A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


Is Religion Making Inequality Worse?

As a complement to the excellent recent essays here on libertarianism, capitalism and religion, I wanted to make two very uncomplicated observations. What troubles me is the possible connection between the two; I think that without question a causal relationship exists, but I want to open matters up for discussion.

First observation: in economic terms, the United States is the most unequal of all industrialized nations. One could argue about the different ways of measuring this, but the pattern is clear, especially when one focuses on a measure like income distribution.

Second observation: the United States is the most religious of all advanced industrialized democracies. A majority of Americans who claim some affiliation (roughly 16% claim none) are Christian.

We can see a correlation between inequality and religious faith. Is there causation as well? Does contemporary, American-style Christianity in some sense exacerbate or even cause income disparity? Or is it the other way around? Is the intensity of contemporary faith merely our way of dealing with (masking, repressing, even legitimating) the ugly reality of our economic world?

If one is tempted to respond by saying that the correlation here really means nothing, or that religion and civil society somehow serve as a barrier against even greater inequality, consider the example of other nations. Those advanced industrialized democracies with the lowest rates of religious affiliation and church attendance tend to score relatively well on measures of inequality.

Is religion making us less equal? 

About the Author

Robert Geroux is a political theorist.



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

This is a good question.

I'm reminded of polls which showed US Christians were more in favour of invading Iraq than non-Christians.

The mystery that non-Christians often follow the gospel better than Christians.

History will doutbless record that Christians were less in line with the gospel on the treatment of women and of homosexuals and our past support of slavery, inquisitions and crusades has not done us much credit.

Even for Jesus, it was religious instiutions which had him crucified.

Good religion can be a great force for social justice; religion gone bad can be a serious obstacle.

God Bless

Perhaps it's not religion as such, but latent Calvinism: the tacit acceptance of cosmic winners and losers plays out in worldly terms. That streak of Puritanism has varied consequences which also may gather up the way we approach social issues (i.e., homosexuality, abortion, etc.) as much as the economic question. It's said that slavery was America's Original Sin. But maybe it's the binary moralism that springs from Plymouth Rock that made it all possible.

Your comparison (or those you are quoting) of America as less equal than other industrialized countries is a nebulous one. More people still want to come here. The eight (G8) largest industiralized nations are USA,  UK,  Italy,  France,  Germany,  Japan,  Canada and Russia. Would most people here want to live in these countries rather than the US? Do not think so. With the exception of Japan the G8 consists mostly of Christians. Somehow your thesis is too confused or misdirected. It may be too wide open. Going everywhere and thus nowhere. Somehow the question needs refining. 


I think there is a connection between inequality and Christianity.  There's that attachment to the idea that 'the poor will always be with you' ... the desire to be the givers of charity instead of the supporters of economic justice - and B16's antipthy for libration theology.  British theologian John Milbank wrote an aerucle once denouncing John Rawls' idea of justice as fairness ... "Opportunity beyond equality" ...  ...


Maybe religion has a moderating effect. We're also the richest nation in the world; giving us more opportunity for great inequality.  Maybe we would be even worse if we weren't religious.  

Bill, most of the G8 countries, and many of their smaller neighbors, have universal free or almost-free health care, generous parental leave policies, long paid vacations, earlier retirement ages, guaranteed pensions, restrictions on gun ownership, cheap and reliable public transportation -- and the metric system.  

I'm a U.S. citizen, but if I were a citizen of a western European country, the only way I'd move to the United States would be if I married a U.S. citizen.  It wouldn't surprise me if most Europeans think it's foolhardy to give up their social safety nets for life in a country where mentally unstable gun nuts lurk on every corner.  

I don't think that economic inequality can be blamed on Christianity so much as the culture of the United States which is complicated. On the one hand, the USA has been the most successful country on the planet when it comes to assimillating immigrants. They have the a well developed mythology that offers hope and creates strong bonds of identification to an idea. 

