Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

Table of Contents | Cover Page  |  Editors  |  Contributors  |  Introduction  |  Web Version

A structure of social inequality in which individuals and groups have an unequal share in the distribution of power, privilege, and prestige in society. Over the years, social scientists have investigated the relationship between religion and social inequality. Researchers have focused on issues such as the impact of inequality on religion, the effect of religion on inequality, and the relationship between religion and socioeconomic status.

Inequality’s Effect on Religion. Research on religion and inequality has highlighted the extent to which denominations can be ranked along a status hierarchy. H. Richard Niebuhr’s The Social Sources of Denominationalism (Holt 1929) emphasized the primacy of social rather than religious factors as the basis for the formation of religious groups. Niebuhr stressed that a group’s sectlike or churchlike character was influenced by its social class standing. Sectarian groups-elective associations characterized by doctrinal purity, an emphasis on the priesthood of all believers, ethical austerity, and a high degree of tension with the dominant society-have a special appeal for the lower classes. Churchlike groups-inclusive organizations characterized by a bureaucratic organizational structure, a professional clergy, and a low degree of tension with the secular world-are preferred by middle and upper classes.

Religious theodicies: Weber suggested that members of different social classes adopt different belief systems, or theodicies, to explain their social situation. The affluent embrace of good fortune theodicies, which emphasize that prosperity is a blessing of God. Good fortune theodicies allow the successful to believe that their success is deserved and that the less fortunate also experience their due. Theodicies of misfortune, on the other hand, appeal to the poor and present a less sanguine picture of worldly success. Theodicies of misfortune emphasize that affluence is a sign of evil and that suffering in this world will be rewarded in the next. Weber suggested that this type of transvaluational orientation has been a characteristic feature of lower class worship.

Social class and religious practice: Rich and poor express their religion in different ways. The lower classes are more likely than affluent groups to pray in private, believe in the doctrines of their faith, and have intense religious experiences (Demerath 1965, Davidson 1977); the middle and upper classes are more likely to attend worship services and take part in church organizations and activities. Stark (1972) suggests that the poor show greater religiousness in those aspects of faith that serve as a relief for suffering; the middle and upper classes participate in religious activities that help confirm the legitimacy of their claim to high status.

Religion and the new class: Some research suggests that transformation of the economy in the post-World War II period has facilitated a restructuring of the class basis for religion. Berger (1981) has argued that conservative-liberal religious divisions reflect a larger class conflict between two elites in America struggling for power and privilege. The old elite made up of the business class is involved in industrial production and business enterprise. The suggestion is that conservative theology tends to justify the self-interests of the business elite. A new elite made up of intellectuals, educators, social planners, and bureaucrats manages the production of ideas. Mainline theology reflects the interests of this new class (see Hargrove 1986). Berger claims that the upsurge of evangelical Protestantism is a reaction against the power grab of the new class.

Religion’s Impact on Inequality. A good deal of research has investigated the relationship between religion and worldly success. Following in the spirit of Weber’s Protestant ethic thesis, researchers have looked at the influence of religion in promoting social mobility. Benton Johnson (1961) argued that Holiness sects socialize their adherents to dominant values of sobriety, self-reliance, and hard work, which works to improve the members’ socioeconomic standing. A number of studies have looked at the effect of Catholic or Protestant affiliation on economic achievement. Gerhard Lenski’s The Religion Factor (Doubleday 1961) indicated that Protestants were more likely than Catholics to rise in the economic system, especially at the upper-middle-class level. Other research, however, suggests a Protestant-Catholic convergence on socioeconomic indicators (Glenn and Hyland 1967). Andrew Greeley (1981) has argued that Catholics rank above Episcopalians and Presbyterians in income, although W. Clark Roof (1979) has disputed this claim. The consensus is that Protestant-Catholic socioeconomic differences have largely vanished (Roof and McKinney 1987).

Legitimating function of religion: Both Karl Marx and Max Weber emphasized that religion performs a legitimating function for members of the dominant class, whereas it provides a means of escape for members of subordinate classes. Weber’s discussion of theodicies of good fortune and misfortune indicated how religion can sanctify the status quo and mollify those at the bottom of the social structure. Marx argued that religion serves to reinforce the power of ruling groups by providing heavenly sanction for existing social conditions. A Marxist perspective stresses that those with wealth and power can do much to control the belief system of the society, and they appropriate religious ideas that legitimate current forms of inequality (Howe 1981). Each ruling class constructs an ideological expression of its outlook on life. Marx believed that Protestant theology, which served the interests of the bourgeoisie, discouraged workers from efforts at social, political, and economic change. He claimed that for the proletariat, religion is a narcotic that dulls their understanding of their life experiences.

