No one religious denomination claims a majority of African-Americans. Nonetheless, surveying by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life shows that nearly three out of five African-Americans formally affiliate with one of the historically black Protestant churches. And one out of five African-Americans affiliate with either evangelical or mainline Protestant churches.
Because of the diversity of black Protestantism, it would be presumptuous to assume that a shared racial heritage trumps all the denominational differences in theology, organization and worship. Nonetheless, for African-Americans who share a heritage of social oppression, faith and its expression in welcoming houses of worship has provided sanctuary, community and a platform for needed social change in distinctive ways. As we celebrate Black History Month, we wish to honor the unique contributions from the collective organizations that have made up what scholars often refer to as the black church in America. Its poignant legacy of community building and empowerment is an example of how faith can bring individuals together to improve society.
According to the Pew Research Center, nearly eight-in-ten African-Americans say religion is very important in their lives (compared with 56 percent of all Americans). Robert Putnam and David Campbell, in "American Grace," a monumental study of American religion, further report that the lives of black Protestants are more infused with religion than are the lives of evangelical Protestants generally as measured by such practices as weekly church attendance, saying grace, reading scriptures and talking daily about religion.
The vitality of this faith has its roots in the life of a distinctive religious community — a religious community that struggled for the abolition of slavery, that ministered to the distinctive needs of freed slaves, that provided community to displaced African-Americans during the early 20th-century relocation of millions of blacks from the rural South into industrial cities and that provided the locus of thought, strategy, organization and solidarity during the civil rights movement.
For those who think of church as a place to quietly spend a contemplative Sunday morning, the traditional black church might surprise. President Barack Obama, during his 2008 presidential campaign, described black churches in the following way: "They are full of dancing, clapping, screaming and shouting that may seem jarring to the untrained ear. The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and, yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America." And in many of these decentralized denominations, it is common to find broad lay participation from teachers, deacons and musicians.
Importantly, these churches are not just used for Sabbath worship. The Nobel Prize-winning economist Gunnar Myrdal described the black church as "a community center par excellence," extolling its function as "a giver of hope, as an emotional cathartic, as a center of community activity, as a source of leadership and as a provider of respectability."
During the civil rights era, black churches differed from one another in their approach to achieving social equality and justice. According to historian Barbara Savage, most black pastors extolled the importance of modeling the traits of ideal citizenship as the appropriate path to full rights and respectability. Other leaders, however, such as Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., used the church as a place to organize for the nonviolent protests that captured so much attention. Regardless of approach, the black church provided a sanctuary of freedom for an oppressed people to confront their struggle, define their terms of engagement and fortify their congregations spiritually and temporally.
Given the community, the succor, the freedom and the joy afforded by these churches, it is almost incomprehensible to think that just 50 years ago black churches were systematically targeted for domestic terrorism in a rash of sometimes fatal church fire bombings.
Today, the challenges are different, but no less real. As the African-American community confronts disproportionately high rates of joblessness, fatherlessness and incarceration, the church continues to offer perhaps the surest path to community, dignity and human flourishing. We would hope that the powerful legacy of rescue, affirmation, spontaneity and engagement that have characterized the black church in America will not only continue to meet the distinctive challenges of the black community today, but that it will help instruct and inspire other faith communities seeking to meet the needs of the socially and spiritually needy.