Conservative Protestants tend to save less and accumulate fewer assets than other Americans, and their religious beliefs contribute to their low wealth, according to a new study by a Duke University sociologist.

Wow. I would have thought the opposite. I would have thought that protestants saved. I mean, Jesus saved…

“We know that wealth ownership is extremely unequal in the U.S., and large numbers of families have little or no savings. However, sociologists and economists have just begun to explore why that is,” said Lisa A. Keister, Duke professor of sociology and author of “Conservative Protestants and Wealth: How Religion Perpetuates Asset Poverty,” published in the March issue of the American Journal of Sociology.

“While there is evidence that religion and wealth are related, what has been missing is a clear account of the process by which religion affects the wealth of believers,” she said.

The study examines why conservative Protestants are dramatically overrepresented at the bottom of the U.S. wealth distribution and concludes that the cultural understandings that accompany conservative Protestant beliefs influence wealth ownership directly and indirectly.

The direct influence stems from conservative Protestants’ unique approach to finances — in particular the belief that people are managers of God’s money and excess accumulation of wealth should be avoided.

In addition, conservative Protestants have tended to be less educated and have large families beginning at younger ages; and fewer conservative Protestant women work, all of which indirectly contribute to slow asset accumulation, Keister said.

“Really the question is, ‘How does religion affect inequality?’ I’m identifying the mechanisms by which this happens for one group, but it can help us understand other groups as well,” she said.

The study, reported in this press release, focused on conservative groups, such as Asemblies of God, Baptist, Churches of Christ, Church of God in Christ, and so on.

Religious beliefs affect conservative Protestants’ wealth in a number of ways. They influence wealth ownership directly by shaping the values that people use to make work and financial decisions. In particular, Biblical references to God’s exclusive ownership of worldly goods lead to practices which are likely to reduce saving and asset accumulation.

Yea, but how? Is god telling them to invest, but maybe god is not so good at this investment thing? Apparently… apparently the conservative christians tend to believe that …

divine advice, advice from clergy and other religious advice about money and work have merit. More conservative Protestants than other people surveyed are likely to pray about financial decisions, for example.

Hmmm. …. maybe they should try rational thinking. Apparently they also believe that excelssive accumulation of wealth is undesirable. Personally, I think this is post-hoc justification of having listened to voices in their heads. We don’t see a lot of rich drive-in preachers tossing their money awya.

Another finding of the study is this: Low wealth tends to associate with low educational attainment. The conservative Protestant Christians tend to have low educational levels.

And, of course, they have huge families. They are breeding like rabbits. That can run up the bills.

The study examined three groups: People who were conservative Protestants in both childhood and adulthood; those who were raised conservative Protestants but left; and those who joined conservative Protestant churches as adults. It found that all three groups have relatively low wealth, but that the lifelong conservative Protestants had the lowest wealth, and those who joined the denominations as adults had the highest.

This suggests that values learned in childhood have a strong influence on saving and assets later in life, Keister said.

“Some people have just decided that saving money in my own bank account isn’t what they want,” she said, noting that conservative Protestants are among the most generous contributors to churches and related organizations. “Some people are consciously deciding to do other things with their wealth.”

Keister notes that the results could be influenced by the conservative Protestants’ socioeconomic class, but she found that religion had a significant effect after controlling for class background, adult class and other indicators such as parents’ education and income.

Nor does race appear to be responsible for the effect of conservative Protestantism on wealth. She found that the effect was stronger among black conservative Protestants, but was significant among whites as well.

Jesus saved so that you do not have to.


  1. #1 Eamon Knight
    March 24, 2008

    So much for the “prosperity gospel”, eh?

  2. #2 thadd
    March 24, 2008

    This sounds very similar to quite old stuff by Weber back in the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

  3. #3 Mike Haubrich, FCD
    March 24, 2008

    There seems to be some confusion here, Greg. Jesus saves, but Gretzky scores on the rebound.

  4. #4 JNavarro
    March 24, 2008

    Well, prosperity gospel goes more in line with “neo-pentecostals.” I just downloaded the paper but won’t have time to read it at least until the weekend, but I wonder if she includes a measure of “belief in rapture” or some kind of millenialist thinking that will exacerbate the lack of savings because Chesus might be coming soon.

  5. #5 Paul Robinson
    March 24, 2008

    Hi Greg,

    “Low wealth tends to associate with low educational attainment.”

    And with remortgaging one’s house to do postgraduate studies in philosophy!

