What Religious People Think About the Poor

by Robert Wuthnow

Robert Wuthnow is a Century editor at large and a member of the faculty at Princeton University.

This article is excerpted from God and Mammon in America, published in l994 by the Free Press; it appeared in The Christian Century, September 7-14, l994, pp 812-816. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscriptions can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This text was prepared for Religion Online by John C. Purdy.


The results of a survey of over 2,000 working Americans, including in-depth interviews with more than 175 of them, to discover what religious people think about their responsiblity to the poor.

With religious organizations focusing their efforts on individual spirituality, on meaningful worship experiences, on music, youth pro grams and small groups, is it likely that reli gious commitment is going to challenge people to be con cerned about economic justice as well? Do religious peo ple think about their responsibility to the poor at all? What is their understanding of the needs of the poor? How do they feel about the economic system and the possibilities of reforming it? These are among the questions researchers and I tried to answer by surveying over 2,000 working Ameri cans and conducting in-depth interviews with more than 175 of them (some of these respondents are cited by name in the remarks that follow).

While everyone might agree at some level that they have a responsibility to the poor, only about half of the American labor force say they have thought about their responsibility to the poor at least a fair amount in the past year (see Table 1). Indeed, only 20 percent say they have thought about it a great deal, while 45 percent have thought about it only a little or hardly at all.

Blacks and whites are about equally likely to have thought about it, as are persons from upper-, middle-, and lower-income groups. Older people and the better educated have thought about it more, as have women, while people on the east coast have given it less attention than people in other parts of the country.

The largest differences, however, are between people with an active religious involvement and those who are religiously uninvolved. Church members are significantly more likely to have thought about it than nonmembers, and those who attend religious services every week are about twice as likely to have considered it as people who attend once a year or less.

Contrary to popular impressions that associate such thinking with religious liberals, religious conservatives are substantially more likely to have thought about it than either moderates or liberals. Much of this difference, though, can be attributed to the fact that conservatives are on the whole more active in their churches than liberals. Protestants run slightly ahead of Catholics on such thinking, but the same caveat applies to interpreting these differences.

What is it specifically about religious involvement that encourages thinking about responsibility to the poor? Our analysis suggests two important factors. One is involvement that encourages people to be thoughtful about their relationship to God in general. In other words, an understanding of spirituality in which knowing God requires intellectual effort tends to encourage an individual to think about his or her responsibility to the poor. The other factor is religious involvement that includes specific instruction, not so much about the poor but about believers' responsible use of money. Sermons on stewardship, coming to regard stewardship as a more meaningful concept, and thinking about biblical teachings concerning personal finances all make a notable difference, even when the level of religious involvement is taken into account.

Our analysis also suggests two characteristics of religious involvement that do not encourage thinking about responsibilities to the poor. The first is having a subculture of friends within one's religious community. It might be supposed that such a subculture would reinforce thinking about economic justice. But apparently it is too easy for such subcultures simply to reinforce a comfortable lifestyle. In any event, when level of attendance at religious services is taken into account, those with more friends in their congregations actually think less about their responsibility to the poor. The second characteristic is a moralistic attitude about wealth and poverty. The view that it is morally wrong to have nice things when others are starving often accompanies thinking about responsibilities to the poor -- but when other kinds of religious involvement are taken into account, this view becomes relatively insignificant as a determining factor.

In any case, it's clear that religious commitment, at least certain kinds of it, does encourage people to think more about their responsibility to the poor. If two-thirds of all church members -- and three-fourths of all the people who attend religious services every week -- think a fair amount about their responsibility to the poor, this represents a lot of people. The fact that at least half of regular churchgoers have heard a sermon on stewardship in the past year, and that nearly this many are involved in a fellowship group or Sunday school class, is all the more significant, for such involvement appears to stimulate thinking about the poor.

If this is the case, then an outsider to American society might well be surprised by the realities of everyday life. Knowing that religious leaders have often pressed for social action on behalf of the poor, this outsider might be surprised to find that there was virtually none. Knowing that religious people have mobilized in huge numbers to protest in front of abortion clinics, and that large religious movements have emerged to fight pornography and to turn back court rulings against school prayer, she would undoubtedly be surprised to learn that religious movements oriented toward passing legislation to help the poor have foundered for want of public support.

