More Conservative, Less Wealth

August 1, 2008

Conservative Protestants tend to save less and accumulate fewer assets than other Americans, and their religious beliefs contribute to their relatively lower wealth, according to a new study by a Duke sociologist.

"We know that wealth ownership is extremely unequal in the U.S., and large numbers of families have little or no savings. However, sociologists and economists have just begun to explore why that is," says Lisa A. Keister '90, professor of sociology and author of "Conservative Protestants and Wealth: How Religion Perpetuates Asset Poverty," published in the American Journal of Sociology.

"While there is evidence that religion and wealth are related, what has been missing is a clear account of the process by which religion affects the wealth of believers."

Her study concludes that the cultural understandings that accompany conservative Protestant beliefs influence wealth ownership directly and indirectly. The direct influence stems from conservative Protestants' unique approach to finances—in particular the belief that people are managers of God's money and excess accumulation of wealth should be avoided.

In addition, conservative Protestants have tended to be less well educated and have large families beginning at younger ages, and fewer conservative Protestant women work, all of which indirectly contribute to slow asset accumulation, Keister says.

"Really the question is, 'How does religion affect inequality?' I'm identifying the mechanisms by which this happens for one group, but it can help us understand other groups as well."