There was an interesting article contrasting Europe, and in particular, France's problem being able to successfully handle Muslim immigration. There is a lot of cultural division and outright marginalization of that population within French society.

Economic inequality occurrs when there is racism; Scandanavian countries have high levels of equity but then again the population is fairly homogenous. As soon as "others" are introduced, iequity occurs.

Obviously, racial divisions exist within the USA but then again, the US is the only Western country to elect a person of colour as president.

The US is the only country to emerge directly from the philosophy of the Enlightement and has been successful in building an entire secular state. Ironically, this character of political indifference to religion combined with religious liberty has produced the most religious country in the world. But the religious character is different. Congregationalist styled Christianity tends to be the character of Christianity in the US even among Catholics. Even Ratzinger admitted that many Catholics think like Catholics but act, in practice, like congregationalists. In other words, they tend to create self selecting communities.

The inequalities of the USA are fairly consistent across the board. But the religion of America is all over the place. The Nuns on the Bus and the Moral Majority may both be in church on Sunday morning, and sometimes in the same building, but their effects, if any, on equality would pull in opposite directions.

The equality Europe aspires to -- and which it pretty much created through the institutions and policies Angela Stockton lists -- is to a great extent the doing of the post-WWII Christian Democratic parties. The Christian Democrats were never as confessional as their name, but they did take their inspiration from Europe's underlying Christianity (a point recent popes have tried to make to people who don't know their own history).

Our traditions and Constitution militate against a nominally Christian party. Besides, both major parties think that the Christian God is on their side. Beyond that, I doubt an American politician would get much understanding if he or she spoke in terms that were natural to Christian Democrats like Konrad Adenauer and Robert Schuman. Different pasts, different presents.

The inequalities of the USA are fairly consistent across the board. But the religion of America is all over the place. The Nuns on the Bus and the Moral Majority may both be in church on Sunday morning, and sometimes in the same building, but their effects, if any, on equality would pull in opposite directions.

The equality Europe aspires to -- and which it pretty much created through the institutions and policies Angela Stockton lists -- is to a great extent the doing of the post-WWII Christian Democratic parties. The Christian Democrats were never as confessional as their name, but they did take their inspiration from Europe's underlying Christianity (a point recent popes have tried to make to people who don't know their own history).

Our traditions and Constitution militate against a nominally Christian party. Besides, both major parties think that the Christian God is on their side. Beyond that, I doubt an American politician would get much understanding if he or she spoke in terms that were natural to Christian Democrats like Konrad Adenauer and Robert Schuman. Different pasts, different presents.

How much influence has the Calvinism of the Puritain variety actually had on the other American Protestants?  I would expect that the Anglicans and Methodists have not been much influenced, if influenced at all, but what about the other groups?

The diversity of the Protestant churches in the U. S. makes one's head spin, and I wonder sometimes how many generalizations can be made about them except negative ones, e.g., they don't believe in popes. 

As European countries are becoming more and more secular and the new generations are growing up without a Christian or religious frame, can we see a change in society that could be linked to that?

- wealth: people used to be very discrete about their wealth. It was considered bad manners to display one's wealth. Now Sarkozy and others have been increasingly displaying ostentatious signs of wealth.

- helping the weak: the social net mentioned above, and the law (at least in France) that it is illegal to not help someone who is in danger. Now, not only is the social net fraying, but I have the impression that there is the beginning of a very new (still marginal) sense that people who are in trouble by their own fault should be left to their own devices to get out of trouble. 

- hopelessness: maybe it is more linked to chronic high unemployment, especially among the young, but there is a disturbing sense of lack of possibility in life.

- duty: there was a strong sense that people, as citizens, have a duty to society. They worked, not just to become rich (or to survive), but also to contribute to society. Now that sentiment sounds very old-fashioned.

- authority: I suppose that the formerly stronger respect of authority may have been derived from the belief that it came from God.

In the US I am not sure what characteristic one could even begin to conjecture is caused by religious faith.

