Archie Milward, a 34-year-old doorman in New York City, feels guilty every time he gets a text from the elders asking him if he’s going to make it to services at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’s chapel in Woodside. 

“I’m like, ‘Hey, I have work,’” he said, leaning on a podium in an ornately decorated foyer of a building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He wants to go to church, of course, but he works Sundays. To attend services, he would have to use a sick day, he said, “And I only have 12 for the whole year; I save them.” 

Milward, who immigrated to America from the Philippines in 1999, was raised Catholic but followed his wife into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He recalls seeing her engrossed in her studies; her focus piqued his curiosity. When he asked her about her faith and about the church, “She said, ‘Why don’t you pray about it?’ And here I am now,” said Milward. 

Although he rarely attends church on Sundays, mostly due to his work schedule, Milward still calls himself religious. On Monday and Tuesday evenings, after he gets home from work, he and his wife pray together. But even being consistent with such simple, at-home worship is hard because of shift work, said Milward, who works the graveyard shifts on Wednesdays and Thursdays. 

And Milward feels that he and his wife can only go so far in their faith alone. “Getting to where we need (to be) is a challenge without guidance from the elders,” he said. 

Nationwide, there are scores of working class Americans who, like Milward, define themselves as religious but who do not attend church, synagogue or mosque. And it points to a paradox that has implications for both the current state of American religion as well as the future of our nation’s religious institutions — while working-class Americans embrace the religious label in rates almost as high as the middle- and upper-middle-class, working class Americans are the least likely to go to services according to “The State of the Working Class,” a new report compiled by the Deseret News and HarrisX. 

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When asked about the importance of religion in their lives, 71% of Americans who self-identified as lower class said it was very or somewhat important, and 65% of the working poor and working class said the same. Lower-middle-class Americans reported that religion was very or somewhat important to them at a rate of 67%; 71% of both the middle- and upper-middle-class Americans said religion played a very or somewhat important role in their lives. 

Upper-class respondents ranked the highest on this measure, with 80% reporting that religion was very or somewhat important to them. 

Respondents who self-identified as either “lower class,” “working poor,” or “working class,” were the most likely to say that they “almost never” attend religious services. The higher one was on the income ladder, the more likely they were to attend church, synagogue or mosque. 

While the incomes of interviewees who identified as working class varied widely, the bulk reported making between $15,000 to $99,999 annually. (It’s worth noting that some Americans who made over $100,000 a year also identified as working class — pointing perhaps, to the psychological impact of the nation’s spiraling cost of living.)

Identity politics

But it’s not just shift work. There are a variety of reasons that working-class Americans are unlikely to be found in the pews, ranging from identity politics to the fact that religious institutions — and civic participation more broadly — are dominated by more highly educated Americans and members of the middle and upper class, according to Phil Schwadel, a sociology professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

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Education and cultural background also play a role. Middle- and upper-class Americans “have been socialized to play a bigger part in American life,” said Schwadel, who adds that these groups are more likely to be involved in volunteering, Parent Teacher Associations, as well as unofficial organizations like book clubs. Together, this gives middle- and upper-class Americans broader social networks and a greater sense of belonging. 

While this story of lopsided religious and civic participation is decades old, Schwadel says he believes this trend has been exacerbated over time. And as the middle class and upper class dominate religious institutions, they also come to shape them, leading to a runaway process in which lower-class and less educated Americans feel increasingly unwelcome in churches where they don’t see themselves reflected. Qualitative research also suggests that, sometimes, struggling single mothers feel “looked down upon and unwelcome (at church) because they don’t have the same sort of self-presentation as middle-class people,” said Schwadel.  

And while middle- and upper-class Americans are more likely to attend church on a regular basis, Schwadel said, “they’re less likely to hold certain kinds of religious beliefs, especially the more conservative or strict beliefs.” Schwadel pointed out that these sorts of differences can lead to splintering; rifts in the United Methodist Church offer a dramatic example of where this process can lead. In that case, he says, upper- and middle-class Americans wanted the church to be more “LGBTQ+ affirming,” something that didn’t sit well with everyone.  

