Contributor Post Created with Sketch. Church in a Post-Racial America

 

When the Reverend Wright Story broke in 2008, I was taken aback by then-Senator Obama’s offhand reference to church being the “most segregated hour” in American life; I was even more surprised to learn that the comment was a variation on a quote from Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. In my own experience — admittedly, hardly representative — church had been one of the places I was most likely to interact with people less pasty white than I. Was the quote simply antiquated? A lie? Was I missing something?

To shed some light on the matter, I commend to your attention this study led by University of Connecticut researchers regarding racial inclusivity in American churches. Their findings were remarkable, if not terribly surprising. To wit, Mainline Protestant churches — despite being more politically liberal and likely to hold racial diversity as an explicit value — were more racially monolithic than either Evangelical or Catholic churches and more likely to treat potential congregants differently based on their apparent race. Equally of interest, Evangelicals — the most politically conservative and least likely to be openly interested in racial diversity — were the most racially diverse and showed the lowest disparity in response. Catholics were generally a close second.

The finding regarding response– the actual subject of their rather puckish experiment — was based on how churches responded to emails expressing interest in attending service, with the sole variable being the name of the supposed inquirer. As described in the paper:

A key manipulation in this project is the perceived race and ethnicity of the email authors, whom we labeled “characters.” We designated the race of each character on the signature line by utilizing given names and surnames that signaled likely racial or ethnic identities of the characters as follows: “white” (Scott Taylor, Greg Murphy); “black” (Jamal Washington, Tyrone Jefferson);“Hispanic” (Carlos Garcia, Jose Hernandez); or “Asian” (Wen-Lang Li, Jong-Soo Kim). We created two names for each racial/ethnic identity to offset idiosyncratic responses to specific names.

We created separate name-identified email accounts for each of the characters … [and] used these accounts to send the emails described above to a nationally representative sample of churches between May and July 2010. These email accounts were then used to collect the responses of church officials. We received many responses from the churches on the same day we sent the emails; in other cases, responses came several weeks later, often with an apology for the slow response.

The results:

In testing [our first hypothesis], Christian churches, as a whole, responded more frequently and more fully to inquiries with white-sounding names. In testing [our second hypothesis], we found that it was primarily mainline Protestant churches that showed significant variation by race in both the quantity and quality of their responses. They responded most frequently and most welcomingly to emails with white-sounding names, followed by black and Hispanic names, followed by Asian names. There was variation, however, across the five mainline denominations that we analyzed. Evangelical Protestant and Catholic churches showed little to no variation in their response rates and moderate variation in the quality of their responses.

The paper offers some interesting speculation as to why this might be the case. Mainline Protestant churches are more likely to have historical ties to specific European nations and ethnicities (think of the overlap between being Lutheran and of German descent) compared to either Catholics or Evangelicals, and that the latter’s theological emphasis on the importance of one’s individual relationship with Christ is more congruent with outreach that crosses racial lines than other approaches (“Want to know Jesus? Cool! You should come to our church!” works better in this context than “Want to know about our church? Cool! You’ll get to know Jesus!”).

Next time liberals trot out the “most segregated hour” horse, you might want to mention this research. And if you want to have some fun at their expense, just refer to it as “the latest science.”

There are 40 comments.

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  1. Misthiocracy held his nose and Member
    Misthiocracy held his nose and Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    a) Does the study indicate whether churches which are majority-white have a higher percentage of “other” than churches that are majority-nonwhite? Maybe Obama thinks churches are segregated because he just happened to attend churches that only allowed one ethnicity?

    b) Churches which are dominated by a single ethnicity aren’t necessarily “bad”. The local Coptic church (which is beautiful, and has a very lovely service and great music, and is attended by awesome, awesome people) doesn’t get many white people, but then again the service is in Arabic. Ditto for the local Korean Catholic church.

    • #1
    • October 30, 2015, at 10:09 AM PDT
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  2. Tom Meyer, Common Citizen Contributor

    Misthiocracy: a) Does the study indicate whether churches which are majority-white have a higher percentage of “other” than churches that are majority-nonwhite?

    No, not that I saw. The paper largely excluded Black churches. Hey, is that discrimination?

