Focus on Poverty and Inequality:
Even before the downturn in the economy, the most pressing social issues in black communities were poverty, especially among children, and continuing inequities in educational and employment opportunities. The recession made a bad situation worse, including among black middle-class families affected by steep declines in public-sector jobs.
Some black religious leaders are advocates because they know that the best efforts of churches are insufficient; we need charitable public policies.
Many black churches have seen their own finances plummet along with those of their members. Still, most of those churches continue to offer direct assistance to communities, by providing food, clothing, housing assistance and other services. Some black religious leaders also are advocates on economic and equality issues precisely because they know that the best efforts of churches are insufficient; we need charitable public policies.
In the post-civil rights era, protest or public policy advocacy in black churches is often made visible in the press only during electoral seasons or during political controversies, particularly around issues related to sexuality. What that obscures is the quiet, constant work of politically progressive black ministers and parishioners not only on economic and education issues, but also on criminal justice and health care reform — and, yes, even on the inclusion and protection of sexual minorities.
Just as in the civil rights movement, a minority within a minority has taken on that work, offering an alternative voice and vision now as then. These are the “invisible institutions” rendered publicly mute by excessive coverage of the flamboyance and excesses of “prosperity gospel” churches.
Even before the emergence of the civil rights movement with black churches at its center, African American religion and progressive politics were assumed to be inextricably intertwined. In her revelatory book, Barbara Savage counters this assumption with the story of a highly diversified religious community whose debates over engagement in the struggle for racial equality were as vigorous as they were persistent. Rather than inevitable allies, black churches and political activists have been uneasy and contentious partners.
From the 1920s on, some of the best African American minds—W. E. B. Du Bois, Carter G. Woodson, Benjamin Mays, Nannie Helen Burroughs, Mary McLeod Bethune, Charles S. Johnson, and others—argued tirelessly about the churches’ responsibility in the quest for racial justice. Could they be a liberal force, or would they be a constraint on progress? There was no single, unified black church but rather many churches marked by enormous intellectual, theological, and political differences and independence. Yet, confronted by racial discrimination and poverty, churches were called upon again and again to come together as savior institutions for black communities.
The tension between faith and political activism in black churches testifies to the difficult and unpredictable project of coupling religion and politics in the twentieth century. By retrieving the people, the polemics, and the power of the spiritual that animated African American political life, Savage has dramatically demonstrated the challenge to all religious institutions seeking political change in our time.
Among developed nations, America stands out as an exceptionally religious country. While other wealthy nations grow ever more secular, the U.S. remains devoted to religion. New research on religion, however, finds that the U.S. may not be so exceptional after all. There is growing evidence linking religiosity to income inequality—countries where there are more haves than have-nots tend to be more religious than more egalitarian societies. The U.S., for all its wealth, is also a land of vast economic inequality. America’s wealth exceeds that of European countries, but this wealth is spread out as unequally as it is in Uganda or Jamaica. And it is this high level of inequality that may help explain the so-called exceptional level of religiosity.
At least since Voltaire, scholars have predicted that religion would eventually be extinguished. It was seen as being ill-fitted for an enlightened, modern, rational world. Early sociologists saw society moving through an inevitable process of secularization. Eventually, went the theories, society would rid itself of the remnant of primitive superstition. Such theorists are still waiting for their Godot. Despite incredible rises in education, science, medicine, and overall quality of life during the 20th century, religion remains a common part of life around the globe.
In light of this continued vitality, a new take on secularization has emerged. Pippa Norris (Harvard) and Ronald Inglehart (Michigan) wrote in their book Sacred and Secular that people are more likely to be religious when their lives are at risk. Nations with harsher poverty are more likely to be religious; wealthier nations tend to be more secular.
Of course, material insecurity is not the only reason for religion. There are some societies that clearly buck this pattern. On one side are impoverished countries that have low levels of religiosity. China and Vietnam are the primary examples. Through force, these countries have been able to clamp down on religion (though not completely extinguish it). In the other direction, the major exception to the rule is the United States. Based on wealth, education, and other measures of development, the U.S. should be far less religious than it is. Indeed, America should be one of the least religious nations on earth.
But it isn’t. Far from it. Religion continues as a prominent part of American life.
The reason may be due to inequality. The U.S. economy is distributed much more unequally than other Western economies. By the most common measures of inequality, the U.S. is ranked as the 39th most unequal economy (out of 136 countries). The U.S. is ranked near Uganda, Jamaica, Cameroon, and Cote d’Ivoire. Turkmenistan, Mali, and Cambodia have greater income inequality than the United States. Canada is ranked 101st; the entire European Union is ranked 111th. Sweden is considered the most equal nation.
Within the U.S., we can see the same pattern. States with high inequality, (e.g., states in the Mississippi Delta region) are also some of the most religious. States with more economic equality (e.g., states in New England and the Mountain West) are some of the least religious.
In conducting this study I have found that the U.S. is typical of countries with such high inequality. The U.S. is not unusually religious—it is typical for a country with such high inequality. We examine a dozen measures of religiosity, including prayer, church attendance, belief in God, and the self-identification of “religious people.” In each case, inequality leads to greater religiosity.
One possible explanation for this pattern is that the wealthy are more attracted to religion in unequal societies because religions can justify their elevated positions. Where there is inequality, the poor are poorer and the wealthy are wealthier. With more poverty, is there a greater need for religion? The evidence for this is thin. In unequal societies, the rich are also religious. By some measures, the wealthy grow more religious and the poor become less religious where there is higher inequality. And with wealthy investors, religion is able to grow among the poor, preaching a message that helps keep the wealthy and the poor in their place.
We can see this trend among the wealthy in America. David Campbell (Notre Dame) and Robert Putnam (Harvard) report in their book American Grace that religion is far from dying among those with education and wealth. Income is unrelated to church attendance. College graduates in the U.S. are more likely to attend church than those with just a high school diploma. Moreover, over the past thirty years—decades during which inequality has risen—church attendance among those without college educations has dropped while attendance among college graduates has remained steady.
These findings do not paint the most flattering portrait of religion. Tom Reese of the blog epiphenom said our research “is the first really solid, empirical evidence that the rich use religion as a tool to keep the poor in their place.” That is one interpretation, though we would caution that the wealthy are unlikely to be cognizant of this relationship. Rather, religions that thrive in unequal societies are likely ones that appeal to the wealthy—religions in unequal societies are more likely to seek out the rich young ruler, not the widow with only a few copper coins.
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