If we are to understand the peculiar links between religious commitment and economic justice in American society, therefore, we must also locate the cultural pressures that work against taking responsibility for the poor -- some of which are also reinforced by religious commitments. Together these forces channel the ways in which responsibilities toward the poor are expressed. They do not render religious people mute or ineffective. But they do direct their energies and shape their responses.

To begin with, the idea that the poor are closer to God is not widely accepted in America. Even among those who have thought most about their responsibility to the poor, three-fourths reject it. Why? In part because it flies in the face of popular religious understandings. In American culture, God is an equal-opportunity employer. The poor are no worse off and no better off in the sight of God than anyone else. The proper approach is neither to condescend to them nor romanticize them but to "have solidarity with them," as John Phelps, one of the people we interviewed, puts it, "so that together we can accomplish something."

The same logic used to explain why a rich person can still gain entry to the kingdom of heaven applies to the possibility that the poor might have an easier time gaining admission. The rich person will be denied entry only if some egregious moral failing has become evident, or if material pursuits have become an obsession. Wealth alone, or its absence, is not the issue. In similar manner, the poor may have certain advantages, but these can readily be balanced by certain disadvantages. While the poor do not have the burden of being responsible for managing huge fortunes, they may become obsessed with material pursuits simply because they have no other choice. And if the rich can be faulted for moral impurity, so too can the poor. Indeed, the poor may be more sorely tempted to lie, cheat, steal, cut corners, abandon their families and destroy themselves because of economic difficulties

If God leaves it largely up to the individual to be moral or not, there is, nevertheless, some, lingering belief that God may in fact ordain some people to be poorer than others. It is difficult to find this view expressed in bold predestinarian terms, especially not with the implication that God singles out particular-individuals by name and says, "Tom, you have to be poor." There is more willingness to believe that God may give particular individuals a talent for making money than for not making it. Ironically perhaps; religious thinking does combine with social science to suggest that being poor is simply a feature of all societies and, in this sense, can be understood as part of God's plan for humankind. The basis for assuming that "the poor will always be with you," therefore, is clearly present.

Yet answers to the question of why some particular people are poor rather than others devolve immediately to the level of individual behavior. In other words, rather than a systemic interpretation of the problem leading to a systemic view of its solution, the systemic diagnosis provides a framework that says, in effect, this is the way it will always be, and then individual attributes are credited with causing people to stay in poverty or to move out of it. The range of relevant attributes is considerable, but what surface most readily are traits that have allowed the middle class to escape being poor -- and in this discussion popular understandings of work, laziness and financial responsibility are especially apparent.

From these understandings of the poor, then, we arrive at an argument that can lead us to turn a cold shoulder toward the poor -- namely, because they are assumed to be lazy and irresponsible. Given the widespread humanitarian concern that is also part of American culture, however, this argument can also lead to a more ameliorative orientation. In fact, two possibilities can be logically sustained: one, that social reforms must be made that do more to enable those who are willing to do so to work hard and take responsibility for themselves, and two, that charitable efforts must be devoted to helping particular individuals who are otherwise deserving recover from misfortune. Both of these have support, but the second is favored more than the first. To understand why, we must turn our attention to people's understandings of the economic system itself.

Most people claim not to understand the American economic system very well. Those we interviewed sometimes prefaced their remarks on economic issues with dismissals such as "I'm no expert" or "If I knew, I'd be president." In our survey of the labor force, only 11 percent said they understand "very well" how our economic system works, and even among those who said they had thought a great deal about their responsibility to the poor only 18 percent said they understand it very well. One reason why many people seem indifferent to public debates about economic injustice, therefore, may be simply that they feel these discussions are better left to the experts.

Despite not understanding it very well, most people nevertheless believe the economic system is capable of being reformed. In the labor force as a whole, 32 percent say it is possible to make many significant changes, and 44 percent say a few significant changes are possible, while only 18 percent believe economic forces are pretty much beyond control. Significantly, those, who have thought more about their responsibility to the poor tend to be more optimistic about change than those who have thought less (Table 2).

