Jesus Plus Recession Doesn't Equal Charitable Giving

JESUS SAVES (JOKE ABOUT CASH HERE)American piety, like our other established social habits, is supposed to follow a simple call-and-response pattern, depending on the overall condition of our market order. When plenitude abounds, we don’t give much thought to last things, and overall religious observance declines; conversely, when times are tough, we’re supposed to throng into the pews, imploring the Creator to straighten out our suboptimal economic prospects, and to revive our faith in the American gospel of success.

Such, at any rate, is the breathless assessment in Newsweek, which has long had a bland-yet-insatiable fascination with all things Jesus-y.

Michael Stravato gamely polls “a small number of economists and other social scientists” who have plumbed “the interplay between prosperity-and poverty-and religious observance.” The general idea is to explain a general “almost exact inverse correlation” between reported rates of observance and the performance of the gross domestic product.

Still a correlation, now matter how nearly exact it may be, is not the same thing as causation, and so Stravato caroms rather suggestibly from one social-science type to another to nail down some explanation of the pattern-because, as he puzzlingly puts it, “understanding these patterns can help us better predict the future.”

Really? It would seem that a rigidly deterministic account of how people worship in an economic crisis-what our writer calls the “no atheists in a foxhole” hypothesis-would yield fairly banal predictive results: when people are secure, they’re more independent-minded in cosmic matters, and when they feel vulnerable and dependent in the economic realm, the same would seem to hold true for the grand universal design. What’s so hard about calling that trend now, without benefit of improved pattern recognition? And indeed, the future patterns Stravato flags as useful reporting fodder seem a bit, well, deflating: “Do prosperous times produce more do-gooders? Will a lengthy economic slump pull people into the pews to pray for jobs and ladle soup for needier neighbors?”

Who knows-or cares, really? The deeper problem, it seems, is that newsweeklies have difficulty conjuring up anything other than the most stereotyped sort of spiritual responses to an economic disaster. Religiously minded people don’t tend to pull themselves into pews at the first sign of ill economic health (which, by the way, the GDP is pretty much the roughest possible measure of), and then promptly wheel around to ladle soup into the cup of the next unfortunate soul they see; they tend, rather, to lead much the same complicated and conflicted lives that their secular counterparts do.

So, to answer the awkwardly posited question about charitable behavior in a slump: It’s not noticeably on the upsurge. Indeed, the early aughts-which saw a big expansion of paper wealth, if not comparable boosts in workers’ salaries-produced the highest recent rates of reported volunteerism, according to an analysis of census data by the Corporation for National and Community Service. And for the last several years-downturn or no-it’s held fairly steady, just north of 26 percent.

Of course, volunteering, like church attendance, is something that respondents tend to lie about when pollsters start quizzing them about their virtuousness-as Stravato is also forced to concede. But even giving the reliability of the data a provisional pass, Stravato’s expert informants downplay the no-atheists-in-a-foxhole explanation: Even if overall piety shows an uptick in a recession, individual church attendance remains fairly steady, regardless of economic conditions. What’s more, churchgoing tends to be a fairly class-segmented activity, with richer and better-educated souls repairing to mainline Protestant services more frequently to count their blessings. And in a typical flourish of reporterly exoticism when it comes to sizing up the mores of our country’s lower orders, Stravato observes that “economic studies do show that the poor are fundamentalist, Pentecostal, and sectarian branches of religion. It’s not that they go to church more during hard times; it’s that they go to different kinds of churches.”

This aside actually bears the kernel of an important point-that less fortunate Americans are attracted to literalist, end-times theology and more experiential brands of Protestant worship. But Newsweek doesn’t bother following up that idea, since doing so would involve explaining the appeal of distinct religious ideas to different segments of the population, rather than treating religion as an undifferentiated, and undeviating, virtue-generating activity.

But if you repair to the excellent Slacktivist blog, however, you can find an entertaining, thoughtful and detailed breakdown of the wildly popular 11-volume “Left Behind” series of tribulation novels, which have brought many daft and fringe elements of end-times prophecy firmly into the religious mainstream. One could also consult Thieves in the Temple, the recent jeremiad by G. Jeffrey McDonald, an ordained Church of Christ minister and correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, who argues that the consumer-friendly rise of the Rick Warren-style megachurch has bred a morally inert, socially quiescent brand of worship that’s “the spiritual equivalent of spending all day on the couch, eating cupcakes for dinner.”

It may just be, in other words, that the present market-addled strain of mainline Protestant worship just doesn’t have all that much that is useful or compelling to say to souls in economic distress. In this connection, another of Stravato’s sober academic sources, Robert “Bowling Alone” Putnam, states the crushingly obvious, as only a social scientist can: “The working class has tended to withdraw from church attendance over the past few decades, and the effects of unemployment have been concentrated among the working class.” In addition, Putnam continues-I hope you’re sitting down-“the net effect of joblessness is to cause people to be widely depressed. What I suspect is that more unemployed people are in front of the TV on Sunday morning, or, if they’re a little more with it, surfing the Web.” (Obviously, if Putnam himself were a little more with it, he’d also note the emerging trend of the unemployed founding their own dyspeptic Web outlets of cultural criticism.)

But enlisting a chorus of sociological and economic cognoscenti to make that point is very much going the long way around. As Jeff Sharlet reported back in 2005, now-disgraced megachurch Pastor Ted Haggard-who then headed up the enormously influential New Life congregation in Colorado Springs, Colo.-spelled out the litmus test for modern evangelical believers thusly: “They’re pro-free markets, they’re pro-private property…. That’s what evangelical stands for.”

Then again, to note the fusion of the believing culture and the money culture is to take both things seriously as dominant forces in American life. Better by far to gesture toward some inconclusive data, quote an expert or three, and leave the explication of actual religious ideas to whatever poor schlub tries to revive your brand under its new ownership.

Much of Chris Lehmann‘s charitable work takes place right here.