Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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There is considerable intergenerational and intragenerational mobility in America (Blau and Duncan 1978, Featherman and Hauser 1978). Sons and daughters are more likely to rise above or fall below their parents' social standing than they are to occupy the same social status. Shortrange mobility is quite extensive, with offspring being about three times as likely to rise above their parents' social standing as they are to fall below it. Dramatic mobility from the bottom of the occupational ladder to the top, or vice versa, is not common. Religion contributes to this mobility but also is affected by it.

Religion-Mobility Interactions

Several researchers have suggested that some forms of religion contribute to mobility. Johnson (1961) argued that workingclass Holiness sects espouse an ascetic Protestantism that encourages a simple lifestyle, denial of luxuries and pleasure, a rational (means-end) approach to life, and economic frugality. These religious values promote planning, saving, the accumulation of disposable income, and upward social mobility (Dearman 1974).

Other researchers have argued that stringent lifestyle demands and opposition to the prevailing culture militate against upward mobility. Lenski (1961), for example, argued that Catholics' reliance on obedience to church authority and their tendency to have larger families stifled upward mobility.

Most research also suggests that social mobility contributes to movement between different religious traditions. As people's life chances improve, their religious beliefs and practices—even their religious affiliations—are likely to change.

The prevailing pattern is for members of lower status faith groups to join religious groups that are associated with more affluent strata. Baltzell (1958: 225) provides the following tongue-in-cheek description of upward switching:

The average American is born the son of a Baptist or Methodist farmer; after obtaining an education he becomes a businessman in a large city where he joins a suburban, Presbyterian church; finally, upon achieving the acme of economic success, he joins a fashionable Episcopal church in order to satisfy his wife's social ambitions.

This classic pattern of social mobility and religious switching has been widely documented (e.g., Hoge et al. 1994, Roof and McKinney 1987). Switching has been more common among upwardly mobile Protestants than among Catholics and Jews.

Several factors contribute to mobility's tendency to promote religious change. One is the fact that religious groups differ in class, status, and power. The United Church of Christ and the Episcopal and Presbyterian churches are linked with privilege, while Baptists, Nazarenes, and other sectarian groups rank lower in socio-economic status. As upwardly mobile individuals strive for lifestyles that are more compatible with higher status, some feel socially compelled to switch to a denomination that corresponds with their new station in life.

Another factor linking mobility to denominational switching is interfaith marriage. Upwardly mobile persons often marry persons who belong to higher status religions. The desire to share one's spouse's religious affiliation often leads to switching, even when there is no substantive change in one's religious beliefs and practices.

Upwardly mobile persons also are likely to develop new social relationships at work and in their neighborhoods. Switching to the religion of one's new friends and associates is likely to have this-worldly rewards, such as a wider circle of friends and relationships, which enhances performance on the job.

There have been several recent trends in religious switching (e.g., Hadaway and Marler 1993). First, willingness to switch faith groups seems to be increasing. This willingness reflects increased cultural individualism and religious voluntarism, which are most evident in Protestant denominations but also occur among Catholics and Jews.

Second, while liberal denominations once gained the most and conservative groups lost the most as a result of switching, today's patterns are a bit different. Mainline Protestant denominations (both liberal and moderate) and the Catholic Church are losing members more rapidly, while the net results among conservative Protestants have improved somewhat. One factor that may explain the increased retention rate among conservative Protestants may be increased economic polarization between rich and poor and the growing number of formerly middle-class persons who have lost socio-economic status. Another factor may be the development of large, nondenominational "megachurches," churches that have sprung up along major highways in recent years. Increased cultural conservatism, sectarian groups' effectiveness in recruiting new members, and the combination of other-worldly and this-worldly rewards they offer downwardly mobile persons also contribute to this trend (Finke and Stark 1992, Perrin and Mauss 1991).

Third, several recent studies dispute the thesis that mobility plays a major role in switching (Nelsen and Snizek 1976, Hadaway 1991, Sherkat 1991, Hadaway and Marler 1993). These studies contend that mobility pales in significance compared with family influences and other social relationships.

Mobility's Effects with Groups:
Church and Sect

Mobility often spawns changes within religious groups. As working-class sects evolve into middle-class denominations, they tend to change their religious norms and practices (Finke and Stark 1992). Sectarian beliefs emphasizing absolute truth, the highly emotional expressions of faith associated with revivals, and distinctive practices such as snake-handling or Catholics' use of Latin at Mass often give way to more churchlike emphases on relative and symbolic interpretations, more sedate forms of religious participation, and more culturally acceptable styles of worship. Sectarian emphasis on evangelizing others also may give way to the live-and-let-live approach that seems more compatible with affluent status. These transformations have been especially evident in groups, such as United Methodists and Catholics, that have experienced a great deal of social mobility.

Thus, even when mobility does not produce changes in affiliation, it often fosters changes in what people believe and how they practice their faith. It discourages working-class beliefs and practices and encourages beliefs and practices that are seen as more compatible with a middle- or upper-class lifestyle.

While some members approve of such changes, others do not. Dissidents feel the group has lost its roots, forsaken its original principles, and turned its back on the truth. A frequent step is for dissenters to form their own sect, with the goal of returning to the group's original worldview. Finke and Stark (1992) argue that sect transformation and reformation are at the heart of American religious history.

See also Geographic Mobility, Stratification

James D. Davidson and Ralph E. Pyle


E. D. Baltzell, Philadelphia Gentlemen (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1958)

P. Blau and O. D. Duncan, The American Occupational Structure (New York: Free Press, 1978)

M. Dearman, "Christ and Conformity," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 13(1974):437-453

D. Featherman and R. Hauser, Opportunity and Change (New York: Academic Press, 1978)

R. Finke and R. Stark, The Churching of America (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1992)

C. K. Hadaway, "Denominational Switching, Social Mobility, and Membership Trends," in A Case Study of Mainstream Protestantism , ed. N. Williams (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1991): 491-508

C. K. Hadaway and P. L. Marler, "All in the Family," Review of Religious Research 35(1993):97-116

D. Hoge et al., Vanishing Boundaries (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster, 1994)

B. Johnson, "Do Holiness Sects Socialize in Dominant Values?" Social Forces 39(1961):309-316

G. Lenski, The Religious Factor (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1961)

H. M. Nelsen and W. E. Snizek, "Musical Pews," Sociology and Social Research 60(1976):279-289

R. D. Perrin and A. L. Mauss, "Saints and Seekers," Review of Religious Research 33(1991):97-111

W. C. Roof and W. McKinney, American Mainline Religion (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1987)

D. E. Sherkat, "Leaving the Faith," Social Science Research 20(1991):171-187.

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