A Religious Portrait of African-Americans
While the U.S. is generally considered a highly religious nation, African-Americans are markedly more religious on a variety of measures than the U.S. population as a whole, including level of affiliation with a religion, attendance at religious services, frequency of prayer and religion’s importance in life. Compared with other racial and ethnic groups, African-Americans are among the most likely to report a formal religious affiliation, with fully 87% of African-Americans describing themselves as belonging to one religious group or another, according to the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, conducted in 2007 by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life. Latinos also report affiliating with a religion at a similarly high rate of 85%; among the public overall, 83% are affiliated with a religion.
The Landscape Survey also finds that nearly eight-in-ten African-Americans (79%) say religion is very important in their lives, compared with 56% among all U.S. adults. In fact, even a large majority (72%) of African-Americans who are unaffiliated with any particular faith say religion plays at least a somewhat important role in their lives; nearly half (45%) of unaffiliated African-Americans say religion is very important in their lives, roughly three times the percentage who says this among the religiously unaffiliated population overall (16%). Indeed, on this measure, unaffiliated African-Americans more closely resemble the overall population of Catholics (56% say religion is very important) and mainline Protestants (52%).
Additionally, several measures illustrate the distinctiveness of the black community when it comes to religious practices and beliefs. More than half of African-Americans (53%) report attending religious services at least once a week, more than three-in-four (76%) say they pray on at least a daily basis and nearly nine-in-ten (88%) indicate they are absolutely certain that God exists. On each of these measures, African-Americans stand out as the most religiously committed racial or ethnic group in the nation. Even those African-Americans who are unaffiliated with any religious group pray nearly as often as the overall population of mainline Protestants (48% of unaffiliated African-Americans pray daily vs. 53% of all mainline Protestants). And unaffiliated African-Americans are about as likely to believe in God with absolute certainty (70%) as are mainline Protestants (73%) and Catholics (72%) overall.
The Landscape Survey also shows that the link between religion and some social and political attitudes in the African-American community is very similar to that seen among the population overall. For instance, just as in the general public, African-Americans who are more religiously observant (as defined by frequency of worship service attendance and the importance of religion in their lives) are more likely to oppose abortion and homosexuality and more likely to report higher levels of conservative ideology. It is important to emphasize, however, that differences on political and social issues across religious groups within the African-American community tend to be smaller than among the population overall.
Compared with other groups, African-Americans express a high degree of comfort with religion’s role in politics. In fact, a summer 2008 survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Forum shows that African-Americans tend to closely resemble white evangelical Protestants on that score, with roughly six-in-ten among both groups saying that churches should express their views on social and political topics, and roughly half saying that there has been too little expression of faith and prayer by political leaders. Fewer members of other religious groups express these views. At the same time, most African-Americans, like white evangelicals and other groups, support certain restrictions on the mingling of politics and religious institutions, with nearly six-in-ten (58%) saying that churches and other houses of worship should refrain from endorsing political candidates.
On a variety of other questions, including political party identification and opinions about the proper role of government in providing services to the citizenry and assistance to the poor, there are few differences in the views of African-Americans across religious groups. Perhaps most strikingly, the partisan leanings of African-Americans from every religious background tilt heavily in the Democratic direction.
Section I: Religious Affiliation and Demographics
The vast majority of African-Americans are Protestant (78%), compared with only 51% of the U.S. adult population as a whole. By a wide margin, African-Americans stand out as the most Protestant racial and ethnic group in the U.S.; far fewer whites (53%), Asians (27%) and Latinos (23%) belong to Protestant denominations.
But Protestantism in the U.S. – and in the black community – is not homogeneous. Rather, it is divided into three distinct traditions – evangelical Protestant churches, mainline Protestant churches and historically black Protestant churches. More than three-in-four African-American Protestants (and 59% of African-Americans overall) belong to historically black Protestant denominations, such as the National Baptist Convention or the African Methodist Episcopal Church. In fact, 40% of all African-Americans identify with Baptist denominations within the historically black tradition. By several measures, including importance of religion in life, attendance at religious services and frequency of prayer, the historically black Protestant group is among the most religiously observant traditions. In fact, on these and other measures of religious practices and beliefs, members of historically black Protestant churches tend to resemble members of evangelical Protestant churches, another highly religious group.