Liston Pope’s study of a mill town in North Carolina, Millhand and Preacher (Yale University Press 1942), vividly illustrated how religion can serve to legitimate current forms of inequality. Pope described how uptown churches validated prevailing economic arrangements, whereas mill churches provided workers with a form of escape from the harshness of life. Gary Marx (1967), looking at religiosity and militancy among blacks, found that high levels of religious involvement for blacks were associated with low levels of militancy on civil rights issues. His study also indicated that an other-worldly emphasis was negatively related to race protest.

Researchers have looked at the degree to which religious beliefs sanctify inequality by promoting harsh attitudes toward the poor. Weber (1958 [1904-1905]) argued that a Calvinist doctrine of predestination served as legitimation for inequality by advocating the view that success was a sign of divine favor and poverty an indication of moral failing. Feagin (1975) has suggested Calvinist views served as inspiration and legitimation for a judgmental stance toward the poor. Rokeach (1969) has argued that Christian values are associated with austere attitudes toward the impoverished, and Tropman (1986) suggests that a Protestant ethic has encouraged condemnation of those who require public assistance.

Prophetic function of religion: Religion is not just a force that perpetuates the status quo. Religion also can serve a prophetic function, promoting social action to redress society’s ills. Clergy involvement in the civil rights movements in the United States (Morris 1984) and in liberation theology in Latin America (Adriance 1986, Neal 1987) illustrates the degree to which religion can play an important role in supporting social change movements.

Prophetic action often takes place in the context of autonomy; when groups experience a degree of autonomy from dominant institutions, they are able to critique the larger structure and promote strategies for system reform (Demerath and Hammond 1969). Burns (1992) notes that Catholic clergy adopted liberal social teachings when separated from the papal state. Davidson (1985) has suggested that advocacy groups, such as the Lafayette Urban Ministry, that draw resources mainly from churches and not the state are able to propose reform measures and social programs at odds with conservative state policies.

When clergy are not dependent on elites for their livelihood, they have greater opportunities to mobilize for social transformation. Billing’s (1990) analysis of union activity among Appalachian miners showed that clergy who were dependent upon coal operators for their employment were ready to preach about the evils of unionism. Autonomous miner-ministers, however, rejected the doctrines espoused in company churches and played a leadership role in promoting union activity. When clergy have a measure of job security and are not dependent on a local congregation for their employment, they have greater opportunities to speak prophetically. Because of their tenured status, Catholic bishops can issue progressive social pronouncements, such as their 1986 pastoral letter on economic justice, that are somewhat critical of dominant institutions and policies. The anonymity that Protestant officials enjoy allows them to take progressive stands on social policy issues.

At times, religion is associated with a tendency for some laypeople to adopt egalitarian views and champion the cause of the poor. Tropman (1986) has suggested that a Catholic ethic, unlike a Protestant ethic, promotes a sense of compassion for the poor and instills support for social welfare activities. Pyle (1993) found that members of Pentecostal-Holiness groups were more likely than mainline Protestants to support governmental efforts to help the poor and reduce income inequality. Mock (1988) has suggested that theodicies of social justice can work to eradicate poverty.

Religion and Socioeconomic Status. Religious groups can be differentiated according to the socioeconomic standing of their members. The first comprehensive studies of denominational socioeconomic rankings were conducted in the 1940s (Cantril 1943, Pope 1948). These early studies showed that colonial mainline Protestants (Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists), Jews, and Unitarians were located in the upper socioeconomic ranks; moderate Protestants (such as Methodists and Lutherans) were located in the middle; and Catholics and evangelical Protestants occupied the bottom ranks. With a few exceptions, this relative ranking persists today. Groups representative of the colonial mainline continue to rank at the upper levels in terms of education, income, and occupational prestige, whereas sectarian bodies such as the Churches of God rank much lower on socioeconomic indicators (Roof and McKinney 1987).

However, there has been some change in denominational socioeconomic rankings in the last 50 years. The greatest status change has occurred among Roman Catholics, who moved from the bottom socioeconomic levels to the middle ranks during the post-World War II era. Catholics in the 1940s ranked below Protestants on socioeconomic indicators (Cantril 1943), but by the 1960s Catholic-Protestant socioeconomic differences were negligible, (Glenn and Hyland 1967). Jews well positioned during the 1940s, have improved their socioeconomic standing during the post-World War II years and now rank at the top in terms of socioeconomic status. Mormons also have experienced social and economic gains. Over the long term, Methodists have shown the most dramatic gains, rising from sectarian origins in the nineteenth century to middle-class status by the twentieth (Finke and Stark 1992).

Religion among America’s elite: Researchers have analyzed the religious affiliation of American leaders to ascertain the degree to which an older Protestant Establishment has given way to a more representative ordering of religious groups among the elite. Studies of the religious preferences of individuals listed in Who’s Who during the 1930-1992 period indicate that the rankings of religious groups among the elite largely reflect the status rankings of religious groups among the general population (Davidson et. Al. 1995). From the depression era until the present, colonial mainline groups have been overrepresented among Americans listed in Who’s Who, but Catholics and Jews have made substantial gains since 1930. Baptists and sectarians, however, remain underrepresented among American elites. The colonial mainline is especially overrepresented among elites in business-political spheres, and Jews are especially prominent among elites in cultural-intellectual realms (Pyle 1996).