George D, Scandinavian countries (and I'll throw in the Netherlands as well) have been homogenous until recently, when large Muslim populations have moved there. There has been upheaval in all these countries over these immigration trends, with riots in Swedent earlier this year. 

Despite the predominance of Catholics in Michigan (see the map posted in a post elsewhere on this blog), and in my rural area in particular, if you want to get anything done in your community that addresses poverty, domestic violence, or any kind of inequality, you get the Methodist ladies on it. Except they're usually already on it before anyone else is aware of it. This year I have some knitting projects going for them, and I always try to make it in when they're assembling packages and parcels because they sing stuff like "When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder" and "In the Sweet Bye and Bye" or, my very favorite, "Brighten the Corner Where You Are."

They also hug a lot, but I realize that goes with the territory and try to take it in good grace.

The religion of America is Americanism and Americanism has historically valued the  pull- yourself- up by- your- own- boot- straps- if- you're- rich --you- must- be- good puritanical rugged indiviualism  ethos.Perhaps we'll catch up to the   European style democraies where entitlement   is not a dirty word  but the just expression of   every enlightened  advanced democray;right to a job or income, health care, home ,higher ed. etc. for it's citizens. A more equitable distribution of wealth will be recognized as   a self  evident ethical norm.

I would note that equality in the US was greater when the US had substantially greater amounts of social capital than it does now.  The growth in inequality has coincided with our decline in social capital - a decline which certainly has affected religion as much as other social institutions from labor unions to Kiwanis chapters to informal social norms like dining at friends' homes and socializing with neighbors.  Although the US is more religious than other developed countries, religious observance certainly has declined over the last couple of generations.  We can see this by looking at our own parishes, and at looking at the sad membership statistics for the traditional Mainline churches.  

Pope Francis' mission imperative certainly has urgent applicability for the United States.


An example of social capital, and its opposite:

 The clerk, in letting Scrooge's nephew out, had let two other people in. They were portly gentlemen, pleasant to behold, and now stood, with their hats off, in Scrooge's office. They had books and papers in their hands, and bowed to him.

   'Scrooge and Marley's, I believe,' said one of the gentlemen, referring to his list. 'Have I the pleasure of addressing Mr Scrooge, or Mr Marley?'

   'Mr Marley has been dead these seven years,' Scrooge replied. 'He died seven years ago, this very night.'

   'We have no doubt his liberality is well represented by his surviving partner,' said the gentleman, presenting his credentials.

   It certainly was, for they had been two kindred spirits. At the ominous word liberality, Scrooge frowned, and shook his head, and handed the credentials back.

   'At this festive season of the year, Mr Scrooge,' said the gentleman, taking up a pen, 'it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.'

   'Are there no prisons?' asked Scrooge.

   'Plenty of prisons,' said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

   'And the Union workhouses.' demanded Scrooge. 'Are they still in operation?'

   'They are. Still,' returned the gentleman,' I wish I could say they were not.'

   'The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?' said Scrooge.

   'Both very busy, sir.'

   'Oh. I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,' said Scrooge. 'I'm very glad to hear it.'

   'Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,' returned the gentleman, 'a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?' 

   'Nothing!' Scrooge replied.

   'You wish to be anonymous?'

   'I wish to be left alone,' said Scrooge. 'Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don't make merry myself at Christmas and I can't afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned-they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.'

   'Many can't go there; and many would rather die.'

   'If they would rather die,' said Scrooge, 'they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides-excuse me-I don't know that.'

   'But you might know it,' observed the gentleman.

   'It's not my business,' Scrooge returned. 'It's enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people's. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!'

   Seeing clearly that it would be useless to pursue their point, the gentlemen withdrew. Scrooge resumed his labours with an improved opinion of himself, and in a more facetious temper than was usual with him.


Jim P. I am lost more than usual. Is social capital the "some slight provision" the well off make for the lesser breeds? Or is it the prisons and workhouses? We still seem to have a plethora of slight-provision money; there is hardly a hospital elevator, chair or tongue depressor that does not bear the name of a donor at our hospitals (where I have spent too much time as a visitor lately).

