Secularization and the Tribulations of the American Working-Class


Over the past several decades, working-class America has been plagued by multiple adverse trends: a sharp increase in social isolation, an even sharper increase in single parenthood, a decline in male labor force participation rates, and a decline in generational economic mobility – amongst other things.  Material economic factors have been unable to fully explain these phenomena, often yielding mixed results or – in some cases, such as that of single parenthood – lacking explanatory power altogether.  I study the decline in religiosity and, using a shift-share instrument leveraging the fact that different religious denominations are declining at different rates, I find that religious decline has a strong adverse effect on the aforementioned variables.  The effects are not weakened by including other potential explanatory factors (such as China trade shocks and variation in public assistance).  I present evidence that, to the extent reverse causality exists, it creates bias in the opposite direction of my estimates.  These findings are also robust to several alternative instruments, including the repeal of the state blue laws banning retail activity on Sundays and the Catholic church scandals of the 2000s.  Two instruments – the blue laws and the state anti-evolution laws mandating teaching of creationism in school – allow me to ascertain whether the effect proceeds through religious attendance or beliefs.  I find that, for most outcomes, the bulk of the effect is driven by religious attendance.

Last updated on 11/05/2020