    I’m a Calvinist with a fondness for Ecclesiastes 5:

    Moreover the profit of the earth is for all: the king himself is served by the field.

    He that loveth silver shall not be satisfied with silver; nor he that loveth abundance with increase: this is also vanity.

    When goods increase, they are increased that eat them: and what good is there to the owners thereof, saving the beholding of them with their eyes?

    The sleep of a labouring man is sweet, whether he eat little or much: but the abundance of the rich will not suffer him to sleep.


    I enjoy your blog. Usually. All the best.

  6. #6 Brian Larnder
    March 25, 2008

    Interesting post Greg. That was basically my story – discouraged from getting an education; married with three kids before I was 25; grew up not caring about financial wealth because life was meaningless, pleasure was bad and rewards were for heaven. Plus, as JNavarro said, I figured I would be going in the rapture and didn’t really think about having my whole life ahead of me.

    Hmm… I feel a blog post coming on. Maybe tomorrow.

  7. #7 Sigmund
    March 25, 2008

    I’m not American so I’m not sure how you stratify what it means by conservative protestant. Does it include the predominantly black congregations? As far as I can recall from previous surveys members of these churches have very low acceptance of evolution but I’m not sure if they are classed as ‘conservative protestant’.
    If they are then the survey may be confounding religious groups with other factors such as race which may affect the overall conclusions, since for historical reasons the black population has been economically disadvantaged.

  8. #8 Stephanie Z
    March 25, 2008

    Sigmund, the study is linked from the press release. You can check all the details. Pretty much everything I’d want controlled for is.

  9. #9 Kapitano
    March 25, 2008

    The study makes the assumption that people get their beliefs, the act on them, and finally live with the consequences – usually without learning anything from the negative consequences.

    This is partly true, but I think it mischaracterises the nature of religious belief – and indeed any other kind of belief.

    Individuals and communities build their belief systems to (a) reassure them that their situation isn’t as bad as it seems and (b) justify their behavior and customs. That’s why the protestantism of the rich is different from the protestantism of the poor.

    Religions help people make sense of their situations, cope with their misfortunes, find scapegoats, and find plausible excuses for their actions. Eg, “This pain is a test from God”, “Death isn’t so scary because there’s an afterlife”, “It’s a jewish conspiracy”, “This stealing isn’t a crime because blessed are the meek, and besides God will forgive me”. And when a person’s circumstances change, their religion changes to keep track.

    It might be more meaningful to ask “Why are poor communities attracted to conservative protestantism?”

  10. #10 rb
    March 25, 2008

    I am going to have to look this up. there are lots of reasons ‘wealth’ may not be important for conservative religious folk, none of them negative. They may also be the most giving.

  11. #11 rb
    March 25, 2008

    your ‘framing’ of the article is quite insulting, but then you know that and do it on purpose.

  12. #12 Ina
    March 25, 2008

    Ok, ok, religion is irrational – can we please move on already. No reason to make fun poor uneducated people for being poor and uneducated.

    The study does go counter to a popular stereotype though, which is nice.

  13. #13 Jonathan Vos Post
    March 25, 2008

    Jesus Christ was not a Christian. His legal father, Joseph, was not (as badly translated) a “carpenter.” Joseph was, in modern terms, the CEO of one of the top 10 Real Estate Contractors in greater Jerusalem.

    Young Jeshua ben Yusef could have simply stayed in the family business. Instead, he became a rather radical reform Rabbi, and was de facto a Postdoc or Grad Student at a college run by the Essenes, where he was exposed to works in several languages, possibly including Buddhism. Computer analysis of his speeches, i.e. those considered most reliable in the Gospels, strongly suggest that he spoke Latin, and sometimes thought in Latin and translated on the fly to Aramaic.

    I find it plausible that there are causal connections between religious beliefs and wealth in America. But the analysis needs to be rather nuanced, both as to faith and wealth.

  14. #14 Brian Larnder
    March 25, 2008

    For those who are interested I’ve now come through with that blog post I promised about my personal experiences on this topic. Those Poor Fundamentalists

  15. #15 Scott Little
    March 25, 2008

    Greg, its obvious that in order to believe fundamentalist BS one has to be uneducated and ignorant. Hence the lower paying jobs.

  16. #16 elmo
    March 26, 2008

    Could you have cause and effect backward? Unsuccessful in the secular sphere, so turn to religion for consolation? “Religion is the opiate…”