My first thought when you wrote "social capital" was the infrastructure of the commons -- highways, roads, parks, police and fire protection and schools and such. And most of that is in decline since our leading taxpayers no longer see value for them in it. But, from your examples, I guess maybe that's not what you mean.

Can you swim in a giant vault of social capital?

Tom, and anyone else interested - here is some info on social capital (or civic engagement, or social bonds, if you prefer those terms) and its decline in American society.  Pertinent to this discussion, check out figure 7.9, but the whole thing is interesting (at least, I find it interesting).

Two obervations, neither of which answers the question. First: Calvinism and Americanism, religious and otherwise. Hard to know how much to identify American religion with Calvinism. Most of us think in terms of New England Calvinism (Pilgrims, Puritans, etc.), but even in 1776 New England was only part of the nascent nation. There are those who believe that after the Northern victory in the Civil War, a triumphant New England managed to convince the rest of us that America -- real America -- grew out of its New England roots, thus effectively sidelining the contributions of, say, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and the rest of the south. So if Americans in, say, Iowa, think of Christianity in a Calvinist manner, maybe it's partly at least from New England's post-Civil War national brainwashing.

Second: another factor in this discussion might be the differences in charitable giving between red (religious) and blue (secular) states, brought out in recent years by such institutions as the Pew studies, the Chronicle of Philanthropy and such. My own state of Vermont ranks at or perhaps second from the bottom in charitable giving, and though there is little or no hand-wringing about this low status, there are attempts to explain it away. One way is to say, well, of course the red states give more because they're more religious than (enligtened) us. Public Radio commentators and local papers advance this argument in our defense. But isn't it simply a red (or blue?) herring? There are plenty of secular outlets for charitable giving (food banks, heating assistance programs [it's going down to -10° F. tonight, and officially it's still autumn], emergency shelters, and so forth. And apparently the Chronicle of Philanthropy says that even if you correct for religious giving, we're still Scrooge-ish up here. The other way is to point out that Vermont at least (don't know about other blue states) ranks very high in volunteering -- again second or third from the top. And that, of course, is indeed admirable.

But of course neither charitable giving nor volunteer activity is ever going to be sufficient to make much of a dent in the kinds of problems brought on by social and income inequality

Jim P. --

The article on social capital is expressed in the vocabulary of economics -- capital, externalities, private returns, etc., etc.  The Dickens analysis, put in ordinary language, is a much fuller expression of the truth -- stinginess is stingy.  And we foolishly drop the Humanities from the schhools!!!  What fools we are. 

". . . even in 1776 New England was only part of the nascent nation. There are those who believe that after the Northern victory in the Civil War, a triumphant New England managed to convince the rest of us that America -- real America -- grew out of its New England roots, . . ."

Nicholas --

That is so ironic, when the two giants among the intellectual founders of the USA, Jefferson and Madison, were both from Virginia.

The answer is that the abuse of religion makes equality worse. In the US we have abuse of religion all over the place. From Cardinal Dolan's 200 million renovation to Benny Hinn's private jet. 

Jim, thanks for the link to the article about "social capital." It's an interesting idea. However, I see a chicken-or-egg conundrum here. Assuming there's a connection between equality and social capital: Did social capital fall off because people are exhausted from working and trying to make ends meet such that they feel they have no time left? Or are people exhausted from working and trying to make ends meet because the social capital that formerly supported them has dried up?

My guess is that the loss of women from the home to the workforce has a lot to do with the decrease in social capital. That's not an argument against women in the workplace, but I would say that as many women now feel trapped in their jobs out of economic necessity as felt trapped in their homes 40 or 50 years ago. 

Something else that complicates the "social capital" is empathy fatigue. Thanks to the Internet and more communication venues, I feel bombarded with demands to help everything from public radio to children with malaria in Africa to vets with PTSD. Moreover, most nightly news broadcasts end with a tear-jerker or a heart-warmer that raises awareness of some tragedy, disease, or social evil that needs a handout. 