One might wonder, then, if the system can be so readily reformed, why more effort does not go into reforming it. The question is even more puzzling in view of the fact that most people think basic changes are needed. Only 6 percent of the labor force say the economic system is the best we could possibly have.

To understand why the system, according to most Americans, could use change rather than basic restructuring, we must understand Americans' view of materialism. Materialism is a symbol of evil. As such, it provides a language for talking about social ills without attributing them to the economic system itself. To be sure, there are systemic connections, as in the case of people who argue that advertising promotes materialism or that capitalism is at fault. But what seems to trouble people most about materialism is the selfishness it implies. It is understood as a human tendency, a kind of moral failure, rather than an economic or political failure. Moreover, religious teachings that warn believers against such temptations as greed and envy provide a strong rationale for believing that it is these moral failings more than anything else to which poverty and economic injustice must be attributed.

Here is Pam Jones responding to a question about the causes of poverty: "Greed. It's like why is there war? Because you're greedy and you want more. Why are there so many poor? I'm aware of people really living high off the hog, and they have more than they can even really enjoy. So when we talk about quality of living, I think we live at such a high standard that it's not worth it. To have real fancy wallpaper in your room, to me that doesn't really improve my quality of living very much. But to know my neighbors and have a good relationship with them, to have a refrigerator so that food doesn't spoil, those are some basic things."

Greed, then, is a moral failing. Being concerned about it leads people like Pam Jones to live simply and to worry about the corrosive effects of advertising. It is, however, not so different a view from those of people miles apart from her in political ideology. For instance, Doug Hill says men should be the breadwinners and women should stay at home. He believes there is a "fundamental imbalance in society today" because "men are not doing what they're supposed to do." Materialism has encouraged them to send their wives into the workplace, and this has messed up the family, causing its basic values to erode. Pam Jones would disagree violently with this analysis. Yet the common assumption underlying both arguments is that materialism is more than anything else a moral problem. Most needed, given an analysis of this kind, is moral tutelage that encourages people to be less greedy (or to reassert traditional gender roles), not radical reform of the economic system itself.

Americans' opinions about welfare vary strikingly according to how the question is asked:

When asked, "Are we spending too much,, too little, or about the right amount on welfare?" 44 percent of the public said too much, while only 23 percent said too little. But when asked the same question about "assistance to the poor," only 13 percent said too much, while 64 percent said too little. Clearly, the public is more interested in helping the poor than it is in providing them welfare.

The results demonstrate how little confidence the Americans have in government-sponsored social-welfare programs. Only one person in four thinks such programs would help a lot (a third say they wouldn't help at all). In comparison, there is much greater confidence that volunteer efforts would help a lot. Moreover, those who have thought more about their responsibility to the poor are much more likely to express confidence in volunteer efforts than they are in government programs.

The assumption that the economy is basically sound, despite perhaps needing some changes, is probably behind the fact that so many people believe economic growth, hard work and business are all effective ways of helping the needy. There may well be an implicit message to the so-called welfare chiseler who is "just lazy" in the fact that more people believe hard work will help the needy than believe welfare programs will. And where the volunteer efforts that are favored should be located is suggested by the fact that so many people -- especially among those who have thought more about their responsibility to the poor -- believe active involvement in churches would be a good way to help the needy.

From the in-depth conversations we had with people who expressed many different views of the poor, it became evident that church involvement was considered relevant for a variety of reasons. For people like Doug and Linda Hill, church involvement was relevant for at least three reasons: it would help the "haves" to behave more compassionately, it would help the "have nots" take greater responsibility for their own lives, and both groups would find the divine salvation that would cure their poverty of spirit. For people like Pam Jones" Ricardo Alvarado, and John and Mary Phelps, religious involvement was favored mainly as a way of encouraging deeper thinking about the needs of the poor and as a vehicle for mobilizing volunteer efforts.

Although religious organizations have often. been criticized (sometimes by their own leaders) for not doing enough on behalf of the poor, the majority of the American labor force believes they are actually doing a good job in this area. Among the most actively involved, this proportion rises to about two-thirds. Significantly, a larger proportion of people with low incomes feel churches are doing a good job helping those in financial need than of people with higher incomes.

