Black Americans are in many ways the most religious people in America. Some 82 percent of blacks (versus 67 percent of whites) are church members; 82 percent of blacks (versus 55 percent of whites) say that religion is "very important in their life." Eighty-six percent of blacks (versus 60 percent of whites) believe that religion "can answer all or most of today's problems."
In his 1899 classic, "The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study," W.E.B. Du Bois observed, "Without wholly conscious effort the Negro church has become a centre of social intercourse to a degree unknown in white churches.... Consequently all movements for social betterment are apt to centre in the churches." Almost 100 years later, in their 1990 "The Black Church in the African-American Experience," Eric Lincoln and Lawrence Mamiya made a similar finding. In their surveys encompassing nearly 1,900 black ministers and more than 2,100 black churches, some 71 percent of black clergy reported that their churches engaged in community outreach programs. From their comprehensive survey, the authors concluded, "We suspect that black churches, on the whole, are more socially active in their communities than white churches and that they also tend to participate in a greater range of community programs."
In my view, the most vital work of these active black churches is that done on the streets in America's inner cities. Day by day, clergy, volunteers, and people of faith monitor, mentor, and minister to the daily needs of the inner-city black children, who, through absolutely no fault of their own, live in neighborhoods where opportunities are few and drugs, crime, and failed public schools are common. There, faith-driven community activists strive against the odds to help these children--from innocent toddlers, to pregnant teenagers, to young men on probation--avoid violence, achieve literacy, gain jobs, and otherwise reach adulthood physically, educationally, and economically whole.
Is Religion the Answer?
Is there any social scientific evidence to show that religious do-gooding does any good or to justify the faith of most black Americans that religion can "answer all or most of today's problems"?
During the past several years, journalists have begun to take a keen interest in that question. While such "faith factor" journalism is out ahead of the empirical research on religion and social action, it is hardly pure hype. As UCLA's James Q. Wilson has succinctly summarized the small but not insignificant body of credible evidence to date, "Religion, independent of social class, reduces deviance." When criminologist Byron Johnson and medical research scientist David Larson reviewed some 400 juvenile delinquency studies published between 1980 and 1997, they found that the more scientific the study, the more optimistic its findings are about the extent to which "religion reduces deviance." A 1995 article in the journal Criminology by David Evans found that religion, "as indicated by religious activities, had direct personal effects on adult criminality as measured by a broad range of criminal acts."
In 1985 Richard Freeman reported that churchgoing, independent of other factors, made young black males from high-poverty neighborhoods substantially more likely to "escape" poverty, crime, and other social ills. In a reanalysis and extension of Freeman's work published by the Manhattan Institute, Larson and Johnson mine national time series data on urban black youth and find that, using a more multidimensional measure of religious commitment than churchgoing, religion is indeed a powerful predictor of escaping poverty, crime, and other social ills, more powerful even than such variables as peer influences. Like Freeman, Larson and Johnson conjecture that the potential of churchgoing and other religious influences to improve the life prospects of poor black urban youth is in part a function of how churchgoing and other faith factors influence how young people spend their time, the extent of their engagement in positive structured activities, and the degree to which they are supported by responsible adults.
The black church's uniquely powerful community outreach tradition is grounded in eight major historically black Christian churches: African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion, Christian Methodist Episcopal, Church of God in Christ, National Baptist Convention of America, National Baptist Convention USA, National Missionary Baptist Convention, and the Progressive National Baptist Convention. Besides the 65,000 churches and 20 million members of the eight denominations, scores of independent or quasi-independent black churches or church networks and at least nine certified religious training programs operated by accredited seminaries are also directed toward ministry in black churches and black faith communities.