Social and economic inequality promise to haunt our globalizing world as it rockets forward through the first quarter of the 21st century. The rich few get richer, while the middle class and the poor stagnate. This narrative of inequality not only has great appeal amongst the chattering classes of policymakers and journalists, but it will slowly gain more transaction amongst the masses. Even conservative researchers like Charles Murray are sounding a warning bell, as he does in his 2012 book Coming Apart. The conservative think tank leader Mitch Pearlstein is writing his second book on the subject (his first, published in 2011, is titled From Family Collapse to America’s Decline), and shows clear evidence that family fragmentation is correlated with poverty, under-achievement, and social stagnation.
While Pearlstein is very sympathetic to the argument that a religious revival is the only way to turn around our social pathologies, most scholars and virtually all politicians ignore what was, until the mid 20th century, a socially-accepted and powerful source of social mobility (the ability to move from a lower socioeconomic class to a higher one): Christian conversion. In fact, my own research suggests that Christian conversion often operates in such a way that it provides a virtual escalator between the social classes. Sociologist David Martin has alluded to the phenomenon in his 1993 book Tongues of Fire, as has Robert Woodberry, the American sociologist who has studied the impact of missionaries on social outcomes.
Although the topic deserves much more research, we can suggest likely factors that drive the gospel escalator: 1) re-direction of finances away from self-indulgent activities to those that educate their and others’ children; 2) increased work productivity due to greater diligence and work focus; 3) increased trustworthiness with work tasks 4) refusal to steal from employers; 5) increased willingness to invest in business activities of fellow Christians, as well as to employ them; and 6) greater sense of efficacy, or the ability to make a difference in family, community, and public affairs.
Politicians are likely to milk the theme of inequality for all the votes they can get, but the wise citizen will recognize that one of the finest ways that public officials can help reverse the rising tide of inequality is by encouraging citizens to seek out religious commitments that will make them into the kind of people who gain social mobility. For most, this means welcoming Christian conversion and the community that comes with it.