    Misthiocracy: b) Churches which are dominated by a single ethnicity aren’t necessarily “bad”. The local Coptic church (which is beautiful, and has a very lovely service and great music, and is attended by awesome, awesome people) doesn’t get many white people, but then again the service is in Arabic. Ditto for the local Korean Catholic church.

    Oh, I totally agree. The paper was, under the circumstances, surprisingly balanced on the subject of whether or not it’s something churches should pursue, and pretty up-front about the potential difficulties and costs.

    • #2
    • October 30, 2015, at 10:16 AM PDT
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  3. Misthiocracy held his nose and Member
    Misthiocracy held his nose and Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:

    Misthiocracy: a) Does the study indicate whether churches which are majority-white have a higher percentage of “other” than churches that are majority-nonwhite?

    No, not that I saw. The paper largely excluded Black churches. Hey, is that discrimination?

    It may not be discrimination, but it’s a major academic/journalistic facepalm.

    • #3
    • October 30, 2015, at 11:17 AM PDT
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  4. Misthiocracy held his nose and Member
    Misthiocracy held his nose and Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:

    Misthiocracy: b) Churches which are dominated by a single ethnicity aren’t necessarily “bad”. The local Coptic church (which is beautiful, and has a very lovely service and great music, and is attended by awesome, awesome people) doesn’t get many white people, but then again the service is in Arabic. Ditto for the local Korean Catholic church.

    Oh, I totally agree. The paper was, under the circumstances, surprisingly balanced on the subject of whether or not it’s something churches should pursue, and pretty up-front about the potential difficulties and costs.

    On the other hand, any church which doesn’t have a “Everyone Welcome” policy is suffering from major facepalm.

    • #4
    • October 30, 2015, at 11:20 AM PDT
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  5. Spin Coolidge
    Spin Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Tom Meyer, Ed.: the most politically conservative and least likely to be openly interested in racial diversity

    This is a lie. Just sayin’…

    • #5
    • October 30, 2015, at 11:32 AM PDT
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  6. DrewInWisconsin, Negative Infl… Coolidge

    Spin:

    Tom Meyer, Ed.: the most politically conservative and least likely to be openly interested in racial diversity

    This is a lie. Just sayin’…

    I think the key phrase is “openly interested in racial diversity.” And I agree. I’m just not openly interested in it. Or really interested at all. I neither promote it nor attempt to prevent it. It just is. It just happens.

    And my experience is like Tom’s: the place it happens most is at church — ours being an evangelical protestant church.

    • #6
    • October 30, 2015, at 11:47 AM PDT
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  7. Matthew Gilley Inactive

    Ugh. Please keep anything ending in “-ology” away from my church. Even theology.

    • #7
    • October 30, 2015, at 11:53 AM PDT
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  8. Misthiocracy held his nose and Member
    Misthiocracy held his nose and Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Spin:

    Tom Meyer, Ed.: the most politically conservative and least likely to be openly interested in racial diversity

    This is a lie. Just sayin’…

    With the caveat that I didn’t actually read the study, I would wager that they’re playing the “preferential definition game”.

    It’s easy to show that an organization isn’t “openly interested” in something when you get to define what it means to be “openly interested”.

    Evengelical churches, by definition, have as part of their mission the act of going out into the community and recruiting new members. The mainline denominations, by contrast, are far more likely to expect members to come to them (not exclusively so, of course, but in general).

    As such, it could easily be argued that if mainline churches aren’t “openly interested” in recruiting in general, then it would be perfectly natural that their lack of interest would also include (or not include, as it were) ethnic minorities. Rather than being actively excluded, mainline churches include minorities within their general inactivity. Totally inclusive policy, that.

    It’s kinda like saying that someone that doesn’t give any money to charity disproportionately doesn’t give to specific charities, or someone that doesn’t hand out candy at Halloween disproportionately doesn’t hand out a particular type of candy.

    Zero is not divisible, folks!

    • #8
    • October 30, 2015, at 11:55 AM PDT
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  9. Manny Member

    There just aren’t that many black Catholics in the United States. According to this only 3% of Catholics identify as black. I bet most of them are in Louisiana. We have a few African-Americans in our parish. We certainly welcome them all. Protestant churches seem to segregate themselves. But I can’t speak to that with any knowledge.

