Shades of Black: Ethnic Diversity in Black American Religious Life
*This post is part of our online forum with the Pew Research Center.
Church Avenue is a vibrant commercial artery through Little Caribbean, a neighborhood with the largest concentration of Black Caribbean immigrants in New York City. Brooklyn gained its reputation as the borough of churches, a designation compromised by high rates of gentrification. It’s Sunday. I walk alongside families and individuals young and old headed towards their place of worship. The recorded audio of chapel bells from the Holy Cross Roman Catholic Church competes with the tinny drum cymbals and praise hymns funneled through the narrow doorways of storefront churches. This is the soundscape for churchgoing on any given Sunday in Brooklyn, NY.
Martin Luther King, Jr. remarked, “Sundays at noon is the most segregated hour in the U.S.” The Pew Research Center’s report “Faith Among Black Americans” is a window to the religious life of America’s darker hues. Historically, the report is not the first national mixed-method survey on the subject. In 1903, Black sociologist W.E.B. Dubois (along with Mary Church Terrell and Kelly Miller) published a report titled “The Negro Church” a sociological study on the “…religion of Negroes and its influence on their moral habits.”1 It included quantitative and anecdotal data on Black congregational life from census records, population studies, and local histories. It profiled the financial health of mainline Protestant denominations, members’ experiences of congregational life, their attitudes towards church leadership, and the extent to which the church responded to the pressing needs of Black people at the turn of the 20th century. Indeed, the core concerns of that time surrounded the problem of the color line and its impact on the lives of formerly enslaved Africans and their descendants. The defining features of the Black Church– the foundation of which was laid in the hush harbors, segregated pews, and revival meetings of the 19th century—continue to evolve.2 Over a century after “The Negro Church” was published, this report builds on the query: who and what is the Black Church?
This question remains salient in the 21st century. The Pew Report provides an in-depth view of the political, ethical, and cultural heterogeneity of Black American faith traditions. An achievement of this report is identifying Black Americans as US-born, Caribbean-born, and African-born; a necessary disaggregation given that Black migration to the U.S. increased five-fold since the 1980s and close to 90% of Black immigrants are from the Caribbean and Africa. Against this backdrop, centering the ethnic diversity of Black America is an important intervention in how we construct political agendas and advocacy strategies. According to the Pew report, African immigrants were more likely than Caribbean and U.S.-born Black Americans to say that religion is more important to them. This insight might inspire us to consider how community organizations can connect with religious institutions to offer political education and advocacy on issues relevant to African-born Americans. On the topic of sexuality and family life, African and Caribbean-born Americans were less likely to accept homosexuality as a social norm and were more supportive of traditional family norms. This data point provides some background on the political platform of Virginia’s lieutenant governor who is a naturalized American from Jamaica, a veteran, and a conservative Republican.
Another insight from the report is that African-born Catholics were more widely represented in Catholic churches than US-born Americans. Likewise, Black Catholics are more likely to hear sermons about abortion and immigration than Black Protestants.3 This aligns with the report’s finding that a greater percentage of African and Caribbean-born Americans choose their congregations based on inspiring sermons and the extent to which the church feels welcoming. While there is no causal evidence that hearing a sermon on civil rights and abortion would shift the hearer’s stance, the research indicates that listening to sermons on these topics prompted greater political engagement. Addressing the ethnic diversity within Black America, and more specifically Black religion, enables more nuanced analyses on key social issues.
The extent to which religious leaders are willing to directly address social issues has implications to how Black Americans (foreign and US-born) build coalitions and mobilize against injustice. The Repairers of the Breach organization is a prime example of a social movement with an expansive social justice agenda. Founded in 2015 by Reverend William Barber in Goldsboro, North Carolina, Repairers of the Breach organizes Moral Monday rallies and the Poor People’s Campaign. The organization’s work is grounded in the ethos that “the moral public concerns of our faith traditions are how our society treats the poor, women, LGBTQ people, children, workers, immigrants, communities of color, and the sick–the people whom Jesus calls ‘the least of these.’”
