The intersection of race and religion has played an important role in the civic lives of Black Americans for more than two centuries. From hosting antebellum abolitionist meetings to serving as centers for social movements in the mid-20th century, Black houses of worship have often been the foundation from which public battles for freedom and racial equality have been waged. At the same time, race plays a fundamental and complex role in the religious and personal lives of Black adults, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey.
This analysis of the role race and religion play for Black Americans draws on a survey conducted from Nov. 19, 2019, to June 3, 2020, among 8,660 Black adults. The study is Pew Research Center’s most comprehensive, in-depth attempt to explore religion among Black Americans. Survey respondents were recruited from four nationally representative sources: Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel (conducted online), NORC’s AmeriSpeak panel (conducted online or by phone), Ipsos’ KnowledgePanel (conducted online) and a national cross-sectional survey by Pew Research Center (conducted online and by mail).
Opposing racism is an integral part of religious identity for many Black adults. Three-quarters of Black Americans say that opposing racism is essential to their faith or sense of morality, a view that extends across faith traditions. Those who say that being Black is a very important part of their personal identity (78%) are more likely than those for whom being Black is less important (70%) to view opposition to racism this way.
The majority of Black Protestants – regardless of the race of their congregations – along with Black Catholics and other Christians, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Orthodox Christians and other groups, say that opposing racism is essential to what being a Christian means to them. Likewise, the majority of Black non-Christians – including Muslims, adherents of traditional African or Afro-Caribbean religions and other groups – say that opposing racism is essential to what their faith means to them (82%). And 71% of Black religiously unaffiliated adults say that opposing racism is essential to their sense of morality.
While race factors significantly into what Black Americans’ faith means to them, it is also a key component of their personal identities. Two-thirds of Black adults say being Black is a very important part of how they think about themselves. Black Protestants (70%) are somewhat more likely than Catholics (60%) and the religiously unaffiliated (62%) to say that being Black is a very important part of their personal identity. Among Protestants, three-quarters of those who attend Black churches (76%) say that being Black is very important to how they think of themselves, as do 65% of those who go to multiracial churches and 56% of those who attend churches where most are White or another race.
While race is important to many Black Americans’ personal identities and faith, large numbers of Black Americans are open to increased diversity in historically Black congregations. About six-in-ten Black Americans say that historically Black congregations should try to “become more racially and ethnically diverse,” while a third say historically Black congregations should try to “preserve their traditional racial character.”
Black adults who say that being Black is a very important part of how they think of themselves (37%) are more likely than those for whom being Black is less important (26%) to say that Black congregations should preserve their traditional racial character. Black Protestants and Catholics have similar views on whether Black congregations should diversify. Black Protestants who attend churches where White people or some other racial or ethnic group make up the majority are only slightly more likely than those who attend Black churches to say that Black congregations should diversify (69% vs. 62%, respectively).
When asked what sorts of things they would prioritize if they were to find themselves looking for a new congregation, few Black adults would prioritize race. Only 14% of Black Americans say it would be “very important” to them to find a house of worship with Black senior religious leaders, and a similar share (13%) says it would be “very important” to find a congregation where most attendees are Black. While about one-in-five say each of these factors is “somewhat important,” most Black adults say these factors are either “not too important” or “not at all important.” In contrast, eight-in-ten Black Americans say it would be very important for houses of worship to have welcoming congregations.
A small share of Black adults who view being Black as a very important part of their identity say factors like having a Black congregation would be very important in their search for a new house of worship. Even so, they are more likely than those for whom being Black is less important to say that congregations that have Black leadership (18% vs. 6%, respectively) and Black members (16% vs. 5%) would be very important in a new church.
Black Protestants are somewhat more likely than Black Catholics to say that if they were looking for a new congregation, it would be very important to them that most attendees and religious leaders were Black. Still, relatively small shares of Protestants who attend different types of congregations would prioritize the race of attendees and religious leaders if they were searching for a new church.