Lisa Keister has scanned the Bible and found nearly 2,000 verses in the New Testament that touch on the topic of money. It's those very verses that may be keeping many conservative Protestants from building up long-term wealth, she says.
Jesus warned his followers not to "store up for yourselves treasures on Earth," and later cautioned that it will be "hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven." Perhaps the best known is the admonition that "the love of money is the root of all evil."
According to data analyzed by Keister, a Duke University sociologist, the median net worth for conservative Protestants in 2000 was $26,000, compared to the national median of $66,200.
Why the gap? Keister says it may all come down to theology.
"The one big difference is the conservative Protestants' assumption that God is the owner of money and people are managers of it," Keister said. "They are doing with their money what God wants them to do with it, so that does mean that it is not sitting in their bank accounts."
Keister says a typical "conservative Protestant" might be a member of the Assemblies of God, Churches of Christ, Nazarene and Pentecostal churches.
Keister's new article in the American Journal of Sociology, "Conservative Protestants and Wealth: How Religion Perpetuates Asset Poverty," argues that traditional views of money it's God's, not ours keep many Protestants from building a financial safety net.
While some struggle to build up their bank accounts, others, like Anne Thompson of Louisville, Ky., choose to give it all away in order to pursue what they see as God's plan for their lives.
Thompson, 43, gave up a six-figure salary in 2002 and quit her job to follow God's call to impact popular culture with a Christian message.
She said good-bye to plans for an early retirement and an $800,000 house and has not received a paycheck since.
To be sure, her above-average means put her in a higher-than-average income bracket, but her motivations aren't much different from many other conservative Protestants.
Thompson believes using her money to answer God's call is more important than using it for herself even if her current financial situation is a "mere shadow" of what it once was.
"Words can hardly describe the life that comes in return for whatever it is that you're sacrificing," said Thompson, who describes herself as a conservative Protestant. "In my case it happened to be financial."
The study also found that conservative Protestants tend to have lower levels of education and begin large families at younger ages, with fewer women working outside the home. These factors make it difficult for many conservative Protestant families to save money or accumulate wealth, Keister said in the study.
"If there is a strong belief in the maternal care of children and that leads to less women in the work force, that's a reason they may be less wealthy," said Mark Noll, an expert on evangelicals at the University of Notre Dame.
Keister was surprised that when demographic factors such as education, age and race were held as constant, religion still proved to be an influential factor in wealth accumulation. Conservative beliefs had a larger impact among black Protestants, she found, but also remained significant among whites.
Still, there are exceptions. Mormons, for example, also tend to be religiously conservative and have large families at a young age, and yet tend to have more substantial assets. Keister said her findings are "really just one tiny piece of a greater research agenda."
Nearly 20 percent of the general population have either little savings or large debts, Keister said. Wealth is a primary indicator of well-being because it endures, unlike income, which can come and go.
But theology may be the biggest factor, especially conservative views on the inerrancy of the Bible. Steve Diggs, a stewardship minister at the Antioch Church of Christ in Nashville, Tenn., said many Christians have misunderstood what the Bible says about accumulating money.
"Christians sometimes are, rightfully, less focused on this world and sometimes we do that to a fault," said Diggs. "I am diametrically opposed to the health-and-wealth prosperity teachings, but that isn't to say that God doesn't bless people financially."
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Keister's article, "Conservative Protestants and Wealth: How Religion Perpetuates Asset Poverty," appears in the March issue of the American Journal of Sociology.
Duke University has a press release on the study.