Maybe this is correct after all: 

Morality is doing what is right, no matter what you are told.  Micromanaged "religion" is doing what you are told, no matter what is right.




Robert Putnam's social capital sounds a lot like simple affiliation. I don't know what he gains with the economic metaphor. But I do see some of the parallels. Just as the egg  beater and the aircraft carrier had to be made comparable for financial capital theory to work, so the Ku Klux Klan and the Kiwanis have to be treated alike as social capital. But it must make a difference whether people are beating up their neighbors or encouraging their neighbors to become eye donors. That difference has to be accounted for somehow.

Jean Raber's chicken-or-egg question seems to me to be the critical one, whether we are tryng to account for a relation between Putnam's social capital and inequality or between religion and inequality. If a decline in church attendance goes along with inequality, is that because people are so tired from trying to make ends meet that they need to sleep in -- or go to work -- on Sunday morning?

The original question, though, was whether being the most religious country left in the developed world in some way can account, or partially account, for our being the most unequal country in the developed world. We are unusually religious compared to our peer group nations, which are more equal than we are. But we were more religious when we were more equal than we are now. There was a strong strain of "muscular Christianity" in it when TR et all went after the golden peacocks with their fortunes to end the last American gilded age.

What am I missing?

Jean - Putnam's book, Bowling Alone, goes into the factors you mention and more.  It's readable but too long, but pretty interesting.  The factors you mention, such as busy-ness, women working outside the home, etc., do seem to contribute to the loss of civic engagement and weakening of social ties.  He believes that one of the largest contributing factors - and he presents a lot of direct and indirect evidence for all of the factors he identifies - is the growth of television watching.  His book was written before the widespread adoption of social media, so I am not sure how that would fit into his scheme.

Tom - Putnam tracks the decline of religious activity and observance as one of many symptoms of the overall decline of civic engagement / social capital.  So I guess I'm more or less disputing the hypothesis that there is a positive correlation between religiosity and inequality.  I'm suggesting that the actual twin trend is declining religious observance and increasing inequality.  To put all this in the terminology of Catholic social teaching, and perhaps bring things back around to Dickens, solidarity can move us to do something (private and/or public somethings) for those who have less than us.  In my anecdotal observation, solidarity is becoming rarer.  Scrooge had to resist the social pressure of guys from his own caste to help the poor.  Resistance is a lot easier these days.  When I was a young gun in business, my arm used to get twisted all the time to give to United Way.  I couldn't tell you the last time that happened; it's been a couple of decades or more.



Jim, sounds like an interesting book, but, again, I wonder if TV watching isn't a symptom of frustration and stress. If I've had a hard day, I want to watch a "flatliner" show--these are usually PBS science programs about some unemotional topic--say corvid intelligence--explained by a bunch of ornithologists with charts and graphs, and preferably narrated by that guy who does "Frontline," perfect voice to fall asleep by. When my mother was ill last year, I was ushered to the family waiting area several times, intending to say my rosary, but most people were huddled slack-jawed around the movies on AMC, and I confess that the lure of putting my brain on auto-pilot while Katherine Hepburn pretended to be Mary, Queen of Scots, was more than I could resist. (I later found the chapel, and was able to make better headway with my prayers there.)

In McLuhan parlance, social media is a "hot" medium (vs. the "cool" medium of TV). It will be interesting to see if social media builds social capital and makes the world a better place or is just a time-consuming way to maintain superficial relationships with people you hardly know. 

Jean, I'm sure you're right about frustration and stress.  I'm the same way on a lot of evenings - it feels like dragging myself to the couch and turning on a hockey game is about the upper limit of what I can manage to do.  Putnam's view seems to be that television watching "crowds out" more sociable activities (visiting with neighbors, playing bridge, hanging out with the Knights of Columbus, etc.) with which Americans used to occupy their 'down time'; and that TV-induced isolation has far-reaching implications.  (Television is just one of many factors he identifies as contributing to a decline in civic engagement, but he does see it as one of the largest contributors.)

