Churchgoers' gains may be more than spiritual

MIT economist's study finds higher incomes and education, fewer divorces than in the general population

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Religion, it seems, pays. But why?

Identifying communities of frequent churchgoers, Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Jonathan Gruber found higher incomes and education levels and less welfare participation, along with more marriages and fewer divorces, than in the general population.

The "Religious Market Structure, Religious Participation and Outcomes: Is Religion Good For You?" study was published in May for the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Comparing national statistics on religion and income, Gruber found higher income and education levels in communities densely populated by a particular religion. In communities where the church attendance rate was double that of the general population, incomes were 9 percent higher, for example.

Gruber doesn't purport to know definitively why churchgoers are better off, but he has a few theories after studying the outcomes of communities with high concentrations of people who shared a common religion.

Churchgoers have more social contacts and job leads, for one.

Or it could be that a church community provides "financial and emotional insurance," as Gruber describes it, referring to financial aid and emotional support that can help mitigate financial setbacks.

A third explanation could center on children's more-frequent attendance in religious schools in the communities, Gruber said, though he said there is debate in academic literature on whether that leads to better outcomes.

Finally, it could be that religion itself directly improves well-being, which can lead to more prosperity.

More than a dozen studies link religion and health. Prayer and meditation are associated with lower stress levels and positive outlooks that can lead to better physical health, said George Fitchett, research director at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, who is studying links between religion and health under a grant from the National Institute on Aging.

"If you have a focus and purpose to your life, it helps you survive difficult times," said James Poling, a theology professor at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill. "If you believe God has a purpose for you, and that he will take care of you, it gives you resilience."

Good news for churches as they hold their annual tithing drives? It's not that simple, Poling said.

There are all kinds of wrinkles to the "prosperity gospel," he said. Bad things still happen to good people, and some dysfunctional people are highly attracted to religion and its doctrines but remain unsuccessful in everyday life.

Showing up at church might help a real estate agent get clients but does nothing for her emotional well-being if she's just going through the motions in the pew.

"Religion can function as a positive force that will help you be successful, but it's not always true, and it can even put us in tension with society," Poling said.

And isn't wealth frowned on in religion?

The Bible is full of parables about the perils of financial success, such as the one in which Jesus warns how hard it is for the wealthy man to enter heaven (more difficult than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle).

But there is debate among religious scholars about the interpretation of the New Testament story. Some believe that it equates heaven's gate not to an impossible feat of physics but to an entrance to Jerusalem too small to pass through if a man was loaded down with all his possessions. He had to remove them before he could continue on his way.

Being poor might not be a prerequisite for heaven. And being rich won't necessarily keep you out. The ones who pass through, the theory goes, are the ones willing to let go.

"Whatever you really can't give away is an idol that gets between you and God," said the Rev. John Buchanan, pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago.

Janet Kidd Stewart writes for Tribune Media Services.

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