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.
Unfortunately, until recently, that outreach tradition and what it portends for social action against inner-city ills has been largely ignored by a strange bedfellows assortment of academics and intellectual elites.
Until the 1990s, for example, the richly religious lives of black Americans and the black church outreach tradition were given short shrift by both historians and social scientists, and not just by white historians and social scientists. Writing in 1994 in a special double edition of National Journal of Sociology, Andrew Billingsley, a dean of black family studies, noted that the subject was largely ignored even by leading black scholars who were keenly aware of "the social significance of the black church," including many who "were actually members of a black church."
For example, James Blackwell's 1975 book "The Black Community," considered by Billingsley and several other experts to be "the best study" of its kind since Du Bois's "The Philadelphia Negro," devoted not a single chapter to the black church, and Billingsley's own 1968 "Black Families in White America," written as a rebuttal to the 1965 Moynihan Report on the breakdown of the American black family, "devoted less than two pages to discussing the relevance of the black church as a support system for African-American families." Billingsley speculates that black intellectuals ignored black churches in part out of a false fidelity to the canons of objective scholarship.
When it comes to social action against urban problems and the plight of the black inner-city poor, the reality is that black churches cannot do it all (or do it alone) and that not all black churches do it. But that reality should obscure neither the black church tradition nor its many and powerful contemporary manifestations from Boston to Austin, from New York to Los Angeles.
The Least of Us, the Rest of Us
If black church outreach is so potent, then how come inner-city poverty, crime, and other problems remain so severe? That is a fair question, but it can easily be turned around: how much worse would things be in Boston and Jamaica Queens, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, and other cities were it not for the until recently largely unsung efforts of faith-based youth and community outreach efforts? How much more would government or other charitable organizations need to expend, and how many volunteers would suddenly need to be mobilized, in the absence of church-anchored outreach? The only defensible answers are "much worse" and "lots," respectively.
Religious institutions alone cannot reasonably be expected to cure the social problems that disproportionately afflict the black inner-city poor. It remains to be seen how, if at all, the local faith-based efforts can be taken to scale in ways that predictably, reliably, and cost effectively cut crime, reduce poverty, or yield other desirable social consequences.
But overlooking, unduly discounting, or simply failing to support the outreach efforts of black churches and other inner-city faith communities is the single biggest mistake that can be made by anyone who cares about the future of the truly disadvantaged men, women, and children of all races who call the inner cities home.
Citizens who for whatever reasons are nervous about religion or enhanced church-state partnerships should focus on the consistent finding that faith-based outreach efforts benefit poor unchurched neighborhood children most of all. If these churches are so willing to support and reach out to "the least of these," surely they deserve the human and financial support of the rest of us--corporations, foundations, other Christian churches, and, where appropriate, government agencies.