Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Economy: Foxhole Religion or New Tractors?

Earlier this summer I was talking with my friend Kevin Ingram, the president of Manhattan Christian College (my alma mater).

I was asking how the economy was affecting donor income, particularly among the predominantly rural farming constituency that support the school. He made an interesting comment. (I’m paraphrasing). “You imagewould think that when the economy is good that our income would be good and when the economy is bad, our income would be bad.

“That’s not the case,” Pres. Ingram went on. “When the economy is good, the farmers pay off debts incurred from the bad times and invest in farm equipment.

“When the economy is bad, many of them remember where the true imagesource of their security lies and they increase their giving to the work of the Lord.”

Maybe that is unique to midwest farmers.

An article in this week’s Newsweek by columnist Lisa Miller suggests that it certainly is a much fuzzier picture than that for the rest of us.

The article focuses on a Notre Dame University economist David Hungerman and an (unrelated) Gallup survey on church attendance and economic decline and recovery.

The conventional wisdom is that when the economy tanks, religiosity, prayers and church attendance go up. No one seems to be wanting to gauge prayer, so they are measuring church attendance.

And what they are finding is surprising (at least to me).

While there is some correlation between lack of economic health and church attendance, what the researchers are noting is that when men & women are unemployed, they attend church LESS. There seems to be little “If I pray more, maybe God will give me a job.” (I hate to see that as a good thing or a bad thing—for different reasons—so I’ll just note it.) Depression sets in and the unemployed stay away from church. Embarrassment or fear or ridicule? Who knows. (Ministry opportunity there for some entrepreneurial-type).

image And instead of the poor being “more religious” than the wealthy, the poor actually attend church less than the more financially stable. Miller quotes Larry Iannoconne in his “Introduction to the Economics of Religion”: “Religion is not the province of the poor or uninformed.” As individual financial prosperity increases, so does church attendance.

So what correlation is there between the economy and church attendance? While you should really read the article to get the full sense, the article concludes with a good quote from Hungerman:

“Maybe when the economy turns sour, no matter how much money you make, you get nervous and decide to go to church and talk with your buddies and get a sense of what’s going on in your community. Or maybe people’s desire for spiritual guidance is influenced by their perception of how the world’s doing outside of themselves. Church attendance may not reflect our own circumstances but our own idea of how the world is doing beyond us.”

And that’s not an altogether bad thing. Again, you can find the article here.

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