Do religious cultures hold enough sway over individuals’ life choices that they can be considered causal mechanisms generating inequality in contemporary American society? Can religious identification and participation create normative standards of behavior that either aid or hinder the development of human capital and either encourage or discourage its use to achieve financial success? These have been pressing questions since Max Weber first wrote The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Yet the contemporary transformation of class structure in postindustrial societies and the declining strength of traditional denominational differences (particularly Protestant–Catholic) raise these issues anew. The new occupational structure of service economies, the increasing importance of dual earners in households to achieve middle class housing and status, the crucial role of postsecondary education (both the type of institution and major) for occupational success, and the critical role of marriage and family postponement in achieving stable lucrative employment all point to new avenues through which religion might influence class location.
Establishing a theory of causality, however, requires evidence that religious participation directly influences behavioral choices, rather than simply attracting people who have made similar life choices for disparate (nonreligious) reasons together in congregations. In this chapter, we review the existence of class-based differences in religious preferences and participation, and we theorize that these differences are not just the epiphenomenon of class-based religious “tastes” but are mechanisms through which class is constructed and reconstructed across generations.
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