Churchgoing, Politics and Black Americans

The more religiously active an American is, the more likely he is to vote Republican--unless he's black. That fact emerged in the second part of a Pew Forum study on the landscape of religious life in the United States, released this June.

The first part of the survey, released in February, showed that religion in the United States is both diverse and remarkably fluid--44 percent of Americans have switched their religious affiliation or denomination (or abandoned organized religion altogether). The new part, which looks at how religion informs American social and political values, further highlights religious diversity in the United States, underscoring the variety in patterns of belief and worship. "We have the tendency to believe that all members of one affiliation are the same, or that all people that frequently attend religious services are the same," says John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum and a professor of political science at the University of Akron. "But that's not the case. There is greater diversity."

Despite the country's religious multiformity, however, black Americans are the most consistently religious--and religiously active--ethnic group in the country. More than 90 percent of black Americans surveyed reported having a religious affiliation, and more than six in 10 said they were members of historically black Protestant churches. Moreover, black Protestants are among the most religiously involved Americans--85 percent say religion is very important in their lives, and more than half say they attend worship services at least once a week.

Rev. Cecil (Chip) Murray, the influential former pastor of the First A.M.E. Church in Los Angeles, credits high levels of African-American religious involvement with the "heritage of the black church" and its importance in building the African-American community in the aftermath of the Civil War. Black churches show people that "you may not have money, you may not have houses or land, but you have value," says Murray.

Other religious groups that report similar levels of religious involvement--specifically Mormons and white evangelical Christians--tend to vote for Republicans. And the more a Mormon or white evangelical prays or goes to Sunday services, the more likely he or she is to come out for the GOP. The same holds true for members of less ideologically conservative religious groups, including those that tend to be more liberal than the general American population, such as Jews--47 percent of Jews who attend weekly services vote Democrat, in contrast to 69 percent of those who do not attend services every week. Religious attendance matters, Green says, because when people attend services they encounter other people, and these interactions inform political values "whether it is something the pastor said or because you had coffee with a friend after worship."

Still, black Protestants remain loyal Democrats, regardless of how important religion is to an individual's life--77 percent of black Protestants said they vote Democratic, whether they attended weekly services or not. Prominent intellectual and activist Cornel West points out that this is largely due to the black community's historic ties to the Democratic Party, specifically during the civil-rights movement. "It's a matter of principle," West says. "Not just a matter of partisanship." This staunch support exists despite some black churches' conservative views on social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. While the survey finds that those with high levels of religious commitment tend to oppose abortion and public acceptance of homosexuality, black Protestants remain steadfast Democratic voters. West and others believe that this is because for members of black churches and of the black community in general, "issues of economic and social justice tend to supercede issues of abortion and same sex-marriage." In other words, issues of equality and civil-rights continue to override any moral qualms black Christian voters may have with Democratic politics. That can only be good news for Barack Obama, a churchgoing black Protestant himself.