Losing Faith in the System?

by Ken Briggs

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Even the best scientific surveys usually produce "findings" rather than "facts"; that is, they take a picture of a flock of geese whose formation wasn't the same just before and won't be just after.

The picture may also be taken through a blurry or distorted lens so as to make it appear that the number of geese is larger or smaller than it actually is.

I'm thinking of how Gallup indirectly sustained a fiction about America's average church attendance for many decades. From the 1960s onwward the figure hovered in the 40-45 percent range, despite everyday impressions that the figure was too high.

Then an enterprising team at Purdue University tackled the question by measuring actual attendance within a region and extrapolating from that. Their results were around 25 percent which seemed to make greater sense. Their research has since been corroborated.

So with both appreciation for what competent surveying can helfpfully deliver and a degree of wariness about becoming too fixed on particular outcomes, I call attention two two findings that related to the working class.

One is the Time magazine report that marriage is become less appealing to lower income Americans; the other is that weekly church going among younger people without a college degree is lower than the rate among college graduates, reversing a pattern. While both groups have declined, the non-degreed have dipped farther.

That leads me to speculate, and here I note that whatever their strengths and weaknesses, bloggers and opinion writers would probably not survive without them. They serve up the grist for legions of columns; they are manna for a whole set of scribblers.

My woolgathering on the two findings about the working class is that together they might indicate that the burdens of unemployment and anxiety from existing in financial doldrums may be causing them to lose faith in an economic and political system that has won their allegiance despite a failure to deliver on its promises.

Christianity's fortunes have been strongly tied to the American dream. As God has blessed Christians, so has God blessed America, or so goes the mythology. Consequently, perhaps, when the system fails, when homes are repossessed, food is scarce and jobs don't exist, a disenchantment with both could be expected. Insofar as marriage and the church represents that system, they lose credibility. Why go to church if prayers aren't answered? Why become part of a nuclear-family tradition if it leaves you bankrupt?

Among the prospering college graduates, the realities point in another direction. If it appears that playing by the rules and finding career opportunities are blessings bestowed by God and America, the conventional ways like marriage and church-going would pay homage to a way of life that works.

For better or worse, count me as a beneficiary of the mighty polling industry.

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