In our archdiocese, every October the parishes do a "parish count" - our ushers count the number of attendees at Sunday masses every weekend.  If you look at our parish's long-term mass attendance trends, they're sort of slumping downward a bit over the last decade or so.  If there are a few hundred fewer people coming to church on Sunday mornings as compared to the 1990s, we wonder, "What are they doing instead?"  I'm sure they're doing a million things - sleeping, reading the newspaper, watching television, working, following their kid around in travel soccer, going to a different church, and so on and so on.  It's good, in a way, to know that it's not just us; all sorts of community organizations are struggling with declining membership.  (At the same time, it could be partly us, and we need to make sure we're not doing anything to drive people away).  

Our challenge is to figure out how to reach these people, and other people, in the headwind of declining civic engagement.  I am confident that a more engaged society will be a society that takes inequality more seriously, and perhaps would even ameliorate inequality.  


Jim, I agree that a more engaged society could lead to less inequality. Let's start with businesses. How many people actually see the president of their organization on a daily basis and feel they can have an honest dialogue with him or her about the problems and challenges of their jobs? (How many people could even get an appointment with him or her? I can't. The guy's secretary is a master stonewaller.) Top managers may go to church every Sunday and tell themselves they're making decisions for the "good of the organization" (i.e., stockholders, students, or consumers), and never feel the compunction to ask those who provides the goods or services how it's going because what's "good for the organization" must be good for the workers.

I also think Tom makes an interesting point about the groups that make up civic engagement, and the need to have some criteria for measuring their commitment to human dignity (e.g., the KKK vs. the Kiwanis). 

Steven, George and all: just want to call attention to this article that attributes the genesis of capitalism and the piling up of merchant-generated wealth, not so much to Calvinism, but to Arminianism.

Jean - very good point.  In addition to not interacting with his/her own workers in the workplace, how many corporate senior execs truly understand how their workers live?  Chances are good, at least in this metropolitan area, that whatever church the president attends will not be the one the rank and file attends, because they are so geographically separated.  Nor do their kids attend the same public schools, nor do they shop at the same malls (nor do the malls have the same stores) etc.

Jim and Jean, A propos what you have been talking about, this story was told to me by some Pabst executives. It seems to be true. Back in the days when Milwaukee had four breweries, the brewers decided to take a strike one year. The strike began, the picket lines went up. The weather warmed up. The Pabst executives looked out the window at their sweating picketers and felt compassion. They sent out buckets of beer.

After the strike, the Schlitz and Blatz signs came down in the blue collar bars of Milwaukee, and Pabst signs went up. Of course, those days are over, but they were nice while they lasted.


There is no one American culture, or one version of American Christianity or American Catholicism. According to the book enitled "American Nations: The Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America" (all operative in the USA). If you read this easy-to-read, brisk book you will get a deep picture of the competing cultures in the USA. Believe me, you will, and you will become relucatabt to talk about the USA in any untary way.

I have lived in a number of these cultures, and I find the histroical and contemporary picture of these cultures to be quite accurate. While "in exile"  I forged good neighborly relations even with people whose views I did not like and in some cases considered evil.  But then I was raised in the culture characterized by tolerance - taking people the way they are, and either cooperating with them or ignoring them. I find people in each nation are incredibly provincial, associating their culture with America.

John McGrath, I think that's a very good point. Here is a piece (with map) on the eleven regional areas:

I would be interested to know how you feel this affects the question of religion, equality, and Jim Pauwel's discussion of social capital.



Jean --

Fascinating map and theory, but, just for the record, the map show south Louisiana as part of Yankeedom (!!) while the description of "New France" includes New Orleans in that group.  Quite a contradiction.  Also, it's description of New France doesn't describe the New Orleans accurately at all.  It seems to conflate the Acadian and Creole elements, which are a lot alike but also a lot different.  


Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment