from with Biblical truth?, and What is the church’s role in encouraging, discouraging, or preparing families to learn from the world without becoming part of the world?

      • May 30, 2011 5:03 pm

        All good reasons to home school, David.
        And I never answered your question about the church’s role in promoting education. I think ideally, the church should set up a solid framework for faith and then encourage young people to learn more and, like you say, test it on their own. The strongest faith is the one that has been challenged. Even doubting or questioning for a while is fair game, as far as I’m concerned. It’s the only way to mature into a faith that transcends dogma and black-and-white cookie-cutter aswers for everything, and gets to the mettle of faith, which to a great degree is shrouded in mystery. (i.e. accepting things by faith that may not be completely understood by math, science, secular education, etc)

        The philosophy taken by my wife and I with our own girls was to send them to decent schools (ours went to a Quaker school for elementary and a private “secular”-but-Christian-values school for high school), get them founded in biblical truths of our faith, provide a great deal of support through strong youth programs and such, then set them off to the best university they can get into and let ‘er rip. My older daughter (now 19) did much more questioning and rebelling against our faith when she was 12 and 13 than she does now. Now, she is much more settled and grounded, and when unexpected zinger questions come up, she asks and reflects on them with genuine interest. One thing my wife and I always told them was that we don’t have all the answers, no one does. Only God. And we won’t find out until, you know, later.

  8. May 27, 2011 5:10 pm

    that is a totally wild looking rainbow graph, man.

  9. May 27, 2011 8:44 pm

    I’m with Kelly. So much to say…..but will stick with…..interesting!

  10. Bob G permalink
    May 28, 2011 1:01 pm

    Don’t some denominations emphasize different priorities in life as a whole? Do some tend to value character and integrity more than education?

    “Take a poor man stealing nuts and bolts from the railroad, educate him, and he’ll steal the entire railroad.” -paraphrase, I think GK Chesterton

    Making more money will usually cost you something. It seems to me that the most joyful (and maybe even wise) people are doing things with their lives that are not earning them the dough that they could be earning.

    I really have no idea, but it seems to be much more complex than “people who make more money can send their children to better schools.”

    Thanks for again getting us to think, Bradley.

  11. May 28, 2011 10:55 pm

    I’m with Sheila. I want to believe that the two can be integrated and that by becoming educated, I become more grounded in my faith. It’s important to understand different viewpoints. I really enjoyed this information and next I’d like to see the % of giving by the same groups.

  12. May 29, 2011 9:15 pm

    (I must have less sense than Kelly and Sue … nor am I sure what to say or what to let lie … )

    I’d like to think that lack of higher education doesn’t preclude the exercise of intellect or limit God’s ability to use a person. Does the fact that one is born into the privilege of access to education make them more qualified as a leader? Is education of more use to God than the poorness of spirit which may come more readily to those with fewer credentials, who must rely more heavily on the Spirit? Or might a formal, higher education be just one of many items in God’s bag of gifts that He distributes as He sees fit? Are there other paths to learning that result in the wisdom necessary to good leadership? (If Abraham Lincoln is a prime example, he’s not the only one.)

    I don’t disagree that Paul was uniquely qualified to record the large portion of the NT that the Holy Spirit authored. But would Paul agree that if Jesus “wanted to pull this Christianity thing off, he needed an intellectual heavy-hitter on the team”? (Sorry, Brad, but you really leave me wincing on that one.)

    (Now I’ll really stick my neck out.) No Christian with a decent knowledge of the Bible needs to be afraid of the science that supports creationism and disproves evolution. There’s no way to believe both, no matter how you add up the ages. Either billions of years of death occurred before Adam’s sin, or death entered the world with Adam’s sin, while every dinosaur and amoeba to be created was still alive and kicking. You simply cannot have it both ways. It comes down to whether one believes the Bible and science, or one has already banked so heavily on evolution that the Bible and science must be compromised to fit constantly evolving evolutionary theory.

    As Paul said, it is doubtless not profitable for me to boast … but you have compelled me. My oldest graduates this year. Her K–12 education has all been home school. She has scored exceptionally well on standardized testing, with a composite SAT score of 94-6 (administered by an objective 3rd party). She did quite nicely in science, thank you, having thoroughly studied creationism, science, and the evolutionary theory she finds quite amusing.

    For what it’s worth, I still like you as much as ever, Brad. : )

  13. Gordon Atkinson permalink
    May 31, 2011 10:58 am

    When I was in seminary we were introduced to the upward mobility of denominations. There is always a denomination that appeals to the lower educated people in our culture. It used to be Baptists and Methodists. But as you noted, hard working people who want their kids to do better tend to see their families rise in the economic scale over a few generations. The denominations become a little more high church, a little more liberal, and the next thing you know, a new denomination becomes popular for the lower educated, poorer folks.

    And the denomination that has risen a bit sees its attendance begin to drop.

    Pentecostal Christianity has been a mainstay for lesser educated Americans for some time now, with all exceptions duly noted, of course. But a couple of years ago I went to see a manger scene at a local Pentecostal church. A young woman handed me a fancy invitation and said, “Would you like to come to our Christmas cantata this weekend?”

    Hmm. The cycle might be starting again.

  14. May 31, 2011 8:39 pm

    This is so interesting, Brad. I don’t know if you know, but most of my family are JWs and I was raised in that faith. My husband is fond of saying that this faith appeals to those who are destitute with little hope in this life. I think they do encourage a college education now–probably dependent on the community. When I was a girl this was considered far too “worldly”.
    Not too many surprises on the rank though, are there? So interesting.

  15. June 8, 2011 8:07 am

    I appreciate the questions in your last paragraph, Brad. It’s something Michelle Corbett finds interest in. And thanks, Gordon, for the note about denominations.

  16. June 9, 2011 11:44 am

    Just catching up and sorry to have missed this party.

    I used to be married to a Baptist minister. There was a long-standing joke about Episcopalians having the money, followed by Presbyterians, Methodists and then the Baptists. Apparently there’s some truth to that.

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