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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.
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.”