It’s been long noted that the USA is atypical of developed countries. As a wealthy, developed nation, America should not be as religious as it is. But wealth is about more than GDP per capita; it’s also about how wealth is distributed. America has high economic inequality, and it’s level of religiosity is typical of a country whose wealth is concentrated among the few.
The World Values Survey provides a good example of this relationship. The survey includes dozens of countries and asks the same question about religion. The graph shows that as GDP per capita increases, the percentage of people who say that religion is “very important” drops. The USA is an outlier. Countries with America’s level of wealth should have less than 20 percent of people saying religion is very important. Instead, half of Americans say this.
But then look at inequality. Yes, America is wealthy, but it’s level of inequality is far above other developed countries. The country is wealthy, but the rich are richer and the poor are poorer than in other countries like it.
In terms of inequality, America is more like Iran, Serbia, and Mali — not a great list to be associated with economically. The USA is not an outlier in this graph. Its level of religiosity is right where we would expect a country with its level of inequality to be.
For more on inequality and religion, see my research with colleagues here and more by Fred Solt here.