Is the Decline of Black Males in Black Churches Affecting their Abilities to Develop a Counter Frame?

This Sunday, I received my tri-monthly call from my guilt ridden mother in regards to her hope that I miraculously surprise her by showing up at her Baptist church. Beyond the fact that I decided to follow my father’s side of the family and become Roman Catholic in college (even though I rarely go today, I will never tell her), she is conscious (or at least I hope she is) of the fact that I do not like her church. In the past I jokingly have demonstrated to her my frustration with the church through my montage of skits that are full of high jinks clapping, foot stomping, “Amens, and brow wiping.” But still, she continues to push and hope. After the call, I decided to spend the rest of my morning finishing The White Racial Frame: Centuries of Racial Framing and Counter-Framing, by Joe Feagin. After reading the eloquently discussed topic of the abilities of people of color to combat the ever-present white racial construct through the utilization of constructing a counter frame to oppression, I began to reflect.

Greater File Chapel Baptist Church
Creative Commons License photo credit: Julia Manzerova

In particular, I reflected upon the book’s discussion of how the Black churches have been a source for enabling Blacks to construct a counter frame to the oppressive and racist barriers that are present within the U.S. My mind then became flooded with recollections of the past, and intricate codes for survival embedded within stories my wise grandmother told me as a child. She mentioned numerous times of how we, as Black people, relied upon Black churches for not only religious, but social salvation. I can remember every Sunday attempting new ways to avoid putting on my little suit and accompanying clip-on plaid bow-tie that my grandmother deemed cute. She was old-school. “If you do not go to church, you cannot be saved.” More importantly to me was the phrase, “If you do not go to church, your butt cannot play.” My grandmother grew up seeing the church as a place that provided a level of social support in a time where racism was as evident as the air that flowed through her lungs. It was a salvation for her when her brother was hung by the Klan in Mississippi. The church was a place to be replenished in faith. It was a place where an alternative message to the dominate White frame was proclaimed in a theatrical and moving fashion.

Today, there is a decline in the attendance in the Black church. Bishop Cecil Bishop, of an African Methodist Episcopal church noted that “[t]he church now is in the midst of a storm and the storm is worse than we thought it was…What you have is a growing number of people for whom the church doesn’t mean very much.” He goes on to state that younger generations, in particular Black males are declining in their numbers within the pews. In March of 2010, leadership from the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church gathered together and acknowledged the decline of attendance. Specifically they discussed the decline of Black males and social concerns that affect them (i.e., unemployment, incarceration, and etc.).

Controversial scholar, Jawanza Kunjufu, has asserted that the decline of Black males is due to the fact that religion is viewed by many Black males as too passive, soft, and full of too many emotions. Leon Podles, author of The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity (1999)theorizes how Christianity in general has “lost this masculine sense of a struggle against the forces within oneself, having been watered down to passionate feelings and emotional ecstasies that men find difficult to identify with.” Even though the clergy in most churches are males, Podles asserts that they have adapted their message toward females.

So the question arises; does the “Black Church” still provide the abilities to help Blacks, in particular Black males to construct a counter frame? My opinion will probably not win any nice replies within this blog, but it would seem that through the anecdotal conversations with other Black males, the Black church has lost a degree of that ability to help Black males. On average, Black leaders in these churches have lost what was so uniquely discussed in W.E.B. Du Bois essay, “The Faith of the Fathers.”He states, the leader as preacher is “the most unique personality developed by the Negro on American soil,” a man who “found his function as the healer of the sick, the interpreter of the Unknown, the comforter of the sorrowing, the supernatural avenger of wrong, and the one who rudely but picturesquely expressed the longing, disappointment, and resentment of a stolen and oppressed people” This beautiful description was evident within the great migration period to the civil rights movement era with people such Rev. Marin Luther King Jr., James Lawson, Ralph Abernathy; Wyatt T. Walker, and Andrew Young. Black churches once played a pivotal role in the crusade for social justice. Today, some scholars have described the church as dead in relation to past actions for countering the oppression and racism that are covertly illustrated within the U.S. All I really know is that as Bob Dylan sang, “For the times they are a-changin’.”

Religious Racism: Study Ties Organized Religion to Racist Attitudes

Each Sunday morning in the U.S., an estimated 40% of Americans (118 million) attend a weekly religious service.  We like to think that going to church makes us better – less racist – people, but does it?   A new study suggests just the opposite.

June 5/10: Casselman Church
(Creative Commons License photo credit: susanvg)

The new study offers evidence for a link between involvement in organized religion and racism.  The study, “Why Don’t We Practice What We Preach? A Meta-Analytic Review of Religious Racism,” was conducted by Deborah Hall (Duke University), David C. Matz (Augsburg College), and Wendy Wood (University of Southern California), and appears in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Review.  The authors analyzed data from 55 studies on religion and racism in America dating to the civil rights era.  Combined, the studies include more than 22,000 participants, mostly white and Protestant. The researchers looked not only at things like religious affiliation, church attendance and other participation but also at the motives behind their involvement to avoid clumping all religious adherents into a single category.  Racial prejudice was measured principally as self-reported attitudes and behaviors, such as preferred levels of social distance toward blacks and other minority groups.

As expected, the authors found a positive correlation between religious affiliation and racism.  Religious fundamentalism — the unwavering certainty in basic religious truths — correlated even more strongly with racist attitudes.   And, the authors looked exclusively at Christianity and did not consider other religious traditions.  The link among people who expressed purely spiritual pursuits as the motivating influence of religion was less clear.

The research highlights what researchers called “religion-racism paradox,” because – they speculate – deeply embedded in organized religion is the notion that one fundamental belief system is superior to all others. That kind of value judgment creates a kind of us-versus-them conflict, in which members of a religious group develop ethnocentric, even racist, attitudes toward anyone perceived as different.

Is part of the problem who we’re going to church with?   Perhaps if churches were more racially integrated then they wouldn’t foster racist attitudes.  The evidence suggests that, as Dr. Martin Luther King observed decades ago, Sunday morning is still the “most segregated hour” of the week.    A study by sociologist Michael Emerson showed that churches where 20 percent of members were of a racial minority comprised only 7 percent of U.S. congregations. Overall, 5 percent of Protestant churches and 15 percent of Roman Catholic churches were multi-racial.

However, sociologist Scott Thumma found that megachurches, in the 2005 “Megachurches Today” study, may be shifting the racial composition of some Christian churches.  In his study, 35%  of megachurches claimed to have congregations composed of 20% or more folks of color.  And, 56% of megachurches said they were making an intentional effort to become multi-racial.

Still, integrating churches by calling on people of color to step inside predominantly-white churches is perhaps not the best solution.   As an anonymous contributor to this blog noted recently, “People of color who have taken the leap of faith to join white churches usually find those churches to be houses of racialized pain, and suffer many wounds as a result.”

In the U.S., Christianity and white racism are cultural institutions that reinforce one another.  If people in those churches want to be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem, when it comes to racism, it seems that we need to reflect on how to change the practices of Sunday mornings as a first step to changing the larger society.