Class Bias in Religious Resources

Pandemic business closures, safer-at-home orders, and the move to virtual schooling have hit all families hard, but some are struggling more than others. Political debates over direct relief payments, moratoriums on evictions, expanding unemployment eligibility, and increasing SNAP benefits highlight this reality. Social class differences affect children’s lives and their spirituality. Yet the resources used by many organizations reinforce or reproduce social inequalities by assuming middle class culture as the norm for all families.

RKRF wondered how problematic this unconscious bias is and so we asked two sociologists with experience studying young people’s spirituality to take a look at 10 popular Protestant religious curricula and tell us about the implicit class assumptions they saw. Here’s what Drs. Melinda Denton and Lisa Pearce had to say:

  • All of the curricula assumed middle-class students who have plenty of food to eat and clothes to wear, as well as ‘typical’ middle-class experiences, such as flying on an airplane, using apps on a smartphone, and navigating with a GPS. The materials imply that all children have a high degree of ‘cultural capital’: the knowledge, behavior, and skills that are rewarded by society with higher social status. None of the curricula consider that some children might be experiencing food insecurity or financial deprivation at home.
  • Most of the resources presented those who are poor or in need as ‘other’. Children are encouraged to pray and make care packages for those without adequate food and clothing, which does encourage a sense of shared humanity with those less fortunate. Yet the assumption that only those outside one’s circle are at risk of going hungry sends the message that hunger doesn’t happen to ‘children like me’.
  • The curricula also assumed that families will have access to the ‘basic household items’ needed for the lessons. These items include certain foods that may not be readily available in some neighborhoods, myriad art supplies that can be pricey, and a good internet connection some families might not be able to afford. Even if organizations provide the items required, parents may feel inadequate when they realize the curriculum assumes every family has those things on hand.
  • Many of the resources expected a certain type and level of education for parents and children. Lessons contain references to literary classics and philosophers most familiar to middle and upper class children. The text-heavy nature of the materials also suggests they are oriented to children with strong reading skills (typically gained through attendance in well-funded schools).

Social institutions are major players in transmitting norms and values to children. When children and their families experience classist assumptions – even when unintended – they take such assumptions to heart. Many come to believe that moving from lower to higher class status is a matter of personal effort and responsibility, and thus being ‘lower’ class signals a personal failure to make something better of oneself. For organizations whose goals include reducing various forms of inequality through social change, eliminating unconscious class biases from their resources is an essential step toward nurturing forms of children’s spirituality that value human equality and dignity over class hierarchies.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *