If getting rich is your goal, steer clear of a conservative Protestant church. That's the absurd conclusion of a study by Duke University professor Lisa Keister, who authored "Conservative Protestants and Wealth: How Religion Perpetuates Asset Poverty" in this month's American Journal of Sociology.
Keister suggests that wealth is "among the most fundamental indicators of well-being" and, according to her, the church is sorely lacking it. When comparing net worth in the year 2000, conservative Protestants (CPs) averaged $26,000 compared to $66,200 for the wider population. "[The findings] are consistent with the argument that long-term exposure to CP values, particularly during the critical childhood years when people learn to save, adversely influences asset ownership…"
Keister tries to validate the liberal stereotype of Protestants as poor, uneducated people who force their women to stay home barefoot and pregnant. She claims that biblical teachings are hostile to the accumulation of wealth and cites people who say that it "prevents one from knowing God."
Unfortunately, Keister ignores the obvious explanations, which are that believers are more inclined to give sacrificially and place less priority on material things. In fact, as Arthur Brooks notes in his book Who Really Cares, one of the best things that could happen in the fight to reduce poverty would be for Americans to become more religiously conservative. Brooks writes, "Religious people are, inarguably, more charitable in every measurable way."
In contrast to Keister's theory, most Protestants don't have an objection to riches but refuse to be defined by them. As our Dr. Pat Fagan has pointed out, men and women of faith place a higher priority on producing human capital than financial capital.
Keister's report seems to feed into society's notion that that success is determined by what you accumulate, rather than what people accomplish or how they serve. In the end, wealth is no more an indication of success than it is of happiness.
Tony Perkins heads the Family Research Council. This article is excerpted from the Washington Update that he compiles for the FRC.