February 16, 2021

Faith Among Black Americans

5. Churches and religion in Black American life

Black churches have historically taken on numerous civic roles in Black communities, stretching back as far as the antebellum period. And many, though not a majority, were involved in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.16 In fact, most Black Americans say that predominantly Black churches have helped Black people move toward equality in the U.S., though they give more credit to civil rights organizations.

At the same time, Black Americans also tend to think these churches have declined in influence over the years. When asked to compare the influence of predominantly Black churches today to that of 50 years ago, nearly half of Black adults (47%) say predominantly Black churches are less influential today. Three-in-ten say they are more influential now than 50 years ago, and about one-in-five say they hold the same amount of sway as back then.

Many Black Americans think Black churches should have a greater role today than they do: About four-in-ten Black adults say predominantly Black churches today have “too little influence” in Black communities, compared with just one-in-ten who say they have “too much influence.” Nearly half (45%) say Black churches have “about the right amount of influence” in Black communities.

Most Black Christians feel that the most important roles for churches are to offer a sense of community, spiritual comfort and moral guidance. They are less likely to say it is essential that houses of worship engage in activities like offering help with finances, teaching job skills, providing a sense of racial affirmation or addressing political topics, though many Black Americans also say that these things are important.

This chapter also looks at where Black Americans turn for guidance when making major life decisions, including the shares who turn to religious leaders and to prayer.

Most Black Americans credit civil rights organizations, predominantly Black churches for helping Black people move toward equality; fewer cite government, White churches

Three-in-ten Black adults say predominantly Black churches have done a ‘great deal’ to help Black people move toward equality in U.S.Asked to assess the impact of five different types of groups in helping Black people move toward equality in the United States, roughly nine-in-ten Black Americans say civil rights organizations have done either “a great deal” (60%) or “some” (29%) in this regard. Around three-quarters say predominantly Black churches have done at least some to help Black people move toward equality, although far fewer (29%) give Black churches a great deal of credit in this area than say they have done “some” (48%).

Roughly half of Black Americans say predominantly Black Muslim organizations such as the Nation of Islam (of which Malcolm X was once a member) and the federal government have had at least some impact on Black people’s pursuit of equality. Predominantly White churches stand out as the only institution of the five that a majority of Black Americans say has done either “not much” (38%) or “nothing at all” (21%) to help Black people move toward equality.

About eight-in-ten Black Protestants (81%) and Catholics (82%) say that predominantly Black churches have done at least some to help Black people move toward equality. Smaller majorities of Black Americans in other faith groups and those who are religiously unaffiliated say this about predominantly Black churches.

Black partisans differ over some groups’ roles in moving Black people toward equalityBlack adults who identify with non-Christian religions – many of whom are Muslim – are more likely than other Black Americans to credit predominantly Black Muslim organizations such as the Nation of Islam with helping Black people move toward equality. This group is about equally likely to say Black Muslim organizations (69%) and predominantly Black churches (72%) have provided at least some help in the fight for equality.

There are some differences on these questions by political party. Black Republicans and those who lean toward the Republican Party are somewhat less likely than Black Democrats and Democratic leaners to say that civil rights organizations, predominantly Black churches and Black Muslim groups have done at least some to help Black people move toward equality. And Black Republicans are more likely than Black Democrats to say predominantly White churches have helped Black people move toward equality.

The views of Black adults are generally in line with those of the U.S. public overall on the role of civil rights organizations and Black churches. However, Black adults are less likely than the general public to credit the federal government for helping Black people move toward equality (55% vs. 67%), and more likely to credit predominantly Black Muslim organizations (54% vs. 41%).

Most Black adults give civil rights organizations primary credit for helping Black people move toward equalityAfter asking respondents to evaluate each of these institutions individually, the survey then had them pick the one that “has done the most” to help Black people move toward equality. Three-quarters of respondents name civil rights organizations (74%). Far fewer say predominantly Black churches (10%), the federal government (7%), predominantly Black Muslim organizations (3%) or predominantly White churches (1%) have done the most to help Black people move toward equality in the United States.

Black Americans who are college graduates are more likely to credit civil rights organizations than are those with less education (80% vs. 71%). Other demographic patterns, while less pronounced, are similar to those seen when the organizations are asked about separately.

More Black Americans say predominantly Black churches today have ‘too little’ influence rather than ‘too much’

Black Protestants welcome steady or increased influence for Black churches in Black communitiesFrom running community programs to hosting civil rights meetings, many predominantly Black churches have long been deeply involved in their communities. But 41% of Black adults say these churches have “too little influence” in Black communities today, while far fewer (10%) say they have “too much influence.” Many (45%) say they have “about the right amount of influence.”

Opinions on this question are generally similar across most religious groups analyzed, including among Black Protestants regardless of the racial composition of their congregations, and among those who seldom or never attend religious services. Even Black people who say they have no particular religion are more likely to say predominantly Black churches have too little influence (37%) than to say they have too much (17%). However, unlike other groups, Black Americans who identify as atheist or agnostic are about as likely to say Black churches have too much influence (32%) as to say they have too little (27%).

There are also modest differences across age cohorts. Younger Black adults (those in Generation Z and the Millennial generation) are more likely than their elders to say predominantly Black churches have too much influence, and less likely to say they have too little influence.

Half of Black Americans think Black churches are less influential today than they were 50 years agoWhen asked how much influence predominantly Black churches have today compared with 50 years ago, nearly half of Black adults (47%) say that Black churches have less influence today. Fewer (30%) say predominantly Black churches have more influence today, while about one-in-five (19%) say they have about the same amount of influence.

