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God and Money

Is your religion your financial destiny? That’s the question David Leonhardt asks in The New York Times Magazine and judging by it’s place on the most e-mailed and most read list, I’d say others are interested in the question too. There’s a fascinating chart that goes along with the article and shows Hindus and Reform Jews at the top of the economic ladder with Jehovah’s Witnesses and Pentecostals at the bottom. Leonhardt rightly points out that a religion’s view of education affect one’s education and therefore one’s income.

He doesn’t get into it, but that in and of itself is an interesting issue. It’s not that one religion mandates a college education and another one suggests only high school. Sometimes religious leaders do talk about such issues. But it goes back even further than that. Pentecostals and Jehovah’s Witnesses and some other fundamentalist Protestants (not evangelicals generally, mind you) have a more apocalyptic view of the world. That is, they think the end may be coming soon and so planning for the future (through education, savings, etc.) seems less important.

In their book, America’s Four Gods, Paul Froese and Christopher Bader write about the effect that people’s view of the divine has on their financial prospects. Americans, in the authors’ view, are divided into people who view God as an active or inactive presence and as either a benevolent or vengeful God. People who view God as both active and mean often have lower incomes. It’s a little hard to separate the cause and effect here. Do you believe God has it in for you because you have a low income or do you have a low income because you don’t believe you have much chance of doing well in this lifetime.

Leonhardt ends his piece on a somewhat pessimistic note:

But the differences [among religions] are also self-reinforcing. People who make more money can send their children to better schools, exacerbating the many advantages they have over poorer children. Round and round, the cycle goes. It won’t solve itself.

I’m not sure who Leonhardt thinks should be solving this problem. Do we need to assign people new religions to combat this inequality? But one thing he fails to take account of is the religious fluidity of Americans. Rates of conversion and intermarriage are at all-time highs. And while Americans do like to experiment with the spiritual side of religious beliefs, they are no doubt also attracted to communities of people who are financially successful. Without taking anything away from the LDS Church, for instance, there is no doubt that some are more interested in Mormonism because of the tremendous financial success of its members. We can’t claim to be in some endless cycle of religion-based poverty when Americans have so little regard for holding on to the faith of their parents.

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