    But isn’t that Obama comment rich, coming from a guy who spent 20+ years in Rev Wright’s racist church?

    • #9
    • October 30, 2015, at 11:55 AM PDT
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  10. Misthiocracy held his nose and Member
    Misthiocracy held his nose and Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Matthew Gilley:Ugh. Please keep anything ending in “-ology” away from my church. Even theology.

    Some might argue that North American Christianity is suffering from a dearth of biology.

    ;-)

    • #10
    • October 30, 2015, at 11:59 AM PDT
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  11. livingtheLoneStarlife Inactive

    Did the study evaluate worship style? Southern black churches have a different worship style than many more conservative mainline Protestant and Evangelical churches.

    Sometimes it’s less about race and more about style of worship, speaking style, and general demeanor (sit quietly and listen vs. demonstrative approval) of the congregation.

    • #11
    • October 30, 2015, at 12:02 PM PDT
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  12. Tom Meyer, Common Citizen Contributor

    Spin: This is a lie. Just sayin’…

    I might have chosen my language imprecisely here.

    The gist was that whereas Mainline denominations are more likely to explicitly cite racial diversity, Evangelicals were less likely to put the matter in writing. In practice, however, they were much more effective at it.

    That certainly seemed right to me.

    • #12
    • October 30, 2015, at 12:08 PM PDT
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  13. Larry3435 Member

    In addition to wondering about what kind of response primarily Black churches would have given to potential congregant Whitey McMayonaise, I also wonder what the results would have been if the study had controlled for average income in the zip code where the church was located. Raw correlations, without controlling for obviously significant variables, are more useful in confirming pre-existing biases than they are in revealing truth.

    • #13
    • October 30, 2015, at 12:08 PM PDT
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  14. Amy Schley, Longcat Shrinker Moderator

    How were the churches selected? The small town where I went to high school and the smaller town where I currently go to church are 90+% white. While I doubt there’s any overt racism from the pastors (one of them is my mom, after all), non-English/German names are going to raise doubts about whether the sender is looking for a new church home in their community or is an outsider possibly looking for a handout. (e.g. we know all seven residents descended from Pacific Islanders, and none of them go to our church. If Mom received a letter out of the blue from someone with a Hawaiian sounding name, the assumption is going to be some kind of scam. She’d probably respond anyway, but would be more guarded.)

    Second, I think some of what one sees in the mainline Protestant churches is a focus on liberal goals instead of the gospel. If one is preaching the Word, people of all colors and backgrounds will come and be welcome. If one is focusing on being diverse, one is likely to either smother diversity guests with attention or water down one’s teachings to something that doesn’t appeal to the real spiritual needs of anyone.

    I found selling shoes that people of color take church, if not religion, much more seriously than the average white person. A white kid’s “church shoe” is a brown chukka; a black or hispanic kid’s is formal dress shoe.

    • #14
    • October 30, 2015, at 12:24 PM PDT
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  15. Spin Coolidge
    Spin Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Misthiocracy: It’s easy to show that an organization isn’t “openly interested” in something when you get to define what it means to be “openly interested”.

    Well, it’s Tom’s words, so maybe he can define what he means.

    • #15
    • October 30, 2015, at 12:32 PM PDT
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  16. Spin Coolidge
    Spin Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:

    Spin: This is a lie. Just sayin’…

    I might have chosen my language imprecisely here.

    The gist was that whereas Mainline denominations are more likely to explicitly cite racial diversity, Evangelicals were less likely to put the matter in writing. In practice, however, they were much more effective at it.

    That certainly seemed right to me.

    Ok. I figured that is what you mean, I was just having fun.

    • #16
    • October 30, 2015, at 12:33 PM PDT
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  17. Spin Coolidge
    Spin Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Spin:

    Misthiocracy: It’s easy to show that an organization isn’t “openly interested” in something when you get to define what it means to be “openly interested”.

    Well, it’s Tom’s words, so maybe he can define what he means.

    I made this comment before I saw Tom’s clarification.

    • #17
    • October 30, 2015, at 12:33 PM PDT
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  18. Hartmann von Aue Member

    Spin:

    Tom Meyer, Ed.: the most politically conservative and least likely to be openly interested in racial diversity

    This is a lie. Just sayin’…

    It’s the lie built into their research assumptions. But like Tom and others here, I have found in 20+ years of moving in Charismatic-Pentacostal and recently Catholic circles that it has not been true in at least that long, probably a lot longer. I used to love baiting the diversity goon of the week who would ask “where do you go to feel like a minority?” by responding “Church.”