The manner in which the middle and upper class has shaped the American church is “one reason Americans are much more likely to switch denominations than they used to be,” Schwadel said. When people aren’t comfortable with the culture of their current church or feel like they don’t fit in, they strike out in search of something new — which accounts for some of the growth of nondenominational Protestant churches, according to Schwadel, who added, “more Protestants are now nondenominational than belong to specific denominations.”  

But when people who identify as religious leave their church seeking a better fit and don’t find one, they often stop going altogether. 

‘Old boys’ network’

Jason Rogeriski is a 46-year-old diesel mechanic who identifies as a nondenominational Christian but doesn’t attend church. In his native Southern Illinois, he felt like those who attended religious services on a regular basis thought they were better than everyone else and were hypocritical. When he moved to Jupiter, Florida, at the age of 19 and went to services, Rogeriski felt like church attendees were an “old boys’ network.” Feeling like an outsider, he didn’t go back. 

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Today, Rogeriski, who resists classifications like Democrat and Republican, says he resents that church leaders try to teach congregants how to think — he views this as a throwback to the pre-revolutionary days when America was a British colony and the Church of England was used to control the early settlers. 

In some cases, even as people have left churches, they’ve retained the religious label, according to Daniel Cox of the American Enterprise Institute. Defining oneself as religious continues to be meaningful or, perhaps, they’re still holding on to some of the basic tenets of the religion. But the identity “isn’t connected to a particular community or religious behavior,” said Cox. 

In other cases, non-churchgoers have embraced the label precisely because it is associated with a particular community. 

“Christian identity is becoming increasingly fused with politics,” said Cox. For many, the label doesn’t translate exclusively to belief in Christian doctrine nor as membership in a particular Christian community. Rather, being Christian is conflated with particular political values or issues, said Cox, who pointed to data from Pew Research Center that showed strong Trump supporters were more likely to newly identify as evangelical “because of its association with Trump and conservative politics.” But that doesn’t necessarily translate to church attendance — additional research has identified Americans “who aren’t Christian identifying as evangelical or born again because of its association with Trump and conservative politics,” said Cox.

This shift to “political evangelicalism” has serious implications for both those who actually attend religious institutions as well as the pastors that lead them, observers say.

Similarly, claiming the “religious” label without partaking in the institution or community could be due to politics. But there could also be a sociological explanation, Cox added.

“The sociological one has to do with the decline in America’s civic and social architecture. The last 20 to 30 years have seen a big decline in different activities and membership-based organizations, religion being a big one, obviously. People are not as active in these spaces and these places, but they’ve retained the label. It could well be meaningful for them, but it’s not connected to a particular community or religious behavior,” said Cox.

Cox believes that the shift towards a gig economy could also be playing a role in declining attendance among certain groups. Opening opportunities for work, but disrupting a regular Monday through Friday, nine to five schedule, gig culture leaves people “forced to make difficult decisions,” said Cox. 

Chae Logan MacLea laughs with her daughter Clara (4) as they play a board game at their home in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, on Friday June 9, 2023. | Saul Martinez, for the Deseret News

Chae Logan MacLea, 38, is a part-time preschool teacher who lives in Palm Beach Gardens with her husband and their two daughters, ages 8 and 4. MacLea and her husband, who manages technology for a baseball team that does spring training in South Florida, make just under $100,000 dollars a year in an area where, MacLea noted, a decent home costs “around half a million dollars.”

In the past, MacLea made it to Catholic catechism classes with her eldest child, who had first communion last year. Since then, the family hasn’t been attending church, despite the fact that MacLea still identifies as religious. 

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A lack of family-friendly programming leaves MacLea feeling that church leaders are out of touch with the needs and wants of the flock. “I don’t feel that the girls get very much out of the church,” said MacLea. “It does not cater to young families and they get bored.”

She also feels that their lifestyle is similar to that of a lower income family due to her husband’s work schedule. “He will go to work at six in the morning and will come home at seven or eight at night,” said MacLea. “He doesn’t get many Sundays off.”

And when he does, he either wants to spend it sleeping in or they want to enjoy the time together as a family, she said.

Regardless of whether or not MacLea attends services, she considers herself religious. The value of going to church, she reflected, is the “history ... the teaching of how Jesus lived and how we can treat each other.”

From left: Chae Logan MacLea, Clara, DC MaLlea and Isla playing a board game at their home in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, on Friday June 9, 2023. | Saul Martinez, for the Deseret News
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