Thursday, May 24, 2007

DAVID BROOKS: The Catholic Boom

The pope and many others speak for the thoroughly religious. Christopher Hitchens has the latest best seller on behalf of the antireligious. But who speaks for the quasi-religious?

Quasi-religious people attend services, but they’re bored much of the time. They read the Bible, but find large parts of it odd and irrelevant. They find themselves inextricably bound to their faith, but think some of the people who define it are nuts.

Whatever the state of their ambivalent souls, quasi-religious people often drive history. Abraham Lincoln knew scripture line by line but never quite shared the faith that mesmerized him. Quasi-religious Protestants, drifting anxiously from the certainties of their old religion, built Victorian England. Quasi-religious Jews, climbing up from ancestral orthodoxy, helped shape 20th-century American culture.

And now we are in the midst of an economic boom among quasi-religious Catholics. A generation ago, Catholic incomes and economic prospects were well below the national average. They had much lower college completion rates than mainline Protestants. But the past few decades have seen enormous Catholic social mobility.

According to Lisa Keister, a sociologist at Duke, non-Hispanic white Catholics have watched their personal wealth shoot upward. They have erased the gap that used to separate them from mainline Protestants.

Or, as Keister writes in a journal article, “Preliminary evidence indicates that whites who were raised in Catholic families are no longer asset-poor and may even be among the wealthiest groups of adults in the United States today.”

How have they done it?

Well, they started from their traditional Catholic cultural base. That meant, in the 1950s and early ’60s, a strong emphasis on neighborhood cohesion and family, and a strong preference for obedience and solidarity over autonomy and rebellion.

Then over the decades, the authority of the church weakened and young Catholics assimilated. Catholic values began to converge with Protestant values. Catholic adults were more likely to use contraceptives and fertility rates plummeted. They raised their children to value autonomy more and obedience less.

The process created a crisis for the church, as it struggled to maintain authority over its American flock. But the shift was an economic boon to Catholics themselves. They found themselves in a quasi-religious sweet spot.

On the one hand, modern Catholics have retained many of the traditional patterns of their ancestors — high marriage rates, high family stability rates, low divorce rates. Catholic investors save a lot and favor low-risk investment portfolios. On the other hand, they have also become more individualistic, more future-oriented and less bound by neighborhood and extended family. They are now much better educated than their parents or grandparents, and much better educated than their family histories would lead you to predict.

More or less successfully, the children of white, ethnic, blue-collar neighborhoods have managed to adapt the Catholic communal heritage to the dynamism of a global economy. If this country was entirely Catholic, we wouldn’t be having a big debate over stagnant wages and low social mobility. The problems would scarcely exist. Populists and various politicians can talk about the prosperity-destroying menace of immigration and foreign trade. But modern Catholics have created a hybrid culture that trumps it.

In fact, if you really wanted to supercharge the nation, you’d fill it with college students who constantly attend church, but who are skeptical of everything they hear there. For there are at least two things we know about flourishing in a modern society.

First, college students who attend religious services regularly do better than those that don’t. As Margarita Mooney, a Princeton sociologist, has demonstrated in her research, they work harder and are more engaged with campus life. Second, students who come from denominations that encourage dissent are more successful, on average, than students from denominations that don’t.

This embodies the social gospel annex to the quasi-religious creed: Always try to be the least believing member of one of the more observant sects. Participate in organized religion, but be a friendly dissident inside. Ensconce yourself in traditional moral practice, but champion piecemeal modernization. Submit to the wisdom of the ages, but with one eye open.

The problem is nobody is ever going to write a book sketching out the full quasi-religious recipe for life. The message “God is Great” appeals to billions. Hitchens rides the best-seller list with “God is Not Great.” Nobody wants to read a book called “God is Right Most of the Time.”

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