There is little difference in the response patterns for this question across religious groups. Even among Black Americans who identify as atheist or agnostic, a clear majority (57%) say that Black churches have less influence today. And Black Americans tend to answer this question similarly regardless of whether they were alive 50 years ago, although the youngest adults are an exception, with roughly equal shares in Generation Z saying Black churches have less influence today (42%) and more influence (39%) compared with 50 years ago.

Black college graduates are much more likely than Black people without a college degree to say Black churches have declined in influence over the past 50 years (61% vs. 42%).

Seven-in-ten Black adults say it is ‘essential’ for houses of worship to offer spiritual comfort, a sense of community or fellowship

Black Protestants and Catholics hold mostly similar opinions about the key functions of churchesThe survey also asked respondents about the importance of seven different functions offered by houses of worship. Spiritual comfort (72%) and a sense of community or fellowship (71%) top the list, with about seven-in-ten Black adults saying it is essential that houses of worship offer these services.

A somewhat smaller majority (66%) say it is essential for houses of worship to offer moral guidance, and 55% say it is essential for congregations to help the needy with bills, housing and food. Roughly four-in-ten (44%) say this about teaching practical job and life skills, while a similar share (43%) say it is essential for houses of worship to offer a sense of racial affirmation or pride.

The lowest-ranking priority among those asked about is related to politics. One-quarter of Black adults say it is essential that churches and other places of worship offer sermons that address political topics, such as immigration and race relations, an additional 38% say this is an “important, but not essential” thing for houses of worship to offer.

Among religious groups, Protestants and Catholics generally express the same priorities as Black adults as a whole. These groups rank spiritual comfort and a sense of community among the most important things their churches can offer and place far less priority on political sermons. And among Protestants, there are no significant differences on these questions among those who attend mainly Black churches, multiracial churches or White or other churches.

Religiously unaffiliated Black adults are far less likely to attend religious services, but 58% say it is essential for houses of worship to offer a sense of community or fellowship, and about half cite the importance of helping the needy (53%) and offering spiritual comfort (52%).

Three-in-ten Black adults have turned to a church for help with bills, housing or food

Nearly half of Black adults with low incomes have turned to a religious organization for help with key expensesOne measure of the reach of religious institutions in Black communities is that about three-in-ten Black Americans (29%) have turned to a church or other religious congregation for help with bills, housing or food at some point in their lives.

Black adults with household incomes of less than $30,000 are much more likely than those with higher incomes to have turned to a church for help with expenses. More than four-in-ten Black adults who earn less than $30,000 annually (45%) say they have turned to a religious organization for help with bills, housing or food, compared with 21% of those with household incomes in the $30,000 to $74,999 range and 9% of those who earn at least $75,000.

Black Protestants – regardless of whether they attend religious services – are more likely than Black Catholics and the religiously unaffiliated to say they have turned to a religious congregation for help with key expenses. And Black women and U.S.-born Black adults are more likely to have turned to a religious congregation for assistance than are Black men and Black immigrants, respectively.

Black adults are more likely than the U.S. population overall to say they have turned to a religious congregation for help with food or key expenses (29% vs. 17%). This gap persists even when looking only at people with household incomes of less than $30,000 a year.

While the main survey of Black Americans was mostly conducted in the months immediately prior to the recession due to the coronavirus outbreak, a Pew Research Center survey conducted in July 2020 asked U.S. adults if they had sought out financial help as a result of the outbreak. In that survey, 13% of Black adults said they had turned to a religious organization for help with housing, bills or food as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, while 16% had turned to a nonreligious charitable organization and 29% had turned to family or friends for help with these expenses.

When making major decisions, Black Americans more likely to rely on their own research and religious reflection than on professionals and clergy

Most Black adults rely on research and prayer ‘a lot’ when making big decisionsHow do Black Americans approach major life decisions? The survey suggests they are much more likely to turn inward than they are to rely on advice from other people, including religious leaders.

Nearly three-quarters of Black adults (72%) say they rely on their own research “a lot,” and more than half (56%) say they turn to prayer and personal religious reflection. Far fewer Black adults rely “a lot” on advice from professionals (27%) or religious leaders (18%).

Black Americans more likely than U.S. adults overall to turn to prayer when making major life decisionsThose who say religion is very important in their lives rely on prayer and personal reflection slightly more than on research (77% vs. 71%). And churchgoing Black Protestants are about as likely to say they rely a lot on prayer and personal religious reflection for major decisions as they are to say they use their own research, regardless of the racial makeup of the church. Protestants who don’t attend religious services are much less likely to rely on prayer.

Similarly, churchgoing Black Catholics are about as likely to rely on prayer as on their own research, though among Black Catholics overall, reliance on prayer and personal religious reflection is less common. While churchgoing Black Protestants are about as likely to rely on advice from religious leaders as from professionals and experts, churchgoing Catholics rely much less on advice from religious leaders.

Black adults are slightly less likely than the U.S. general population to rely “a lot” on personal research (72% vs. 79%) and about as likely to rely on advice from experts (27% vs. 28%) in their decision-making. However, Black adults are more likely than Americans in general to rely heavily on prayer and personal religious reflection (56% vs. 36%) or on religious leaders (18% vs. 11%).

  1. Savage, Barbara Dianne. 2008. “Your Spirits Walk Beside Us: The Politics of Black Religion.” For more on the role of Black churches in the civil rights movement, see Chapter 10.