Survey Says Black and White Protestants Have More in Common Theologically Despite Church Segregation

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One of Martin Luther King Jr.’s most enduring statements regarding the church was his observation that “the most segregated hour of the week” was 11 a.m. on Sunday.

King’s commentary on how the modern church had failed to racially integrate in any meaningful way may be decades old; however, those who study religiosity in the United States continue to see the difficulty in bringing together Protestant traditions that have historically split along racial lines.

Anyone who has participated in both can immediately attest to the differences between a traditional evangelical worship service, such as at a Southern Baptist church, and a service at a historically black church, such as an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) congregation.

But, are those distinctions mostly stylistic? Do African American Protestants adopt a different theological perspective than their white counterparts? The data points to a simple reality: These two groups that seem so disparate on the surface actually have much more in common than either realize.

In 1984, the General Social Survey (GSS)—sociology’s gold standard due to its longevity and massive sample size—began asking respondents how they viewed the Bible, with responses ranging from “the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally” to “the Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by men.”

Image: Ryan P. Burge

The GSS findings reflect essentially two strains of theology in American Christianity. On the one hand, very few mainline Protestants and Catholics hold a literalist view of the Bible. Over the last 30 years, about 1 in 5 of each group would say the Bible is literally true.

On the other hand, significant majorities of both black Protestants and evangelical Protestants—90 percent of whom are white in the GSS survey—agree that the Bible should be taken literally.

In fact, for most of the span of the survey, black Protestants were actually more likely to believe in biblical literalism than their mostly white counterparts. As of 2016, approximately 3 in 5 black Protestants believe the Bible is literally true, which is not statistically distinct from the proportion for the survey’s evangelical Protestants overall.

Image: Ryan P. Burge

While Christians have recently renewed the debate over the term evangelical, the GSS queries Americans about another label often used in conjunction with it, born-again.

When asked about this term, the same pattern emerges. Catholics and mainline Protestants are much more hesitant to take on the label, while the GSS’s evangelical Protestants and black Protestants readily acknowledge that they have had “a turning point in their life when [they] committed [themselves] to Christ.” In the most recent wave of the GSS, conducted in 2016, over 80 percent of black Protestants affirmed their born-again status, slightly more than among its evangelical Protestants.

Together, this pair of questions gives the clear impression that black Protestants are just as willing to characterize themselves with major touchstones of evangelical Christianity: a high view of the Bible coupled with a born-again experience.

The similarities between evangelical Protestants and black Protestants in the GSS extend beyond religious beliefs to behavior. One example is the rate of church attendance, which is used as a barometer of religiosity.

The GSS has tracked the average attendance of these four major Christian groups in the United States going back to 1972.

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Source: Christianity Today