    • #18
    • October 30, 2015, at 1:21 PM PDT
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  19. Matthew Gilley Inactive

    Misthiocracy:

    Matthew Gilley:Ugh. Please keep anything ending in “-ology” away from my church. Even theology.

    Some might argue that North American Christianity is suffering from a dearth of biology.

    ;-)

    Touche.

    • #19
    • October 30, 2015, at 1:24 PM PDT
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  20. Douglas Inactive

    I wouldn’t worry about liberals using the “churches are segregated” nonsense much longer. They’ve reached the stage in the Alinsky plan where it’s time to eliminate the churches. And they’ve done an excellent job convincing the young that churches are a racist/classist/bigot *etc*etc*insert liberal buzzword here* waste of time, a dinosaur that finally needs to be extinct because it stands in the way of the next glorious phase of progress. They don’t need the Christ when they have the god king at 1600 Penn. They don’t need Peter when they’ve got Stephen Colbert. They don’t need Paul when they have Neil deGrasse Tyson.

    • #20
    • October 30, 2015, at 1:33 PM PDT
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  21. Guruforhire Member

    I liked the Black-ish episode about going to white church. How the styles didn’t match and cultural differences lead to them not liking it much. The white couple also didn’t like the Black church much either. Stylistic differences. We left the show feeling like we could be ourselves and not force ourselves to like things just because.

    • #21
    • October 30, 2015, at 1:37 PM PDT
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  22. Vance Richards Member
    Vance Richards Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    My church has more ethnic diversity than any other place I’ve been. Much more diverse than in the corporate world that preaches diversity with religious fervor.

    There is one thing I have noticed recently. Several years ago I would have said that the majority of the black people in our church were from Africa (actually from Africa, not African-American) or the islands. Now we have many more black Americans. This is a conservative Evangelical church. I believe some of our new African-American members left traditional black churches that because Left leaning politics were starting to take priority over the Gospel in those churches. That has gotten worse, or so I have been told, during the Obama years. Not sure how widespread that is, but I have been told that by several people.

    • #22
    • October 30, 2015, at 1:39 PM PDT
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  23. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    Amy Schley: I found selling shoes that people of color take church, if not religion, much more seriously than the average white person. A white kid’s “church shoe” is a brown chukka; a black or hispanic kid’s is formal dress shoe.

    Didn’t know what a chukka was, so looked it up. You mean shiny leather chukkas aren’t dress shoes? Shrug.

    My church shoes were shiny plastic (“patent leather”) mary-janes bought for pennies at garage sales and resale shops. What was the point, after all, of spending much money on a children’s shoe when children grow out of their shoes so fast? Plus, their discomfort helped teach me that life – and particularly church – was stern and earnest, and not around for my good feelz.

    On the other hand, the used car we bought that had had a relatively poor Hispanic family as the prior owners also had a pair of Donna Karan baby shoes (what do babies who can’t even walk need shoes for?) forgotten in the trunk. Maybe some subcultures just prize fancy shoes more than others?

    I’d add, though, that the only guy I know who ironed his church clothes (even his underwear) faithfully every Saturday night was from Trinidad. That argues against it just being a shoe thing.

    • #23
    • October 30, 2015, at 1:55 PM PDT
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  24. Misthiocracy held his nose and Member
    Misthiocracy held his nose and Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    livingthehighlife:Did the study evaluate worship style? Southern black churches have a different worship style than many more conservative mainline Protestant and Evangelical churches.

    Sometimes it’s less about race and more about style of worship, speaking style, and general demeanor (sit quietly and listen vs. demonstrative approval) of the congregation.

    That’s just white privilege talking.

    • #24
    • October 30, 2015, at 2:24 PM PDT
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  25. Misthiocracy held his nose and Member
    Misthiocracy held his nose and Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Guruforhire:I liked the Black-ish episode about going to white church.How the styles didn’t match and cultural differences lead to them not liking it much.The white couple also didn’t like the Black church much either.Stylistic differences.We left the show feeling like we could be ourselves and not force ourselves to like things just because.

