The New York Times reports that as college tuition costs rise, children of the upper classes increasingly fill a disproportionate number of slots at the country’s top universities. According to reporter David Leonhardt, “At the most selective private universities across the country, more fathers of freshmen are doctors than are hourly workers, teachers, clergy members, farmers or members of the military — combined.”
The inclusion of clergy in Leonhardt’s tally of middle and working-class occupations is evidence of a stark reversal of fortune. In the 18th and 19th century, Protestant clergy constituted a hefty chunk of society’s upper tier, while physicians unsuccessfully warded off accusations of quackery and fought for professional legitimacy.
Today, it is physicians who not only control antibiotics but also render physical and psychological cures that seem nothing short of miraculous by 19th, 20th, or 21st century standards. The range of salaries for each occupation reflects this transformation (look here for doctor salaries, andhere for clergy).
The days when Harvard and Yale graduated scores of ministers under the guidance of intellectual giants like Increase Mather or Timothy Dwight are long gone. Yet the repercussions of this long decline in the status of clergy still contribute to a crisis of class identity.
Matthew J. Price, a pension analyst for the Episcopal Church, reports on the negative impact of low clerical salaries, but blames the trouble on a development inside the mainline denominations: consolidation. He argues that megachurches frequently swallow smaller congregations and offer handsome, stable salaries only to a shrinking number of pastors at their helm.
Although Price suggests that Protestants head off this crisis with frank discussion about new standards of compensation in the church, the New York Times article suggests that it may be too late for most clergy to hold on to past glories of prestige and finance. Today’s clergy are playing the role of 19th-century doctors, fighting for legitimacy and class power among a host of other professions that seek to comfort the sick, interpret suffering, and offer emotional succor. And they don’t even have a union.