Study: Theology impacts Protestant bank accounts

Posted by Kendall Harmon

According to data analyzed by [Lisa] Keister, a Duke University sociologist, the median net worth for conservative Protestants in 2000 was $26,000, compared to the national median of $66,200.

Why the gap? Keister says it may all come down to theology.

"The one big difference is the conservative Protestants' assumption that God is the owner of money and people are managers of it," Keister said. "They are doing with their money what God wants them to do with it, so that does mean that it is not sitting in their bank accounts."

Keister says a typical "conservative Protestant" might be a member of the Assemblies of God, Churches of Christ, Nazarene and Pentecostal churches.

Keister's new article in the American Journal of Sociology, "Conservative Protestants and Wealth: How Religion Perpetuates Asset Poverty," argues that traditional views of money — it's God's, not ours — keep many Protestants from building a financial safety net.

Read it all.

Filed under: * Culture-WatchReligion & Culture* Economics, PoliticsEconomy

Posted April 24, 2008 at 6:54 pm [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]

1. Irenaeus wrote:

New Testament views of money could conceivably reduce believers’ need for a formal safety net. If church members stand ready to meet each others’ urgent financial needs, they form a safety net for each other—-a net that conventional statistics do not count.

(I certainly don’t advocate Christians doing without appropriate life insurance and personal savings. And most Americans would be happier if they both saved more and gave away more.)
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Note the challenges of disentangling cause and effect. If members of a particular religious group tend to have low incomes and savings, is that (1) because of how the group affects their economic behavior or (2) because the group is good at attracting people at the lower end of the wage spectrum?

April 24, 8:30 pm | [comment link]
2. Todd Granger wrote:

I am reminded that in his book, L’Homme et L’Argent, the late Christian theologian, philosopher and sociologist Jacques Ellul argued against Christians having a “financial safety net” for precisely the reason that it meant they put their trust in God, and not in their material assets.  (He offered the same argument against insurance policies.)

Now one can argue with Ellul’s premise, but I think that one has to take his argument seriously, to ask whether in fact a radical Christian faith whose praxis is rooted in the Sermon on the Mount and the life of the early Church depicted in the Acts of the Apostles is not more faithful to the Gospel than comfortable bank accounts, retirement pensions and insurance policies that distract us from utter dependence on the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

Frankly, I’m glad that conservative Protestants offer a countercultural witness contra the easy rapprochement of most liberal religion and financial planning, whether in capitalist or socialist form.  Phrased differently, traditional Christian views of money are not keeping folks from building a financial safety net, they are making them more wholly dependent on the mercy and grace of God - and that, whether you’re talking about the frightening nature of freely-offered salvation or the communal safety net of a committed Christian community, is definitely a challenge to the culture.

April 24, 9:58 pm | [comment link]
3. FatherS wrote:

As a sociologist by training and background, what immediately comes to my mind is Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, published more than a century ago.  His theory and research suggested a strong positive relationship between (conservative) Protestant theology and the acquisition of wealth.  On the surface, it seems strange indeed that conservative Protestantism now seems to preclude having any assets to speak of.

To be fair, though, Prof. Weber’s work focused on what he called “High Calvinist” theology and its practical implications.  “Conservative Protestantism” today might better be described as a cult of “biblical inerrency.”  Might it be that this “easy answer,” “clearly right over clearly wrong” world view attracts those on the economic fringes instead of creating them?

April 24, 10:38 pm | [comment link]
4. physician without health wrote:

All of the above comments are valid, but in the original USA Today piece, I am not convinced that the sampling adequately covers the spectrum of “conservative” Protestants.  I would like to have seen sampling of PCA, Baptist, LCMS and others as well as the denominations which were included.  Also, I do not consider Mormons Protestant, even though many secular albeit well-meaning journalists do.

April 24, 10:39 pm | [comment link]
5. physician without health wrote:

#3, you are on the money here.  Your comment was not available to me when I wrote mine.  You make the case more eloquently than I do.  The USA Today piece in fact does not cover this issue across the entire spectrum of conservative Protestants.

April 24, 10:41 pm | [comment link]
6. TWilson wrote:

I was grabbed by the article title, but the details seem to be less interesting, once the usual concerns over dataset and significance in the face of other highly correlated variables such as education, marital/familial status, etc. And Irenaeus (#1) is correct to point out that correlation and causation are two different things.

On the “Protestant” work ethic, a notable Weberian scholar (Randall Collins) has taken Weber to task for his assumption that what was present in Protestant culture was absent in Catholic culture (particularly late medieval). Collins argues that belief in the virtue of work, simple living, and resultant capital accumulation, was present centuries before the Reformation during the rise of early capitalism, and was the product of a Christian work ethic, or, in his words, “a Protestant ethic without Protestantism.”

April 24, 11:48 pm | [comment link]
7. Jill C. wrote:

This sounds very trite, however . . . you can’t take it with you!  Make sure your family is provided for and then give the rest away.

April 25, 7:32 pm | [comment link]
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