Outside of the historically black tradition, an additional 15% of African-Americans are members of evangelical denominations, such as the Southern Baptist Convention or Assemblies of God, and 4% are members of mainline denominations, such as the Disciples of Christ. Overall, the membership of historically black Protestant denominations is 92% black, while African-Americans make up relatively small portions of the membership of evangelical (6%) and mainline (2%) churches.
Slightly more than one-in-ten African-Americans (12%) report being unaffiliated with any particular religion. Although the unaffiliated make up a smaller proportion of the African-American community (12%) than of the adult population overall (16%), the unaffiliated still constitute the third largest “religious” tradition within the black community. However, very few African-Americans (1%) describe themselves as atheist or agnostic. Instead, most unaffiliated African-Americans (11% of African-Americans overall) simply describe their religion as “nothing in particular.” Indeed, among the African-American unaffiliated population, a significant majority (72%) says religion is at least somewhat important in their lives.
As in the population overall, African-American men are significantly more likely than women to be unaffiliated with any religion (16% vs. 9%). African-American women are somewhat more likely than African-American men to describe themselves as Protestant (82% of women vs. 72% of men). Among African-American women, 62% are members of historically black Protestant churches, 16% are affiliated with evangelical churches and 4% are mainline Protestant; among men, 55% are members of historically black churches, 14% are evangelical and 4% are mainline Protestant.
African-American women also stand out for their high level of religious commitment. More than eight-in-ten black women (84%) say religion is very important to them, and roughly six-in-ten (59%) say they attend religious services at least once a week. No group of men or women from any other racial or ethnic background exhibits comparably high levels of religious observance.
African-Americans are more likely to be affiliated with a faith compared with the public overall, but as with the general population, younger African-Americans are more likely than their older counterparts to report being unaffiliated with a religion. For example, nearly one-in-five African-Americans under age 30 (19%) are unaffiliated, compared with just 7% of African-Americans who are age 65 and older.
Among African-Americans with less than a high school education, nearly two-thirds (63%) are members of historically black churches, as are about the same number (60%) of African-Americans who are high school graduates. Among African-Americans who have completed college, however, fewer (53%) are members of historically black Protestant churches. Additionally, black college graduates are somewhat more likely to be part of mainline Protestant and Catholic churches as compared with those from other educational backgrounds.
While at least half of African-Americans in all regions of the country are members of historically black churches, a disproportionately large percentage of Southern blacks say they belong to historically black churches; nearly two-thirds of African-Americans who live in the South (64%) are members of this tradition. The West is the only region of the country where upwards of one-in-ten African-Americans (11%) describe themselves as Catholic. In the Midwest and the Northeast, the number of African-Americans who are unaffiliated with any particular religion is similar to the share of the general population in these regions that is religiously unaffiliated. By contrast, in the South and the West, African-Americans are less likely to be unaffiliated compared with the overall population.
Fully 60% of all members of historically black churches reside in the South, with 19% residing in the Midwest, 13% living in the Northeast and 8% located in the West. This closely resembles the geographic distribution of the black community overall; 56% of African-Americans live in the South, 21% reside in the Midwest, 15% are located in the Northeast and 9% live in the Western United States.
Section II: Religious Beliefs and Practices
In many ways, African-Americans are significantly more religious than the general population, with the vast majority considering religion very important in their lives. African-Americans also are more religiously observant on a variety of other measures, from frequency of prayer and worship service attendance to belief in God.
Importance of Religion
Nearly eight-in-ten African-Americans (79%) say religion is very important in their lives, compared with 56% among the U.S. adult population overall. Consistent with this, members of historically black churches are among the most likely of any religious group to say religion is very important in their lives. Among African-American members of historically black churches, 85% say religion is very important to them.
Across a wide variety of religious groups, black members are more likely than members of their faiths overall to say religion is very important to them. African-Americans who are members of evangelical Protestant churches, for instance, are 10 percentage points more likely than evangelicals overall to see religion as very important in their lives (89% vs. 79%). The difference is even greater among members of mainline Protestant churches. More than three-in-four African-American members of mainline churches say religion is very important in their lives (76%), compared with about half (52%) of all mainline Protestants.
Religion also is important in the lives of many African-Americans who are not affiliated with any particular religion. Fully 45% of unaffiliated African-Americans report that religion is very important in their lives and an additional 26% describe religion as somewhat important, meaning that, overall, more than seven-in-ten African-Americans who are unaffiliated with a religion say religion is at least somewhat important in their lives. This compares with only about four-in-ten (41%) among the unaffiliated population overall.
