Black Christian Faith: Perennial Decline, Respectability, and “the back of the church”

The sunny South–a negro revival meeting–a seeker “getting religion,” William Ludwell Sheppard, 1873 (Library of Congress)

In the wake of Black religious affiliation surveys, Afro-Protestants have often implored religious institutions (churches, denominations, colleges, associations, conventions, seminaries) to act because they are in danger of losing the youth to “the world.” Irreligion in some form, or a competing religion or spirituality, has served as an existential threat to (Black) Christianity. This perceived threat represents a narrative of Black religious decline that stretches back to preachers’ anxieties at the turn of the twentieth century—despite the endurance of Black Protestant Christianity. Black Protestants who marshal the peculiar and popular phrase “the Black Church,” formerly “the Negro Church,” presume that their religious institutions truly were all-powerful in Black culture and life before the period of decline/disenchantment—despite the relatively short history of Black Christianities in the Western world when compared to more longstanding religions, including religions with an African heritage, and despite the massive work in the wake of Emancipation to “convert” freed people from their “slave religions” to proper Black Protestantism. The perceived decline of Afro-Protestantism justifies a call for Black churches to “modernize,” whether through cultural reforms, home missions, or organizing and advocating pressing social/political/economic concerns. There is no shortage of irony: since the twentieth century, polling Black religious life has persisted alongside narratives of Black Christianity’s decline, which also coexist with the growth of Black Christianity that such statistics may, in part, spur.

What aspects of Afro-Protestantism account for how African Americans grow, maintain, sustain, “return to,” or “age into” (in)visible institutions of religious/spiritual life? This question undergirds my current research as a cultural historian of African American religions. My first book centered the world of jazz to locate the cultural legacies of Black Protestantism (sometimes identified as “the Black church”) beyond church walls. Beyond these walls, there is a history of expressions of belief and practices of belonging that often did not register among the Black Protestant religious leaders who crusaded with apparent social scientific authority. Even as it rests comfortably among modern Afro-Protestant declension narratives, the 2021 Pew Research Center survey on Faith in Black America does highlight key factors in Black Protestant vitality: Black church sermons (when they are socially/politically relevant and offer inspirational messages), welcoming congregations, antiphony (call and response), and expressive and/or charismatic praise and worship (also linked to music).

If polling can provide an escape route beyond perennial Black Church declension narratives—that is, to clearly chart either increase, stability, shift, or decline—then Pew’s greatest impact would come if they maintain long-term studies of different generations of African Americans over time. Coupled with cross-generational studies, longitudinal studies may address far more revealing questions: Do African Americans “age into” religious/spiritual life? Do Black religious people assent to scriptural authority, textual literalism, and/or the divine authorship of sacred texts as they age? For example, the current survey’s cross-generational comparison relies on a remnant of Black Silent Generation members as respondents. It often compares this generation to a larger pool of Gen Z respondents. Would we be able to say definitively that Black religious and spiritual life rises/holds/shifts/declines over time if surveys track Gen Z over the next 7-8 decades, and compare them to future generations?

A curious footnote in the section, “Religiously unaffiliated Black Americans,” offers further support for longer-term studies. In light of Black religious polling data, there appear to be limits to the universality of shared definitions for labels/groupings like “nones,” atheist, and agnostic if the same things Pew used to identity religiosity exist in considerable numbers among those who do not bear this label.1 God, prayer, belief in evil spirits, belief in reincarnation, and/or belief in prayer to ancestors are relevant transcendent matters for the vast majority of Black nones. 

The discursive metrics or, measurements, that “show that Black Americans are more religious than the American public as a whole” include stating one’s belief in God/a higher power, stating regular attendance at religious services, stating that religious life is “very important”, declaring active religious affiliation, stating regular reading of scriptures, stating the belief that prayer (to the divine, which may include ancestors) works for protection, and stating the belief that there are evil spirits with malevolent potential in human lives. The things that count as religious thought, belief, and practice are, presumably, widely accepted markers of some meaningful distinction between “sacred” and “secular” ways of human movement and transformation via space and time (i. e. life). Consequently, we agree that these metrics determine religiosity, then sit as evidence for racialized comparisons that mark Black religious folks as oddly situated among other modern peoples. The poll data then substantiate a query (an unstated subtext) for even the most charitable and empathetic of outside questioners, “Why are these people still religious?” And when Black folks who have declared their non-religiosity pose the same query, they are able to marshal a host of intellectual, historical, emotional, socioeconomic, and political appeals to their folk that they must join other moderns in casting off religion.

