I grew up in a small south Texas community. The town was a mix of blue-collar and college-educated professional families who worked primarily in agriculture, energy, and aluminum manufacturing. My junior high and high school were even more diverse as a nearby small town of primarily Hispanics were part of the school district. The area where I lived ranged socio-economically from the working poor to middle class. We blended peacefully, and I enjoyed relationships across this spectrum.
Religiously, my community was almost 100% Christian. I knew only two Jewish families. The dominant Christian denominations were Baptist and Catholic. First Baptist Church was located on the main street and towered over all other churches and community activities. The Catholic church resided on a back residential street and though smaller in size, held many services and was well-attended. The mainstream Protestants churches were smaller and scattered around the town.
First Baptist heavily influenced the community. School activities were not held on Wednesday evenings and school weekend dances always had alternative activities at the church. My Baptist friends participated in church choir, youth groups, and bible studies. When not attending school classes and sports, my Baptist friends were at church. The town shut down on Sunday and only the 7-Eleven had commercial activities. I participated in my mainline church’s Sunday church activities but never to the level of the all-encompassing Baptists.
The Baptist and Catholic churches produced many excellent students. The two students in my high school senior class with the highest GPAs were members of these two influential churches. Only recently have I discovered a relationship between academics and religion. Dr. Ilana M. Horwitz, the Fields-Rayant Chair in Contemporary Jewish Life at Tulane University’s Stuart and Suzanne Grant Center, recently published God, Grades, and Graduation: Religion’s Surprising Impact on Academic Success (Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 2022). She studied how religious upbringing, social class, gender, and race influenced people. This is a well-written book that statistically proves the connection between religious participation and academic success.
“My central argument is that an upbringing of religious restraint affects the quantity and quality of education. Nonaffluent teens who are intensely religious complete more years of education than nonaffluent teenagers who are less religious. Affluent teenagers who are intensely religious complete similar years of education as less religious affluent teenagers, but those who are intensely religious attend less selective colleges. Put simply, an intensely religious upbringing helps kids complete more years of schooling, but often at lower quality institutions. This is the paradox of religious restraint.” (page 16)
Why does religious upbringing achieve better academic success? Horwitz defines religious restraint as religious families that consistently and constantly reinforce their children’s social environment to achieve social order. For example, families eat together, minimize conflict, enforce rules, and prioritize religious activities. She labels these children as abiders. “I argue that abiders’ advantage stems from their conscientious and cooperative disposition.” (page 57) Her conclusions are based on statistical data and extensive interviews. While I did not have her statistical analysis during my formative years, I did observe it in my small town near Corpus Christi. Abiders generally did better in school because they lived rule-based, structured lives that permeated their academics. Abiders were less likely to participate in destructive activities such as drugs, alcohol, theft, or pre-marital sex.
Horwitz’s research uncovered one interesting conclusion: abiders attended less select colleges than non-abiders of equal academic qualifications. This decision lowers abiders’ future financial potential and community status. Data shows that students attending the more select undergraduate educational institutions have a statistically better chance of professional success after graduation.
Why are abiders undermatched? Abiders are generally more conservative and prioritize home life over professional success. Family and religious community considerations take precedence over leaving their hometowns for better universities and careers. Woman generally choose to stay home to raise their children rather than put them in childcare. Men seek to balance work and family. Earnings and career potential are reduced when abiders’ spiritual life is prioritized. “Teenage abiders wait for things to happen to them rather than taking the initiative to make things happen.” (page 146)
This trend is not seen in Jewish adolescents who desire career success through educational selectivity. Jewish women believe it is possible to raise their children in a religious home while having a full-time career. “Girls raised by at least one Jewish parent imagined their futures very differently compared to girls with a non-Jewish upbringing from similar social positions. They were oriented toward achieving prestigious careers as early as middle school and throughout adolescence.” (page 140)
Most of my mainstream Protestant church friends did go to college. My church was solidly middle class, and the majority of the adults were college educated. The church I attended was a loving community but shied away from discussing Christian ethics, sexuality, or other rule-based topics. When I attended the local Baptist or Catholic churches with friends, the tone and topics changed to strict behavioral rules. I often wondered if the wide spectrum between the conservative and liberal churches could be narrowed and balanced. Scripture instructs Christians in both ethics and grace. Rules need to be taught along with the need for God’s grace. Both are part of the Christian life.
Dr. Horwitz’s research does show that there are some added benefits to actively attending a religious institution. I always knew that there were benefits, although she expanded my list.