*This post is part of our online forum with the Pew Research Center.
The February 2021 Pew report, “Faith among Black Americans,” is a 176-page collection of surveys conducted among 8660 Black adults mostly before the COVID-19 pandemic started in March 2020. The report covers various topics such as affiliations, beliefs, practices, race, gender, sexuality, and politics. It also includes excerpts from interviews with 30 pastors from about seven different denominations and a brief history. This report is the first of a planned series exploring “the rich diversity of Black people in the United States” (14). The opening gloss, “Most Black worshippers attend predominantly Black congregations and see a role for religion in fighting racial injustices, but generational patterns are changing,” captures the essence of the survey results. The report’s emphasis on racial affiliation anchoring Black churches, political engagement, and generational change highlights some of the limitations of this conception of Black churches as political spaces. While it helpfully gestures to change between generations it overemphasizes a narrative of decline by underestimating the causes of change and misinterpreting the significance of these changes. To better understand the nature of Black faith today, three points should be kept in mind: 1) Black churches change; 2) Black church politics in any given moment is more than electoral engagement; and 3) Black churches are not just or even best visible through the pulpit.
The changing scope of Black churches is an important development to highlight rather than the declension narrative. In their in-depth interviews, several ministers acknowledged their efforts to change some of the services by decreasing the length, incorporating more music styles, and allowing or encouraging more casual dress. They also reported changing the culture of the churches to become more LGBTQ inclusive (145-148). They suggested these changes were made to accommodate a younger generation’s needs and desires. But they were not just responding to needs, because many also expressed the concern that “their influence has declined in recent decades” (140). Thus, these changes appear as an attempt to stop ministers’ declining influence. Instead of embracing this declension narrative, it may be helpful to normalize change and to highlight that as Black people’s circumstances have changed Black churches have responded. To offer just one example, historian of religion Lerone Martin highlights how, in the era of the Great Migration and the rise of consumer culture, northern Black Protestant elite also contended with the increased interest in sermons recorded on wax that featured downhome preaching. The ability to purchase sermons created a new feedback loop in the process of developing Black church leadership. Working outside of institutional decision-making structures, laypeople could decide which preachers they wanted to hear. In response some churches attempted to enter the market by creating their own recording labels. I raise this point just to affirm that church culture and practices have changed. Let’s embrace the adaptable nature of Black churches.
One area where change also impacts our understanding is in the nature of “the Black Church” itself as a political entity. The very title of Henry Louis Gates documentary, “The Black Church” affirms the existence of the same, even as historians Barbara Savage and Curtis Evans have deconstructed the idea. These historians suggest the concept came from a cluster of scholars of the early 20th century who wanted Black churches of the U.S. to use their institutional power and resources for the benefit of Black people. In short, the Black Church was an intellectual concept created to reflect largely Black Protestants’ focus on community uplift. In his book, The Divided Mind of the Black Church, US Senator, the Reverend Dr. Raphael Warnock argued that the Black Church did not emerge until it had a theology–a Black theology of liberation articulated by the late theologian James Cone. These studies argue the Black church emerged as a product of its social and political context. In concert, the Pew study and its participants suggest the Black Church was created in response to Jim Crow, asserting, “When segregation was the law of the land, Black churches—and later, mosques—served as important spaces of for racial solidarity and civic activity” (8). The idea of the role of the Black Church as fighting racial injustice both clarifies what makes the Black Church and limits our view of its deeper politics.
The study indexes the relationship between church and politics in a few ways. It explores the relationship between party affiliation and church attendance, measures attitudes about four issues–abortion, criminal justice reform, civic participation and immigration–and the role sermons may play in shaping these attitudes. This view of politics as party affiliation and as certain actions suggests Black churches are less politically mobilizing than white churches. There was no measurable increase and Democratic party affiliation for Black Protestants (87%) than the general Black public (84%) (127). By contrast, white people were more likely to affiliate with the Republican Party if they also attended church. So, the real political church is the white (evangelical) church, a point historian Luke Harlow advanced in Religion, Race, and the Making of Confederate Kentucky, 1830-1860. He argued that evangelical is a political affiliation that emerged during the Civil War era. But party affiliation may not be the best indicator of Black Church politics, as history has shown political parties to be not only strange, but also unreliable, bedfellows.
Digging deeper into activism might better locate Black religious politics. But here also, church attendance does not necessarily create more civic engagement. Black Protestants were only slightly more likely to have attended a meeting (24%) or contacted an elected official (21%) than non-affiliated people (15% and 16%, respectively) and much less likely than non-Christians to have participated in a protest (6% and 15%) (125). But before we write off the Black Church as an opiate to action, also consider the range of activities not explored, something reflected in the interviews with the pastors. Many of the ministers testified to the work their churches were doing around affordable housing, voter registration, and food insecurity (141). So perhaps broadening the scope of political action will reflect better the political involvement of Black churches.
Since Black churches change, we don’t need to create generational rifts, but bridges. Preachers’ attempts to meet the changing needs of their members is as much a part of the legacy of the Black Church as political leadership. Further, we need to look beyond Black churches’ electoral engagement to see that the politics of Black churches is local and contextual. Thus, the Pew study makes the case for expanding our inquiries and interpretations of the Black Church and its intersections with politics.