With Faith and Money, Lisa Keister has written a timely, clearly written, and expert analysis of the connections between religion and wealth in the United States. Keister tells us that her “objective is to provide a comprehensive, contemporary, empirically grounded discussion of how religion, various individual and household processes, and wealth outcomes are related” (5). This is exactly what a reader will find.
Keister’s quantitative analysis is detailed, and its presentation readable. Using several nationally representative sets of data, Keister studies a range of American religious groups to find patterns in wealth. Readers of this website will be interested in chapter 6, wherein Keister discusses social mobility. Keister illustrates the intergenerational mobility with the example of white Catholics since 1980, suggesting that some of this mobility is a result of changes in Catholic family structure, adoption of an American ethnic identity, and increased educational and occupational attainment. Keister also suggests that white Catholics have an instrumental approach to work, valuing its material outcomes above its intrinsic rewards. However, it may be that that Catholics uniquely value the family, and therefore work hard to ensure the family’s quality of life. Later in this chapter, Keister explores the mobility of Latino Catholics, suggesting that this may be a group on the verge of upward movement. Here Keister provides a unique and interesting analysis that could very well motivate further study.
In general, Keister argues persuasively that religion is related to issues of wealth stratification. We read about ways religion might directly affect wealth, and ways that religion may indirectly influence wealth accumulation. For example, a strong research tradition shows that orientations toward education, marriage and family formation, and career paths are all related to wealth and mobility. And, of course, religion has clear connections to each of these processes. Several chapters in the book explore these indirect relationships in great detail, helping us to contextualize Jewish and Mainline Protestant relative success, as well as the reasons why Conservative Protestants are typically on the lower end of wealth measures. Further, Keister discusses several ways that religion might directly affect wealth. Here Keister considers how religion might shape orientations toward work and consumption, placement in social networks that compel saving and other wealth related practices, and even the likelihood of inheritance. The wealth of data presented is suggestive of a number of compelling explanations.
However, readers may be disappointed if they are looking for a complex theoretical approach to religion and wealth. Keister is quite straightforward in describing the book as primarily descriptive, and devotes relatively little space to explaining variation in wealth across traditions and between generations. This aspect of the book is attributable to data limitations which Keister discusses at length, and not the author’s lack of careful thought. In fact, in a chapter titled “A Truly Complex Relationship,” Keister presents a number of brief but insightful reflections on the number of ways religion may explain wealth, or lack thereof. This chapter skillfully introduces and summarizes a large literature from several disciplines. Readers wishing to contribute to work on religion and wealth will find this chapter invaluable.