Jan 18, 2021

For Black Americans, the Black Church Counters Feelings of Political Powerlessness

On January 5, 2021, Georgia voters elected the Rev. Dr. Raphael Warnock as the state’s first Black senator and the first Black Democrat elected to the U.S. Senate from a former Confederate state. As the senior pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, the spiritual home of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Senator-elect Warnock joins a tradition of Black pastors who have occupied electoral office.

Beyond its historical significance, Warnock’s campaign—and the crucial role of Black voters in the Georgia run-off and the November 2020 election—have renewed public interest in the political dimensions of Black religious life. This is one of the topics Barna Group has been exploring in the State of the Black Church project, alongside partners including Rev. Dr. Brianna K. Parker (of Black Millennial Cafe), GlooUrban Ministries, Inc., Lead.NYCAmerican Bible Society and Compassion. In the coming months, we’ll be sharing some of the study’s main findings, culminating in the release of the Trends in the Black Church report in summer 2021. You can sign up for updates here

In a week that includes both the national observance of King’s birthday and the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, we’ll begin by examining the political posture and perceptions of Black adults and Black churchgoers. (See About the Research below for more context about the scope of this analysis.)


Black Perception of Political “Powerlessness” Has Increased Over the Last 25 Years
One of the most significant findings in the Barna study was the fact that Black adults are actually more likely to express a sense of political disempowerment than they did as recently as the mid-1990s. In 1996, Barna discovered that 61 percent of Black adults agreed that Black people generally feel powerless when it comes to politics.

Now, the level of total agreement with that same sentiment has increased to nearly three-quarters of Black adults (73%) and Black churchgoers (75%).

The increased perception of Black powerlessness explains the efforts of Black churches and parachurch organizations to promote policies and candidates, fight voter suppression and increase voter turnout. The significance of these activities cannot be divorced from events such as the attack on the U.S. Capitol, where rioters openly displayed racist and antisemitic symbols. The perseverance of Black faith communities remains juxtaposed with ongoing concerns about the persistence of white supremacy in the U.S. 

Barna can’t account for fluctuations in feelings of political agency during the period between the surveys. It’s likely, however, the 1996 study found respondents in a period of optimism in the Black community: on the heels of The Million Man March, witnessing the growth of business and home ownership for Black citizens, in the midst of the Clinton era’s unprecedented (for that time) appointment of diverse cabinet leaders. Considering some of the national events that followed—economic devastation from the Great Recession; inadequate responses to events like Hurricane Katrina and the Flint water crisis; growing awareness of racial disparities in the criminal justice system; injustices against Black adults being publicly shared via video and social media; a perceived rise in hate speech—the 2020 percentages may reflect a cumulative sense of powerlessness that eclipses seeming signs of progress in the intervening years, such as the terms of the country’s first Black president. (The 2020 data was collected during the lead-up to the recent election, which included Harris’ history-making nomination; Barna will continue to track responses to this question as the political climate evolves.) 

Trends in the Black Church

Celebrating its legacy and investing in a hopeful future

Two in Three Black Adults Say the Black Church Offers Comfort, Control
In light of feelings of political disempowerment, Barna’s findings show the degree to which the Black Church represents a respite for Black Americans. Two-thirds of Black adults (29% agree strongly, 36% agree somewhat)—including eight in 10 who are part of the Black Church (37% agree strongly, 43% agree somewhat)—say that an association with the Black Church brings comfort, as it is a place where Black people have control in their lives. This point of view appears to be more popular than it was 24 years ago; in 1996, half of Black adults (50%) agreed that Black Church membership fostered a sense of comfort and control. Given the coinciding increase in a broader sense of powerlessness, present attendees in Black churches may see their congregations as autonomous spaces to reclaim agency and be a part of worship communities influenced by the vision and hopes of Black people. 

For Most Black Adults, a Church’s Focus Must Be Spiritual and Social
This posture—confronting political disenfranchisement, expressing faith identity—is evident as well in Black adults’ assertion that churches have a spiritual and social role to play. These dual concerns echo Black theologians and politicians both past and present and provided a foundation for the Church’s role in the Civil Rights Movement. Barna’s State of the Black Church study suggests these aims remains central to the Black community. The general Black population (71%) and Black Church churchgoers (79%) say both spiritual and social issues should be the priority of the Church. A very small percentage (6% Black adults, 4% Black Church churchgoers) feels churches’ proper focus is purely spiritual, with the remainder—one in four Black adults (23%), 17 percent of Black Church churchgoers—calling churches to social issues only.

Younger generations of Black Church churchgoers are more likely to report that churches should prioritize social issues (36% Gen Z, 27% Millennials, 18% Gen X, 8% Boomers), showing a notable generational trend in the perceived role of the Black Church. (You can read more about the trends in this research release, including additional data on political identity and priorities for church involvement, in the full briefing on Barna Access.)

These findings speak to the resilience, impact and hope that the Black Church represents in local communities and in the U.S. at large. We will continue to tell those stories through our research in the coming months. 

  • Sign up for email or updates on this series and study; for mobile updates, text TRENDS to 1-415-528-7403
  • Get insights from leaders like Pastor John K. Jenkins , Justin Giboney, Dr. Kendra Momon, Rev. Dr. Brianna K. Parker, Pastor Michael McBride and A.R. Bernard about pastoring and political issues
  • Read the full briefing and extended Q&As from this release with a Barna Access subscription

About the Research

Any effort to capture a political snapshot of the “Black Church” is complicated due to the theological and denominational diversity that characterizes Black churches in the U.S., not to mention the many other ways individual congregants may differ. There is not a “Black Church;” rather, there are Black churches. Furthermore, common categories (i.e., conservative, moderate, liberal) commonly used in polling may only offer limited insight into a wide array of ideologies (i.e., Black nationalism, Black feminism, liberal integrationism). 

2020 data: Online survey of 1,083 U.S. Black adults, plus 822 Black Church churchgoers, conducted April 22–May 6, 2020. The sample error is plus or minus 2.3 percent at the 95 percent confidence level.

Black Church churchgoers are defined by the racial identity of the pastor and the majority of the congregation:

  • Self-identifies as Black
  • Self-identifies as “Christian”
  • Over the past year, on average, attends a church worship service at least “once every six months”
  • Considers their church “a Black church”
  • Notes that their senior pastor is Black
  • Notes that if that senior pastor has another pastor over him / her, that pastor is also Black
  • Notes that their congregation is primarily Black

The study also provides opportunity to further segment and analyze this group by associations with historically Black denominations.

1996 data: Telephone interviews with 802 U.S. Black adults, conducted in March of 1996. The sample error is plus or minus 3.3 percent at the 95 percent confidence level.

Due to methodological changes and context between the 1996 and 2020 surveys, some question language and scales of agreement have changed slightly. 

Photo by Gift Habeshaw from Unsplash

© Barna Group, 2021.

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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