The Moral Monday marches, political rallies and educational outreach are unique for our time given the waning influence of Black churches in the political sphere since the Civil Rights Movement. Black clergy interviewed for the study concurred that though they still attend rallies, the decline of social activism, decreasing membership, gentrification and scandals have lessened the social, moral, and political impact of Black churches. Indeed, with the rising cost of living in urban areas which force Black residents to the margins of the city, it is difficult to build and sustain a vibrant political and social presence.
White gentrifiers introduce new challenges to normal church operations. A pastor of a church in Little Caribbean almost lost a license to hold outdoor services after a white lesbian couple protested the music and preaching near their apartment. Similarly, a white resident called the police to complain about church attendees’ parked cars on the sidewalk which was the norm for many years due to limited street parking. These examples suggest that a greater understanding of the shared and unique challenges confronting foreign, and U.S. born, Black Americans can provide opportunities for religious institutions and organizations to develop robust agendas for social and political advocacy. The report’s anecdotal and data driven insights on Black religious life substantiates the need for ongoing and revised initiatives within and amongst religious institutions to promote Black flourishing.
The report’s deep dive into the subtleties of Black religious life is a valuable point of entry into the diverse landscape of Black America. However, the study suffers from challenges that are characteristic of national studies of this sort. For example, contacting participants via mail, phone call, and online will have different rates of success depending on what sort of technology potential participants have at their disposal. The researchers sought to mitigate this by using all three methods to get a representative sample including census data to identify potential neighborhoods and followed up with focus groups. Several survey questions indicate that participants’ responses would lean towards narrowly defined perspectives about gender identity and family values.
For example, the survey offered binary options (male or female) for sexual identity, and there were no questions about gender identity. Including the latter would provide an interesting analysis on the relationship between Black religiosity and gender considering other findings in the report. The survey question asked respondents to identify who they believe should have most of the financial and caretaking responsibilities in the household. The options were limited to mother, father, or both equally. I wonder about the implications of this question for multigenerational or queer households, and non-Christian religious traditions in which spiritual/god-parents anchor the family structure. If the report seeks to demonstrate that “Black congregations are distinctive in numerous ways beyond just their racial makeup,” the survey questions should be formulated to include diverse sexual and gender identities and family structures.
The Pew Report on Black faith in the US is a tremendous undertaking. The religious leaders, scholars, and community respondents deepen our understanding of Black religious life in the US. The study is a lens to view the kaleidoscope of Black faith—its salience and impact on contemporary Black life.
- For a historical analysis of Dubois’ stance on Black religion see Savage, Barbara Dianne. “W. E. B. Du Bois and ‘The Negro Church.’” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 568 (2000): 235–49. ↩
- For a compelling and accessible analysis on the forms of African-American religion in U.S. history, see Raboteau, Albert J. A Fire in the Bones: Reflections on African-American Religious History. Boston, Mass: Beacon Press, 1995. ↩
- The Catholic Church has been at the lead of immigration advocacy since the 1980s. The “sanctuary movement” focused on the Latin American migrants seeking asylum in the United States. The movement was revitalized because of the draconian immigration measures under the Trump administration (see Barba, Lloyd, and Tatyana Castillo-Ramos. “Sacred Resistance: The Sanctuary Movement from Reagan to Trump.” Perspectivas, Hispanic Theological Initiative, no. 16 (2019). Notably, Black asylum-seekers were not and continue to be marginal in national religious organizing. The 2019 documentary film, Chèche Lavi (Looking for Life) poignantly foregrounds the experiences of two Haitian migrants living at the US-Mexico border. The Biden administration’s treatment of Haitian refugees at the US-Mexico border demonstrates continued antiblackness of the US immigration system and demonstrates the need for organizations such as the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) and the UndocuBlack Network. ↩