African-Americans attend religious services and pray more frequently than the general population. While 39% of all Americans report attending religious services at least once a week, a majority of African-Americans (53%) report the same. Similarly, while 58% of all Americans report praying at least once a day, a significantly higher number of African-Americans (76%) report praying daily.
This pattern is seen across most major religious traditions. Perhaps most interestingly, unaffiliated African-Americans attend religious services and pray in much higher numbers than the unaffiliated population overall. For example, 15% of African-Americans who are unaffiliated report attending religious services at least once a week, compared with only 5% of the unaffiliated population as a whole. And fully 28% of unaffiliated African-Americans attend religious services at least once a month, compared with only 10% of the unaffiliated population overall.
Similarly, nearly half of unaffiliated African-Americans say they pray daily (48%), more than twice the level seen among the unaffiliated population overall (22%). On this question, unaffiliated African-Americans more closely resemble the overall population of mainline Protestants (53% pray daily) and Catholics (58%) than they do the overall unaffiliated population.
African-Americans also express higher levels of religious belief than do Americans overall. Compared with the population overall, for instance, African-Americans are more likely to believe in God with absolute certainty (88% vs. 71% among the total adult population), interpret Scripture as the literal word of God (55% vs. 33%) and express a belief in angels and demons (83% vs. 68%). They also are more likely to say they are absolutely convinced about the existence of life after death (58% vs. 50%) and to believe in miracles (84% vs. 79%).
These views are held by the overwhelming majority of members of historically black churches. But even African-Americans who are unaffiliated with any religion consistently express higher levels of religious beliefs compared with the unaffiliated public overall. Unaffiliated African-Americans, for instance, express certain belief in God (70%) at levels similar to those seen among the general population of mainline Protestants (73%) and Catholics (72%) and are about twice as likely as the overall unaffiliated population (36%) to express this belief. Furthermore, unaffiliated African-Americans are somewhat more likely than mainline Protestants or Catholics overall to hold a literal view of the Bible (33% among unaffiliated African-Americans vs. 22% among all mainline Protestants and 23% among all Catholics) and are three times as likely to hold this view compared with the overall unaffiliated population (11%).
Section III: Social and Political Views
Among African-Americans, as with the public generally, views on political ideology and social issues, such as abortion and homosexuality, are linked with both religious affiliation and religious observance (as measured by worship service attendance and importance of religion in one’s life). For instance, black members of evangelical Protestant churches and the more religiously observant express more conservative views than those who are unaffiliated with any particular religion or are less religiously observant. But these religiously based differences tend to be smaller in the African-American community than in the population as a whole. And on some political issues, there are few religious divides to speak of within the black community. Perhaps the most striking of these is partisanship, with the vast majority of African-Americans of all religious backgrounds expressing support for the Democratic Party.
Like the overall population, African-Americans are more likely to describe their political ideology as conservative (32%) or moderate (36%) than as liberal (23%). Members of evangelical churches and the most religiously committed members of all religious groups are most likely to describe themselves as conservative, while those who are unaffiliated and less religiously committed are among the least likely to describe themselves as such. While this is true among both African-Americans and the general population, these differences are much smaller among African-Americans. For example, among African-Americans, members of evangelical churches and those who are most religiously observant are just as likely to describe their ideology as moderate as to say they are conservative; by contrast, among the general population, the same groups are much more likely to say they are conservative than moderate or liberal.
Similar links exist among African-Americans as among the general population when it comes to religion and views on social issues such as abortion and homosexuality. But once again, the religiously based differences on these issues are less pronounced among African-Americans than in the overall population.
Overall, 49% of African-Americans favor keeping abortion legal in most or all cases, while 44% want abortion to be illegal in most or all cases. These figures are similar to those seen among the public as a whole (51% vs. 42%). Among African-Americans, members of evangelical churches are most likely to say that abortion should be illegal (53%), while those who are unaffiliated with any religion are least likely to say that abortion should be illegal (34%), a difference of 19 percentage points. Among the population overall, the difference in opinion between members of evangelical churches (61% opposed to abortion) and the unaffiliated (24% opposed) is nearly twice as large, at 37 percentage points.
Among both African-Americans and the general population, those who are most religiously observant are more likely to think that abortion should be illegal. For example, more than half (51%) of African-Americans who attend religious services at least once a week think that abortion should be illegal, compared with only 35% of those who attend worship services less often, a difference of 16 percentage points. Here again, these religiously based differences are smaller than among the general population; overall, fully 61% of weekly worship service attenders say they oppose abortion, compared with only 31% among those who attend services less often, a difference of 30 percentage points.