An important reason why people are convinced their churches are doing an effective job helping the poor is that they can cite firsthand examples. They may not know how government programs work, or they may not know what happens when they send a check to United Way, but their congregation is small enough that they can feel directly involved and see the fruits of their labors.

By bringing middle-class people into personal contact with the poor, church programs also reinforce the idea that disadvantaged people should be helped. The reason is often that seeing a need firsthand brings out some compassionate or altruistic sentiment. A person with an acute need is someone who must be helped. This sort of thinking is relatively straightforward. What is perhaps more interesting is the way such firsthand contact transforms the way in which the character of the poor is understood. All too often, their character is implicitly diminished in efforts to account for their situation in the first place: they represent the opposite of character traits thought to be the basis of middle-class success and security. The poor are credited with limited intelligence and an inability to plan; they make bad choices, fall in with bad friends or marry irresponsible partners; are weak-willed with respect to drugs and alcohol or simply lazy. Firsthand contact through church programs reverses those perceptions, making the poor more like "us."

Feeling a common bond of humanness is one of the most powerful sources of altruistic behavior. If this bond is absent, or if, as Mary Phelps observes, "the middle class refuses to accept the poor as human beings, or even 'see' them," little possibility exists of economic justice coming about. What then is there to criticize about people like John and Mary Phelps who find reasons to feel "at one" with the poor? It is possible to admire this orientation and yet to point out that it requires the poor to embody middle-class values, and perhaps even makes accepting them contingent on their conformity to these values. As warm, good-natured people, the poor can be trusted. But what if they were cold, diffident or crafty? They may be admired because of a down-to-earth attitude that makes them seem particularly "real" or genuine. They may be especially admired if they continue to work hard, despite suffering misfortune.

An interest in economic justice may start with empathic identification with the poor. It may be inspired by the sense that these people are "just like us," and so their rights should be enforced just like ours. But if those rights become contingent on poor people's having the same moral virtues as the "respectable" middle class, then departures from these traits provide a way of avoiding responsibility. True empathy requires more than remaking other people to conform to our own image. It requires rethinking our own identity as well. The poor may be a mirror for the middle class. But that mirror should register the faults of the middle class as well as its virtues.

While religious involvement encourages people to favor church efforts to assist the needy, it does so only up to a point. While close to 80 percent of the labor force say they would like churches to emphasize "job training, housing, and other services for the poor" more than they do now, only about a third want to see "a lot" more emphasis devoted to such efforts. Among those who attend religious services every -week, moreover, this proportion is actually lower than among those who attend less often.

It is understandable that active churchgoers do not want their churches to be turned into welfare organizations. They recognize that the primary activities of the church must include worship, prayer, religious instruction and the nurturing of personal spirituality. Yet this view of the churches further orients American thinking about where welfare efforts should be focused. It means that voluntary efforts other than those sponsored by the churches themselves must shoulder most of the responsibility for helping the needy.________________________________________________


Table 1


Question: "In the past year, how much have you thought about...your responsibility to the poor?" (Percent who said "great deal" or "fair amount.")

Total U.S. labor force 53

Church attendance

Weekly 76

Monthly 47

Yearly or less 37

Church Member

Yes 63

No 40

Religious preference

Protestant 58

Catholic 51

Other 52

None 35

Religious orientation

Conservative 67

Moderate 54

Liberal 48

Stewardship sermon

Yes 77

No 44


White 53

Black 53


Low 54

Medium 55

High 50


Table 2


Among those who had thought about their responsibility to the poor:

Great deal Fair Amount Little/None

Percent who said:

It is quite possible to make many

significant changes in our

economic system 40 34 28

It is possible to make a few

significant changes in our

economic system 36 47 44

Economic forces are

pretty much beyond our

control 20 15 20

Our economic system is:

The best system we could

possibly have 6 6 6

Basically okay, but in need

of some tinkering 27 31 30

In need of some fundamental

changes 50 54 51

Needing to be replaced

by a different system 14 7 7


Summary: The results of a survey of over 2,000 working Americans, including in-depth interviews with more than 175 of them, to discover what religious people think about their responsiblity to the poor.