sealPurdue News

November 1994

Professor: Religious affiliation still influences success

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Episcopalians and Presbyterians continue to hold a disproportionate share of the top-level jobs in the United States, according to a study by Purdue University Professor James D. Davidson.

"It's partly a matter of networking," says Davidson, a sociologist of religion. "Even today, people in the three mainline Protestant religions -- Episcopalian, Presbyterian and United Church of Christ -- are more likely to have access to power, to corporate positions and to higher education because of the network that is in place."

Davidson's paper, "Persistence and Change in the Protestant Establishment, 1930-1992," was presented at the annual meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion in August and has been accepted for publication in the journal Social Forces.

Davidson, with Purdue graduate students Ralph Pyle and David Reyes, looked at the religious affiliations of people listed in "Who's Who in America" in 1930 and in 1992.

"There are those who say we are living in a post-Protestant era," Davidson says. "To test that, we compared the 1930s, when the mainline Protestants were calling the shots, to the 1990s. The evidence we have found suggests that Protestant hegemony persists."

Davidson says that while the Protestant Establishment has lost some ground in the last 50 years, the group remains over-represented among the nation's power and cultural elites when compared to its numbers in the U.S. population as a whole.

Among other religious groups, Jews have gained dramatically. Catholics, on the other hand, have gained but remain under-represented among the power and cultural elites, he says.

Davidson defined the cultural elite to include educators, scientists, doctors, engineers, editors and authors, artists, actors and religious and social workers; the power elite includes bankers, businessmen, politicians, diplomats, judges, lawyers and military officers.

"There have been some changes in the nation's elite," Davidson says, "but, contrary to popular opinion, the change is relatively small. If you stepped into a board meeting of a business giant, our research shows that you still would find several Episcopalians, a few Presbyterians, probably a Jew and a Catholic, and no Baptists."

The Protestant Establishment's prominence, Davidson says, is perpetuated by inheritance, legacy admission to elite schools and appointment to office.

Davidson says his point was illustrated during the George Bush presidency when Bush, an Episcopalian, appointed James Baker, an Episcopalian, as secretary of state; David Souter, an Episcopalian, as Supreme Court justice; and Clarence Thomas, who attended an Episcopal church with his Episcopalian wife, as Supreme Court justice.

Other studies have found that 40 percent of the nation's wealthiest people have inherited money from their families. Those families have convinced prep schools and prestigious colleges that it is in their best interests to set aside a certain number of positions for their sons and daughters, according to a 1991 study by David Karen of Bryn Mawr College.

When looking at listings in Who's Who, Davidson found that 34 percent of the people in the 1992 edition listed a religious preference, compared to 56 percent in 1930.

Davidson then compared the religious affiliations of the elite to the numbers in the U.S. population based on census records.

Some of his findings:

Davidson says that while Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and members of the United Church of Christ no longer have the nearly exclusive access to positions of power, privilege and prestige they once had, their influence remains remarkably strong.

"This means," Davidson says, "that these groups continue to influence the way of life in America. Denominational and religious family boundaries continue to be important factors in people's life chances."

Source: James D. Davidson, (765) 494-4688
Writer: Julie Rosa, (765) 494-2079; Internet,
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

NOTE TO JOURNALISTS: A copy of the research paper is available from Julie Rosa, Purdue News Service, (765) 494-2079.

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