Overall, about four-in-ten African-Americans (41%) think that homosexuality should be accepted by society, while 46% say that homosexuality should be discouraged. By contrast, among the public overall, those who say that homosexuality should be accepted outnumber those who say it should be discouraged (50% to 40%). Among African-Americans, members of evangelical churches express the most conservative views on this issue (58% say homosexuality should be discouraged), while unaffiliated African-Americans are among the least conservative (only 32% say it should be discouraged), a difference of 26 percentage points. Again, however, religiously based differences are smaller among African-Americans; among the population overall, 64% of evangelicals say homosexuality should be discouraged by society, compared with 20% of the religiously unaffiliated, a difference of 44 percentage points.
The same is true when it comes to religious observance, with the most religiously observant African-Americans most likely to say that homosexuality should be discouraged, a similar pattern as seen among the overall population. But, once again, the differences between the most and least religiously observant are more pronounced in the population overall than among African-Americans.
According to Pew Research Center surveys conducted in the summer of 2008, nearly two-thirds of African-Americans (64%) say they oppose allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally, a significantly higher level of opposition than among whites (51%). Among both African-Americans and whites, however, evangelical Protestants are much more opposed to gay marriage than are mainline Protestants.
Religion and Politics
On a variety of measures, African-Americans express comfort with religion’s role in politics. According to a summer 2008 Pew Research Center survey, six-in-ten African-Americans (61%) say houses of worship should express their views on social and political matters, while only 36% say churches should avoid these topics. On this question, African-Americans closely resemble white evangelical Protestants, among whom 59% say churches should express their views and 38% say churches should keep out of social and political matters. By contrast, among the overall population, the balance of opinion leans in the opposite direction; 52% say that churches should keep out of politics, while only 45% say churches should express their views on social and political issues.
Half of African-Americans feel there have been too few expressions of faith by political leaders, and an additional 24% say there has been the right amount of religious expression by political leaders; only 23% say there has been too much religious talk from politicians. On balance, the public overall is less concerned with a lack of religious speech from politicians; only 36% say there has been too little of such expressions, while 30% say there has been the right amount and 29% say there has been too much.
Even though African-Americans generally are comfortable with the notion that politics should be influenced and informed by religion, they also support certain limitations on the mingling of politics and religious institutions. For instance, nearly six-in-ten (58%) say churches and other houses of worship should not come out in favor of political candidates. Among the population overall, two-thirds take this point of view.
Regardless of their religious background, African-Americans overwhelmingly support the Democratic Party. The 2007 Landscape Survey finds that more than three-quarters of all African-Americans (76%) describe themselves as Democrats or say they lean toward the Democratic Party, while just 10% favor the Republicans. Across all religious groups, at least two-thirds of African-Americans express support for the Democratic Party. Among the total population, by comparison, less than half (47%) describe themselves as Democrats or lean toward the Democratic Party, while 35% support the GOP. This unity of partisanship among African-Americans carries over into the voting booth, where they have voted overwhelmingly for Democratic presidential candidates in recent elections (95% for Barack Obama in 2008 and 88% for John Kerry in 2004).
African-Americans also support the Democrats by wide margins regardless of their overall level of religious commitment; in the general population, by contrast, religious commitment is linked with differences in party affiliation. For example, in the general population, four-in-ten of those who attend worship services at least once a week favor the Democratic Party, but among those who attend less frequently, more than half (51%) favor the Democrats. No such gaps are seen within the African-American community, where huge majorities favor the Democratic Party regardless of their level of religious commitment.
Role of Government
Most African-Americans across all major religious traditions, including those who are unaffiliated, prefer a bigger government that provides more services to a smaller government providing fewer services. Significantly more African-Americans (70%) report that they prefer bigger government compared with the total population (46%), who are much more divided on the issue (43% prefer smaller government). And nearly eight-in-ten (79%) African-Americans say the government should do more to help the needy, even if it means going deeper into debt, while only 15% say the government cannot afford to do much more to help the needy.
This analysis was written by Neha Sahgal, Research Associate, and Greg Smith, Research Fellow, Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life.
Detailed tables for the data displayed in graphical format are available in the appendix (PDF).
Photo credit: AP