While organized religion may be declining in the U.S. (specifically Christianity), the practice has always had a stronger hold in the Black Community than I think many realize. I have a theory about the U.S. decline, sure, but I’ll leave that out of this post and focus solely on the realities of religion in my Black Experience.
Today I’d like to explore the role that religion plays in Black American Culture. I will briefly discuss its historical significance, review findings from a mainstream study that’s often cited, and close with what I’ve experienced personally. Religion is not only an accessible source of belonging for many Black People, but it’s also a platform of massive social influence within the community on many levels.
A Quick Look at History
Black Churches were one of the first forms of social indoctrination allowed to Black People during times of slavery. I figure that’s a good place to start because I want people reading to realize how rooted religion (again, specifically Christianity) is rooted in the Black Culture.
In a previous post I did focused on History, I created a timeline with two early-on significant bullet points: 1619 (the symbolic year that slavery of Black People came to America) & 1793 (the rise of the Cotton Industry). Look at the years mentioned in this quote from a PBS article examining the history of the Black Church in America.
So, before Black People were allowed to do ANYTHING else in America, we were granted permission to worship a Christian God as He was taught to us.
Think about that.
I believe the intention was to institute yet another form of social-control while establishing a hierarchy that enforced that (mental/spiritual) control among the slaves themselves – making us slightly more manageable. That is just my opinion.
But, we did other things. As is typical of my people, my ancestors took that ball and ran with it.
That same quote goes on to point out that, “No story spoke more powerfully to slaves than the story of Exodus, with its themes of bondage and liberation brought by a righteous and powerful God who would one day set them free.” I always felt like one scene from 1997’s Amistad masterfully depicted this draw of Christianity to the enslaved (I just thought that it was a toss-in movie scene and not really anything historically accurate — haha [insert “The More You Know” jingle])…
But I digress. The point is that Christianity became a place of refuge from the daily struggles the enslaved endured. A source of motivation, not a source of control (as intended). Black slaves would meet up in “hush harbors” (think places off deep in dark forests hidden away from their master’s watchful eyes and ears) to worship in a way that blended their more tribal original worshipping practices from their homeland with their newly taught (and appreciated) Christian philosophies. I like to tell myself THIS is why attending Black Church can be a surreal experience for a White person.
Anyway, that’s the first point I wanted to make about religion and Black Culture. It was with us from the beginning, and that carried certain social implications down the line.
Religious Involvement & Community Impact
Black People are more likely to believe in God, more likely to say religion is important, more likely to pray daily, and more likely to attend a religious service at least once a week than other racial groups in the U.S. according to the 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Study from Pew Research Center (that’s the most recent year, they conduct this study every few years).
And it’s worth noting that religious Black People are overwhelmingly Christian (we aren’t all Christian, but many of us are), representing 79% of the mixture of beliefs (for the record: I hate that it says “Blacks”). That is a higher percentage than the composition of any other group present in the study and over-indexes the average of All Adults. (Hispanic Americans admittedly come in a close second)
While these numbers are admittedly old, the current-ish state of Christianity in America can be gleaned from the first article I linked to in this post (as it has figures from 2018/2019).
I bring up this point from a more-researched perspective because I want you to objectively consider the significance of the role religion plays in Black Culture.
Many of our major leaders were, or are, rooted in religious origin (Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcom X, Minister Louis Farrakhan, Rev. Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson).
When politicians campaign to Black America, it’s a common practice for them to come to the pulpits of Black Churches (something that I’ve personally never appreciated).
The song that I chose to write today’s post to was “the first gospel song to be a hit single in the 1960s” but it wasn’t the last. The public’s adoration of Kanye West grew in part because of his song “Jesus Walks”. It was so popular that he did not just one, but two versions of a music video for a single song.
While Black men are being arrested and brutalized now and throughout U.S. History, diminished in the eyes of certain pockets of the public. They have been leaders of multitudes of Black Americans through centuries in the church. Black women have risen in those ranks as well.
Social standards among Black Culture have been set in the church (although I do think the impact of that is diminishing), and when no one else stands for the social advancement of Black People — historically — those movements have started in our churches as key points of organization within the community. Even for non-believers.
I am not saying that Black Churches are the “end all – be all” for social impact among Black People, but I am saying that you’d have to be in denial to downplay its significance.
Closing on a Personal Note
I am not the biggest church attendee now (I go to church when I go home, but I don’t regularly attend when I’m not in Kansas City), but I grew up in the Baptist church. My father was a deacon who still regularly attends. My mother was involved in multiple groups within every church we’ve ever attended. I first met my best male friend in church.
I can’t pretend that Black Churches are perfect by any means. I have my personal opinion on a number of views that are pushed in Black church organizations across America (and I think a number of younger Black church-goers also have their own set of views), but I do count myself as one of the faithful.
Church has given me some of the most vital lessons I’ve learned in life that are core to who I am (such as when my hometown pastor preached that “God appreciates ‘your try'” in a sermon I’ll never forget) while exposing me to many different types of people. In church I’ve come across Black success and poverty. I have learned an appreciation for the wisdom of my elders while also valuing the example that I personally set for our youth.
Church has given me a VAST sense of community within my culture, but from outside my culture as well.
And I don’t think I’m the only one. In fact, I know I’m not.
I have gone through waves of emotions at church in front of hundreds of people. Been celebrated and disciplined. Expanded my business acumen there, and found very deep real connections with my history. I have learned grace and acceptance through what Black Church instilled in me.
I felt personally hurt, attacked, and outraged when a maniac went into a peaceful Black Church in Charleston, S.C. in 2015 and killed 9 people for no damn reason (and my coworkers knew, too — I was on edge the following day). Still, the lessons I learned in the church helped me manage that day.
It is a part of who I am, and I don’t apologize for it. It is a big portion of my personal growth and maturity over time, and I don’t look down on anyone who doesn’t also have that same link.
Even if I’m not physically in the building as often as I used to be, I still pray nightly and go through spurts of diving through my Bible. I was taught that you don’t just “go to the church” but that “you are the church” – and I take that charge seriously.
There isn’t much else to say beyond that. Just offering up a few personal notes because I know that my experience in that isn’t unique — this is a huge part of Black America.
Peace, and thanks for reading.
The soundtrack for this post provided by…
– Cover Image © Christy Thompson (Shutterstock)
– Body Image 1 © fitzcrittle (Shutterstock)
– Body Image 2 © Pew Research Center