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.


  1. No1KState

    In college, I regularly attended 2 multiracial churches. At one, which I’ll call Holy Cross, the pastor was and most of the congregation were black. (Billy Graham’s granddaughter was my Sunday school teacher’s wife at the first church! Wow! That was hot!) The other church, which I’ll call Potter’s House, had 2k members and a black pastor on staff. I became connected to both churches by way of friends in the contextualized campus ministry I joined (I’ll call it Context.), and some friends I had made who were members of another multicultural campus ministry. Context was contextualized to black religious culture. The other was, I’m sure, multiracial cause it was supported by Potter’s House. I just can’t think of having met in white students off the top of my head; though, I’m sure I must have. Most of the white Christians I met on campus were part of the mainstream, 99.99% white campus ministries like InterVarsity.

    Also, Potter’s House has an interesting history. It was started by some folks who became friends during college. They met each other in a campus ministry, stayed in the area after graduation; and being too old to stay in the campus ministry, decided to start a church. So . . . there’s something to multiracial campus ministries directly or indirectly leading to multiracial churches.

    One Sunday, I went with some girls I knew from high school to the church at Duke. It was soooooooo, soooooo boring!! It gave me a headache!

    Now, the bad “news.” I wanted to discuss the good stuff first.

    In high school, I arranged for the chamber choir to sing at my church. We had sung at a couple of white churches already. The acoustics at that church are well known as incredible; my black choirmates felt at home; and we sounded AMAZING! And, excuse my black church-ese, the Spirit fell in that place.

    . . . The next day, my white classmates told me they had been scared witless and would never attend a black church again.

    So, my points? When it comes to mainstream denominations, black and white folks just don’t worship alike. And like the anonymous commenter said, we’re tired of carrying the burden of “integrating” churches. Personally, having been the only black student, or one of two or three, during the school week, church was my santuary, literally. I was a transfer student, so couldn’t hang out with black classmates after school or anything; and Sunday was my one day a week to be black. I didn’t have to worry about how I spoke. I didn’t have to worry about walking the tight rope of taking classes with white students without alienating fellow minority students. I had no intentions of integrating any church or encouraging my white classmates, even prior to the aforementioned incident, to integrate my. And I don’t apologize for that. And the only reason I felt comfortable attending the multiracial churches is that they were, in fact, multiracial.

    That’s one point. Another point is style of worship. Duke’s church gave me a headache. My church apparently scarred my white classmates. A church that’s not predominantly black has to be able to cater to our traditional style of worship. The black folks who would join a multiracial church probably won’t shout/dance a hole in your carpet; but you gotta throw in some Kirk Franklin and Donnie McCurklin every now and them!

    Lastly, I just wanna touch on Jessie’s point about the superior belief system. Christianity necessarily involves a claim of exclusivity. While I dare not argue against that, I do think it’s important to realize that there’s no “one” way to live out your faith. And I think that’s where conflict comes in as far as tension between the black Church and the white Church, especially white fundamentalists. It seems they’ve joined the exclusivity to racial superiority and come up with a hot mess! Combine that little actual interaction with people of color and in-group preference and you end up with religious racism.


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