Friday, October 19, 2007

The Business Cycle and Religiosity

Does economic distress increase religiosity and vice versa? This is a question that first intrigued me back in 2001, during the last U.S. recession. I was visiting my sister in Atlanta, Georgia and attended her church. During a part of the church service a microphone was passed around to individuals who then shared with the rest of the congregation what was going on in their life. Almost everyone who participated during this open mike time had just lost their job and were asking God to find a new one for them. As the right side of my brain sympathized with these suffering individuals, the left side of the brain got excited and started thinking about the econometric possibilities. I wondered, might this experience be reflecting a much broader, systematic relationship between church attendance and the business cycle? If so, were would I get data to test for such a relationship? And would this relationship be different for different denominations? I was curious and wanted to find out more.

I was a graduate student back in 2001 and had other pressings issues that put this interesting question on hold. I recently started looking at this issue again and now have a working paper titled "Praying for a Recession: The Business Cycle and Church Growth." I will be presenting this paper at the annual meetings for the Association for the Study of Religions, Economics, and Culture (ASREC) in November. My abstract reads as follows:

Some observers believe the business cycle influences religiosity. This possibility is empirically explored in this paper by examining the relationship between macroeconomic conditions and Protestant religiosity in the United States. The findings of this paper suggest there is a strong countercyclical component to religiosity for evangelical Protestants while for mainline Protestants there is both a weak countercyclical component and a strong procyclical component.

This paper is preliminary and I would appreciate any comments on it.


  1. Barak Obama recently expressed a similar recognition of the correlation between economic anxiety and religion (and guns). Social and economic anxiety are also associated in the press with militant Islam. While we're at it, why don't we note the counter-cyclical popularity of the US Democratic Party? I think the common thread is that when individuals feel threatened, they seek comfort and support from fellow citizens. And that is how these groups (of which I count myself a member) promote themselves and recruit! Why all the fuss?
    Sharing one's need for a new job at church may simply be opportunistic marketing, but as long as that's within the social norms of the church, a benefit of membership. It expands the marketplace of labor, and gives both employers and employees more choices. Choice is good.

  2. Anonymous:

    I agree, choice is good. My research aims only to document this pattern, not to pass judgment on it.