Research looking at the differential representation of religious groups among the elite suggests that religion exerts an influence in three areas that affect movement to the leadership in three areas that affect movement to the leadership ranks: educational admissions, occupational selection, and career mobility (Pyle 1996). Although religious quotas at prestigious private colleges have been eliminated, mainline Protestants (and now Jews) are highly overrepresented among elites reporting degrees from Ivy League schools. Legacy admissions at elite colleges (preferential admissions given to children of alumni) work to perpetuate the advantages of historically dominant religious groups. Some studies indicate that religion continues to play a role in job selection and promotion at the upper levels of the business-legal hierarchy. There is evidence of a lingering Gentile-Jewish divide in big business and commercial banking (Korman 1988). Persisting religious discrimination in admissions at exclusive private clubs limits non-WASPs’ participation in important areas of social interplay that affect career mobility. Insider-outsider distinctions based on religion continue to play a role in perpetuating denominational differences among the elite.

Research on stratification and religion is guided by contradictory theoretical perspectives, but studies consistently highlight the degree to which religion influences and is influenced by social inequality. The consensus is that social factors play an important role in perpetuating America’s religious mosaic.

See also Mobility, Preferential Option for the Poor, Status.

-Ralph E. Pyle and James D. Davidson


M. Adriance, Opting for the Poor (Kansas City, MO.: Sheed & Ward, 1986); 
P. L. Berger, “The Class Struggle in American Religion,” Christian Century 98 (1981): 194-199; 
D. B. Billings, “Religion as Opposition,” American Journal of Sociology 96 (1990): 1-31; 
G. Burns, The Frontiers of Catholicism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992); 
H. Cantril, “Educational and Economic Composition of Religious Groups,” American Journal of Sociology 47 (1943): 574-579; 
J. D. Davidson, “Socio-Economic Status and Ten Dimensions of Religious Commitment,” Sociology and Social Research 61 (1977): 462-485; 
J. D. Davidson, Mobilizing Social Movement Organizations (Storrs, Conn.: Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, 1985); 
J. D. Davidson, “Religion Among America’s Elite,” Sociology of Religion 55 (1994): 419-440; 
J. D. Davidson et. Al., “Persistence and Change in the Protestant Establishment,” Social Forces 74 (1995): 157-175; 
N. J. Demereth III, Social Class in American Protestantism (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1965); 
N. J. Demerath III and P. E. Hammond, Religion in Social Context (New York: Random House, 1969); 
J. R. Feagin, Subordinating the Poor (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1975);
R. Finke and R. Stark, The Churching of America (New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 1992); 
N. D. Glenn and R. Hyland, “Religious Preference and Worldly Success,” American Sociological Review 32 (1967): 73-85; 
A. M. Greeley, “Catholics and the Upper Middle Class,” Social Forces 59 (1981): 824-830; 
B. W. Hargrove, The Emerging New Class (New York: Pilgrim, 1986); 
G. N. Howe, “The Political Economy of American Religion,” in Political Economy, ed. S. McNall (Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman, 1981): 110-137; 
B. Johnson, “Do Holiness Sects Socialize in Dominant Values?” Social Forces 39 (1961): 309-316; 
A. K. Korman, The Outsiders (Lexington, Mass.: Lexington, 1988); 
G. T. Marx, “Religion,” American Sociological Review 32 (1967): 64-72; 
A. K. Mock, Social Differentiation and Individual Belief, Doctoral dissertation, Purdue University, 1988; 
A. D. Morris, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement (New York: Free Press, 1984); 
M. A. Neal, The Just Demands of the Poor (New York: Paulist Press, 1987); 
L. Pope, “Religion and the Class Structure,” Annals 256 (1948): 84-91; 
R. E. Pyle, “Faith and Commitment to the Poor,” Sociology of Religion 54 (1993): 385-401; 
R. E. Pyle, Persistence and Change in the Protestant Establishment (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1996); 
M. Rokeach, “Religious Values and Social Compassion,” Review of Religious Research 11 (1969): 24-39; 
W. C. Roof, “Socioeconomic Differentials Among White Socioreligious Groups in the United States,” Social Forces 58 (1979): 280-289; 
W. C. Roof and W. McKinney, American Mainline Religion (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1987); 
R. Stark, “The Economics of Piety,” in Issues in Social Inequality, ed. G. Thielbar and S. Feldman (Boston: Little Brown, 1972): 483-503; 
J. E. Tropman, “The ‘Catholic Ethic’ versus the ‘Protestant Ethic’” Social Thought 12 (1986): 13-22; 
M. Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Scribner, 1958 [1904-1905]).


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