However, are these survey metrics useful measurements (or the only credible metrics) of religiosity in the life of an individual, a generation, a congregation, a denomination, a religion? Do these metrics miss more complex understandings of what counts as belief and participation in religious life? Do they confine where/when/how religious life takes place to prayer time, Bible study time, and church time (whether attendance is in-person or virtual)? Do they presume that regular church attendance—often regarded as the strongest representation of Black people’s relatively high religiosity—always means sincere, reverent, certain (doubt-free), deferential (to religious authority), uncritical engagement in religious life? Do the questions of scriptural authority/authorship (divine, human, some in-between arrangement) always matter to Black religious/spiritual people’s lives, whether lay or ordained? My queries reveal my dissatisfaction with this polling framework. In a world where some presume that the best way to understand religious belief and affiliation is to ask people what they do and believe, and then to categorize their statements as representative facts of life, are we asking the right kinds of questions? 

“Representing the race” is a pervasive fact of Black life for many African Americans, and it comes with the expectation that a Black person’s representativeness generally requires displays of rationality and propriety as markers of respectability. When Black folks receive the opportunity to respond to a public survey, it is possible that the concern is to represent one’s thoughts and habits in the mode of respectability, because Black individuals carry the expectation to represent collective Blackness into any non-private endeavors. Responses to a national survey, which gauges the religiosity of the race (the title “Faith among Black Americans” indicates such), may rely upon cultural (generational, familial, ancestral) expectations: each poll answer should reflect Black respectability through reasoned decisions regarding belief/practice/affiliation; each poll answer should affirm Black freedom of choice in our belief that we inhabit a democratic republic, which rules out adult respondents’ coerced or insincere religious participation; and/or each poll answer should confirm the respondent’s ties to at least some aspect of Black culture, which includes any or all of the mentioned metrics of religiosity.

As I have wondered elsewhere, when pollsters and public thinkers prioritize ostensibly sincere engagements with institutional religious life and religious activism, do we then make invisible and unintelligible a range of affective engagements with religion that might also count as committed religious thought and practice, just not in the mode of respectability, or reverence? When I observe this study’s data on Black religious and non-religious folks alike, I know that its questions cannot capture Black religious women and men’s own work to create rich Black humor traditions that lampoon religious life. From the “Preacher Tales” and “Bad Religion” folklore of nineteenth-century Black freedpeople and their farmland-working descendants to the “Black Churches Be Like…” video skits of Black humorists in the digital present, African Americans have long created and disseminated irreverent humor about religion. There is a tradition of Black folks “playing” with the religions they claim, and the rich inventiveness of this cultural tradition has developed over nearly 150 years, as free(d) Black people moved within and beyond the American South throughout the United States. Black irreverent humor unfolds through many cultural forms, including preaching and evangelism, periodical humor, music, film, television, plays, literary works, stand-up specials, radio and television sketch acts, social media culture, and even private communications between Black clergy and laity. 

Although it may be more difficult to poll, I can imagine a few survey or interview questions that will begin to make this irreverent, humorous Black culture more present:

  • What/whom do you remember being humorous during church services or in church life?
  • Why are there shared jokes about Black preachers, deacons, church mothers, evangelists, and choir directors in Black culture?
  • Why do Black preachers joke or include humorous performances in sermons?
  • Do you think there are limits/boundaries when laughing about religious matters? The divine, the recently departed, ancestors? Are all of these realms appropriate subjects of Black humor? 
  • Do you read sacred texts “against the grain”? If so, do you find humor in this kind of engagement with scripture?

Within the history of U. S. Black churches, there is another history, one of irreverent and humorous Black religion that often begins “from the back of the church” and does not necessarily reside exclusively outside church walls. It complicates declension narratives by calling into question what counts as Black religious orientation, thought, commitment, and practice. And unlike with this Pew survey, it may not compare so easily, or respectably, to the religious orientations of the “general public.”

  1. “Even among Black adults who identify as atheist or agnostic, most (63%) say they believe in some kind of spiritual force (almost always a higher power other than the God of the Bible). Among Black Americans who describe their religion as ‘nothing in particular,’ meanwhile, the vast majority express belief in some kind of higher power, including 41% who say they believe in God as described in the Bible and 52% who say they believe in some other higher power.”
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Vaughn A. Booker

Vaughn A. Booker, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor in the Department of Religion and the Program in African and African American Studies at Dartmouth College. His research focuses on African American religious history in the twentieth century, including the ways that religion and race intersect with popular culture, gender, leadership, and politics.