Christianity and the Working Class
On reaching a neglected demographic
Editor’s Note: This essay was originally published by American Reformer on August 9, 2022.
Kvetching about the rise of the religious “nones” distracts from the other challenges of the world increasingly hostile to Christianity. One challenge is that working-class Americans are increasingly unchurched.
It was not always thus. No gap between working class church attendance and attendance in other classes existed before the 1980s. Working class Americans were long faithful Christians. Working class Catholics were the backbone of many urban perishes. During the 1990s, my wife and I lived across the street from a faithful Catholic family with 21 kids and no twins. Fundamentalists in the country were devoted church goers and were much more culturally conservative than well-educated WASPs.
This is no longer the case. Poll after poll and book after book show that a yawning church attendance gap has opened in America. Just under 50% of the college educated attended church, while about 23% of those without college attended according to a study in the early 2010s. That gap has, if anything, widened in the past decade. My Lutheran parish has flipped in much this way: it has gone from a mostly blue-collar parish in the 1990s to a solidly, but not exclusively white-collar parish now. Evangelical churches in my area reflect the same thing.
The church attendance gap reflects America’s ongoing class division. Marriage rates among the lower classes are significantly lower, while cohabitation rates and divorce rates are significantly higher. Suicide rates among those without college education have soared, as has drug and alcohol abuse. Children of the lower classes do worse on standardized tests than the children of the upper class. Working class Americans have a much more difficult time finding and keeping steady work as well.
These are interlocking problems. The old American synthesis of conservative faith and family life combined with economic opportunity seems to be dying or dead. Faithful churches are fewer in number than fifty years ago. Family life and economic opportunity seem increasingly to be privileges of the wealthy.
Churches cannot solve the whole of the issue, but they can do their part. The first step is understanding. Imagine most American churches through the eyes of a working-class or blue-collar American man. He is a powerline worker, a plumber, an HVAC technician, or a roofer. Whom does he see when he enters modern churches? He sees many bookish men—men who read some theology or who are serious students of their professions. He also sees many emotional men, filled with their love of God and their connection to their wives. Christ fills an emotional need for such men—and churches arise to provide a psychological defense of the need for faith. Neither the bookish nor the emotional parishioners are copasetic with our working-class, would-be Christian. Just as he is a fish out of water when people begin to talk about the demands of their desk jobs, our working-class man cannot find a place in the modern church where there seems to be little to no place for the working man.
Seeing him as a “misfit” may be a charitable way of viewing the problem. Churchgoers may, in fact, actively contemn America’s working class. “Those people” may have liked Donald Trump’s “mean tweets.” They do not affect urbanity. They get their hands dirty without the typical middle-class politesse or anxiety.
Regrettably but understandably, churches tend to double-down on the church’s current membership. When churches evangelize, they often establish youth ministries on college campuses or churches in the gentrifying city centers or missions overseas, but rarely in rural America. At its best, “trickle-down” evangelism may hope to affect behaviors and beliefs of the working class. At its worst, the church simply reinforces American class divisions.
The other tendency is to blame the working class itself. Nothing absolves the working class of complicity in their own isolation from American churches. Again, regrettably and understandably, our working class is often without extended family networks and is unchurched. They are often plagued by vices inimical to thinking in the long-term, much less about eternity. There are churches all over but many in the working class find no place for one in their lives. To understand this situation is to forgive somewhat—it must also be a motivator for reassessing the Church’s role in keeping our working class unchurched.
How can churches become more welcoming to blue-collar Americans? The first step involves seeing them as “our people.” Nothing about the decline of America’s working class is irreversible. The middle-brow contempt for the working class must be replaced with a spirit of brotherhood and a sense that we are in the same boat. They are worried about the fate of the country, every bit as much as we are. They have an almost instinctive form of patriotism, just as many Christians do. All of us have souls, struggles with sin and hopes for salvation–these must be boldly expressed through the Christian lens. As the recent trucker rallies in Canada show, if there is hope for our civilization generally, hope lies, as Orwell has Winston Smith narrate in 1984, with the proles. So it is for a Christianity that has always found believers among the lower classes.
American churches have practiced a feminized piety. As Charles Taylor, Canadian multiculturalist and philosopher writes, America’s pro-family churches have since the 1800s identified “the male as the source of potential disruption, and the female as victim and guardian” of the ordered household. Nothing much has changed. In the past, men were said to be prone to gambling or drinking. Today, they are said to ignore the emotional needs of their wives. Perhaps this one-sided focus on “problematic” masculinity and inherently virtuous femininity must change if churches are to attract the working class. The vices of men and women are prevalent in keeping the working class outside the church.
But this does not mean flattering the working class into thinking that their lives are good as they are now. All people need spiritual leadership. They need focused ministries based on the idea that men and women have different needs. Men need to rise to the level of responsible, self-respecting manhood. Women also need self-respect and to rise to the level of motherhood and wifeliness. This means that there is likely a need for more than Bible studies or other strictly bookish exercises about what a man and woman would be in our late modern situation. Models for biblical manhood and biblical womanhood should be a renewed emphasis in our time of sexual confusion.
Building fraternity is especially challenging. Most churches are no longer local, so people do not congregate around a neighborhood church. Fraternity must be more intentional now and this means being more demanding. The aim could be to cultivate more manliness among current church-goers, while insisting on more responsibility among the working class. Perhaps our working class is more interested in hunting, fishing and guns than most parishioners. Give them responsibility for organizing summer fishing retreats or backpacking or Fall hunting trips and encourage some of the bookish men to attend. Perhaps working-class men could organize skeet shooting or other kinds of target shooting. Maybe they could be charged with church security.
Retreats and especially family retreats in rustic settings also build community among the different classes and statuses of people within the church. Imbibing and talking and playing games late into the night after worshiping twice during the day can sow people together into a genuine church community.
Seminaries have a role too. Church planting efforts could be aimed precisely at rural America’s suicide belts. Particularly manly pastors—not youth pastors—could be called to their ministries where they identify with the concerns of the working class.
America’s class divide presents a great challenge. Fashion points our churches and seminaries away from “our people,” but America’s working class is a huge mission field. Members of the working class object to our corrupt and corrupting current ruling elite. But they lash out with what are often vague notions of American patriotism or simple cussedness against the elite. “Our people” must see that opposition to America’s corrupt elite points instead to a reborn Christian civilization. That reborn Christianity need not be hostile to manliness—and in fact manliness will be ever more important in our increasingly negative world.