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.
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.