    To be fair, simply not liking a ceremony isn’t necessarily the only reason to stay away from a particular church.

    When I first experienced a Coptic church service, I loved it. I would really like to try it again, but I’d feel like a religious tourist interloping on another culture’s most sacred ceremony.

    I mean, mentally I know they’d be totally welcoming, but I’d still feel like I was imposing.

    (The fact that I don’t speak the language isn’t the point. After all, I’d have zero problem attending a latin mass.)

    • #25
    • October 30, 2015, at 2:35 PM PDT
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  26. Misthiocracy held his nose and Member
    Misthiocracy held his nose and Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Amy Schley: I found selling shoes that people of color take church, if not religion, much more seriously than the average white person. A white kid’s “church shoe” is a brown chukka; a black or hispanic kid’s is formal dress shoe.

    “Heaven hath no dress code.”

    • #26
    • October 30, 2015, at 2:37 PM PDT
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  27. Amy Schley, Longcat Shrinker Moderator

    Misthiocracy:

    Amy Schley: I found selling shoes that people of color take church, if not religion, much more seriously than the average white person. A white kid’s “church shoe” is a brown chukka; a black or hispanic kid’s is formal dress shoe.

    “Heaven hath no dress code.”

    Heaven doesn’t, but people who think business casual or outright casual is appropriate for church tend not feel comfortable in churches where dress clothes are expected, and vice versa. And since there is a strong racial correlation with what clothes are appropriate for church, it shouldn’t be surprising that there’s a self-segregation going on.

    • #27
    • October 30, 2015, at 2:43 PM PDT
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  28. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:The results:

    …Christian churches, as a whole, responded more frequently and more fully to inquiries with white-sounding names… we found that it was primarily mainline Protestant churches that showed significant variation by race in both the quantity and quality of their responses… Evangelical Protestant and Catholic churches showed little to no variation in their response rates and moderate variation in the quality of their responses.

    Perhaps I just have a terrible name, or am really horrid at cold e-mailing church people, but I have never gotten a response e-mailing a church which I didn’t already have some connection to in some way. When I first moved to where I am now, I tried for a while, but eventually gave up in discouragement. Possibly I just haven’t e-mailed enough Evangelical or Catholic churches?

    My experience, anyhow, is that many churches are simply averse to electronic inquiries from perfect strangers. Simply showing up in person (or at least being a friend of a friend) is a better way to get a church person’s attention. In a way, this makes sense. Most churches aren’t exactly known for being at the cutting edge of communication technology (even one as old as e-mail).

    I’d agree with Misthiocracy that churches whose mission is evangelism, or who, as the Catholic church does, consider each congregation just one branch of a monolithic, worldwide, hierarchical whole, would likely be more welcoming to an unfamiliar name.

    • #28
    • October 30, 2015, at 2:54 PM PDT
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  29. Tom Meyer, Common Citizen Contributor

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake: Perhaps I just have a terrible name, or am really horrid at cold e-mailing church people, but I have never gotten a response e-mailing a church which I didn’t already have some connection to in some way. When I first moved to where I am now, I tried for a while, but eventually gave up in discouragement. Possibly I just haven’t e-mailed enough Evangelical or Catholic churches?

    “Hi, I’m a snake! May I come into your garden?” :)

    • #29
    • October 30, 2015, at 3:01 PM PDT
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  30. Misthiocracy held his nose and Member
    Misthiocracy held his nose and Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Amy Schley:

    Misthiocracy:

    Amy Schley: I found selling shoes that people of color take church, if not religion, much more seriously than the average white person. A white kid’s “church shoe” is a brown chukka; a black or hispanic kid’s is formal dress shoe.

    “Heaven hath no dress code.”

    Heaven doesn’t, but people who think business casual or outright casual is appropriate for church tend not feel comfortable in churches where dress clothes are expected, and vice versa. And since there is a strong racial correlation with what clothes are appropriate for church, it shouldn’t be surprising that there’s a self-segregation going on.

    On the other hand, it could also explain why you see more devoutly Christian bikers than devoutly-Christian hip-hop enthusiasts.

    I’m just sayin…

    • #30
    • October 30, 2015, at 3:04 PM PDT
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