Study shows Blacks connection to church

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A new study by Pew Research Center explores the religious identities, beliefs and practices of Black Americans, and includes immigrants as well as U.S.-born adults. The report analyzes the religious affiliations of Black Americans, the kinds of congregations they attend, what they look for in those congregations and what social and political topics they hear about from their clergy. It assesses differences between Black adults who belong to Gen Z (born after 1996) and earlier generations. It delves into differing views on the racial diversity of houses of worship and the centrality of race in the Black religious experience. It also gauges Black Americans’ views on gender, sexuality, abortion and other social and political issues, and analyzes how those views are related to religion.

This is the first in a series of Pew Research Center studies focused on describing the rich diversity of Black Americans. Its centerpiece is a nationally representative survey of 8,660 U.S. adults (ages 18 and older) who identify as Black or African American, including some who identify as both Black and Hispanic or Black and another race (such as Black and White or Black and Asian). The report also relies on a series of guided, small-group discussions (focus groups) and in-depth interviews with 30 Black clergy members across the country.

Because the study focuses on religion and spirituality, it splits the survey respondents into several categories, including Black Protestants who attend predominantly Black churches, Black Protestants who attend churches where the majority is White or another race, Black Protestants who attend multiracial churches, Black Catholics, Black members of other Christian faiths, Black members of non-Christian faiths (including Islam) and Black Americans who are religiously unaffiliated (identifying as atheist, agnostic or nothing in particular).

Key findings include:

  • Protestantism has long dominated the Black American religious landscape, and still does. The survey shows that two-thirds of Black Americans (66%) are Protestant, 6% are Catholic and 3% identify with other Christian faiths – mostly Jehovah’s Witnesses. Another 3% belong to non-Christian faiths, the most common of which is Islam.
  • About one-in-five Black Americans (21%) are not affiliated with any religion and instead identify as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular,” and this phenomenon is increasing by generation: Roughly three-in-ten Black Gen Zers (28%) and Millennials (33%) in the survey are religiously unaffiliated, compared with just 11% of Baby Boomers and 5% of those in the Silent Generation.
  • Young Black adults are less religious and less engaged in Black churches than older generations. Black Millennials and members of Generation Z are less likely to rely on prayer, less likely to have grown up in Black churches and less likely to say religion is an important part of their lives. Fewer attend religious services, and those who do attend are less likely to go to a predominantly Black congregation.
  • Nevertheless, predominantly Black places of worship continue to have a considerable presence in the lives of Black Americans: Fully 60% of Black adults who go to religious services – whether every week or just a few times a year – say they attend religious services at places where most or all of the other attendees, as well as the senior clergy, are also Black. Far fewer attend houses of worship with multiracial congregations or clergy (25%) or congregations that are predominantly White or another race or ethnicity, such as Hispanic or Asian (13%).
  • One-third (33%) of Black Americans say historically Black congregations should preserve their traditional racial character. Most (61%) say these congregations should become more racially and ethnically diverse. This is the majority view among those who attend Black congregations as well as those who do not.
  • Majorities of Black Americans believe prayer can heal physical illness and injury (78%) and that evil spirits can cause problems in people’s lives (73%). About four-in-ten believe in reincarnation (39%), and one-third believe that prayers to ancestors can protect them from bad things happening (33%). Black Protestants are more likely than Black Catholics to believe that prayer can heal and that evil spirits can cause harm, while Catholics are more likely to believe in reincarnation and that prayers to ancestors can protect them.
  • Black Americans are about evenly divided on whether people of faith have a duty to conver elievers, with 51% saying that religious people have this duty and 46% saying they do not.
  • There is a broad consensus among Black Americans of all faiths that predominantly Black churches have played a valuable role in the struggle for racial equality in U.S. society. Roughly three-quarters of Black adults surveyed say that Black churches have played at least “some” role in helping Black people move toward equality – including three-in-ten who say Black churches have done “a great deal.” Roughly half say that Black Muslim organizations, such as the Nation of Islam, have contributed at least some in this regard.
  • Black Protestants are particularly likely to worship in congregations where most of the laypeople, as well as the senior clergy, are Black. Two-thirds of Black Protestant churchgoers say they attend this type of congregation. By contrast, majorities of Black Catholics and Black adults of other faiths say their congregations and religious leaders are multiracial, mostly White, or mostly some other race.
  • About four-in-ten Black Americans (43%) say that it is essential for houses of worship to offer “a sense of racial affirmation or pride” – lower than the shares who say it is essential for houses of worship to offer spiritual comfort (72%), a sense of community (71%), and to help the needy with bills, housing and food (55%).
  • About one-in-four Black Americans say it is essential that houses of worship offer sermons that cover political topics like immigration and race relations. This is far smaller than the shares of Black Americans who see other roles, such as offering spiritual comfort, fellowship, moral guidance, skills training or help with bills, as essential.
  • About four-in-ten Black adults who attend religious services at least a few times a year say they heard sermons about voting, protesting or other forms of political engagement in the 12 months prior to the survey. Three-in-ten say they heard sermons about criminal justice reform (31%), while about a quarter (26%) heard sermons on immigration and 22% heard sermons on abortion.
  • About one-third of Black Americans say they volunteered in the 12 months prior to the survey (32%). One-in-five Black adults (21%) say they attended a public hearing or other public meeting, and a similar share (18%) say they contacted an elected official. Fewer than one-in-ten say they organized or participated in rallies or protests (7%), although the survey was mostly conducted prior to the Black Lives Matter protests that followed the killing of George Floyd in May 2020.
  • Black Protestants and Catholics are equally likely to say they volunteered in the past year (34%), but volunteering is less common among religiously unaffiliated adults (23%). Among Black Protestants, 24% say they attended a public hearing or other neighborhood meeting in the 12 months prior to the survey, as do 19% of Catholics and 15% of religious “nones.”
  • Black Americans are a strongly Democratic group. More than eight-in-ten Black adults (84%) identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party, while just 10% identify with or lean toward the Republican Party. At least eight-in-ten Black Protestant, Catholic and religiously unaffiliated adults identify as Democrats.
  • Black Protestants who attend a White or other race church (20%) are somewhat more likely than those attending Black (7%) or multiracial (12%) churches to identify as Republicans or lean toward the GOP, though the clear majority in this group also prefers the Democratic Party (74%).
  • Very few Black adults say they are satisfied with the U.S. criminal justice system. Nearly nine-in-ten say the criminal justice system either needs major changes (53%) or needs to be completely rebuilt (36%). Only 2% of Black adults say the criminal justice system does not need any changes, and 9% say it needs minor changes. Black religious “nones” (41%) and Protestants (35%) are more likely than Black Catholics (25%) to say the criminal justice system needs a complete overhaul, but all of these groups agree that significant changes are needed.

These are among the key findings of a survey of 8,660 Black Americans, conducted from Nov. 19, 2019, to June 3, 2020. Most of the responses were received before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down or limited the activities of many houses of worship, and also prior to the nationwide protests that followed the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. However, those topics are addressed in the report through subsequent polling and follow-up interviews with Black clergy. The margin of sampling error on the 8,660 completed interviews with Black adults is +/-1.5 percentage points at the 95% level of confidence. For more information on how the survey was conducted, see the Methodology.

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