U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The New York Times Gets Religion, Again

The New York Times religion coverage has surged in recent months, perhaps in an indication of the coming primary season and the continued political strength of social conservatives. Last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine included two interesting pieces. The first is about religion and economic prosperity. It includes a chart that shows, to no one’s surprise, that a person’s branch of religious affiliation is largely correlated to economic prosperity. But where I would have guessed that the most prosperous groups would have been the Unitarians and the Episcopalians–showing my Protestant bias, I guess–the three most prosperous groups turned out to be Reform Jews, Hindus, and Conservative Jews, in that order. The Times writers, or at least the headline writers, went a step further by asking: “Is Your Religion Your Financial Destiny?” Given the penchant for changing religions that all the religion surveys seem to show, this seems to get the causal arrow backwards. It would seem more accurate to say that your level of prosperity determines, or largely determines, your choice of religion, rather than the other way around.

The second article is less obviously about religion, but the subject seems to haunt the pages. It is about the twisters in rural North Carolina, and how the region is recovering. The author, John Jeremiah Sullivan, recounts a conversation with a minister in the second paragraph:

Across the road at Askewville Baptist, the Rev. David Crumpler asked if I’d seen the field. When I said I had, he told me, “Well, that field used to be a trailer park.” A silver-haired, trim-mustached man from Alabama, he’d spent all day supervising the handing-out of relief supplies. He marveled that of a dozen or so single-wides, almost all of them were empty when the tornado struck the park. Only two were occupied. Those two were spared. The rest were gone.

“That’s lucky,” I said.

“That’s God,” he said.

In the paper version of the article, the exchange “That’s lucky, that’s God” appeared in the title, but apparently it didn’t make it to the electronic version. That’s too bad, because the conflicting interpretive lenses seem to frame the story as a whole. The exchange sets the article in an almost theological cast, asking why some are spared and some are not, why tragedy falls in the first place, and, the greatest question of all, why tornadoes hit trailer parks with such creepy regularity.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I find your analysis of the financial chart a bit odd. I agree that there are a lot of people who change religions–but I would say not the three that you list. Those three tend to be religions you are born into. Perhaps your thesis would make more sense if there weren’t two different kinds of Jewish groups on the list (i.e., perhaps Jews could move from one to another based on their financial decisions). It seems to be a further indication of your Protestant bias, since people do change denominations quite frequently within that branch of Christianity.

    At the same time, the headline is awful. I have a particular dislike for the word “destiny” when it comes to anything involving historical analysis. It kind of cuts us out, doesn’t it? “Let’s not studying the historical reasons for this thing, let’s just call it destiny.”

  2. Lauren,

    It’s true that most Jews and Hindus were born into their religion, but, of course, no one has to stay there. In other words, many Jews would not identify with Reform or Conservative Judaism, but with secular humanism, or indifference, or whatever. So although there may not be a lot of conversation into Reform or Conservative Judaism or Hinduism, there is certainly conversion out of it, which means that my point still stands. It is undeniable that wealth and religious affiliation are correlated. And given the multitude of choices to stay or to go in the affiliation of one’s birth, it seems to me that the more likely explanation is that one’s level of prosperity influences one’s choice of religious affiliation rather than the reverse.

  3. It seems from the data that there is a correlation, but I wonder if there aren’t some intermediate terms between the correlation. IOW, wealth and religious affiliation may track together because wealth and education level track together.

    I would also be interested to know if “wealth” is considered synonymous with “class.” Is wealth always a marker of class? If so, does the change/loss of religious affiliation signal a shift in someone’s self-identification with a particular class?

    Basically, the correlation between wealth and religious affiliation seems like a good beginning place for further exploration.

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