Over the last few weeks in the United States, the Black community and its allies have spoken out against the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. Powerful and at times contentious protests have taken place in every state and even other nations to call attention to racial inequality and police violence. Though the reach of these demonstrations and related actions are unprecedented, the divides they expose are not new.
A recent Barna study, undertaken with the Racial Justice and Unity Center alongside Michael Emerson, Glenn Bracey and Chad Brennan, highlights stark racial contrasts in perspectives, even within the Church. For instance, only two in five white practicing Christians (38%) believe the U.S. has a race problem. This percentage more than doubles, however, among Black practicing Christians (78%). As this survey was conducted in late summer 2019, it can’t account for any shift due to the present, heated national discussion surrounding racism and white supremacy. But these recent responses point to a disconnection that has led us to this moment: disagreement about whether there is an issue in the first place.
Some initiatives for racial justice take the long view and suggest a need for reparations for the country’s past transgressions of colonization and slavery. Here, too, movement toward certain solutions may depend on reaching agreement about the presence of problems; three-quarters of Black practicing Christians (75%) at least somewhat agree that the U.S. has a history of oppressing minorities, while white practicing Christians are less likely to do so (42%).
Further, there are polarized views in the pews about whether the root of the nation’s race problems is primarily systemic or individual in nature. Data show that three in five white practicing Christians (61%) take an individualized approach to matters of race, saying these issues largely stem from one’s own beliefs and prejudices causing them to treat people of other races poorly. Meanwhile, two-thirds of Black practicing Christians (66%) agree that racial discrimination is historically built into our society and institutions.
It may not come as a surprise that, since white Christians are hesitant to identify ills of prejudice and tend to rank personal conflicts as more serious than societal ones, they aren’t particularly interested in addressing racism at large. Seven in 10 Black practicing Christians (70%) report being motivated to address racial injustice. Only about one-third of white practicing Christians (35%) says the same.
As present conversations and clashes related to race in the U.S. quickly evolve, how will churches show up? It seems some first need to catch up; the 2019 data alone may sober expectations for how white Christians specifically interpret a responsibility to be ministers of racial reconciliation and justice. Still, past Barna reports affirm that the Church’s involvement in this area would be welcome. And present headlines indicate that many Christian leaders and groups are embracing opportunities to denounce white supremacy, provide spiritual and practical care for traumatized communities and organize vigils and demonstrations for the victims of racially motivated violence.
Barna is committing to offer ongoing research and resources to help churches determine how to respond, including free check-ins to gauge of-the-moment perceptions about race and justice. Through Barna Access, our digital subscription service, we’ll also be curating a series of interviews, tools and reports concerning faith and race. Read more from Barna president David Kinnaman about how we’ll be listening to and learning alongside the Church.
About the Research
The research for this study surveyed 2,889 U.S. adults online between July 19 and August 5, 2019 via a national consumer panel. The survey over-sampled Practicing Christians, African American, Asians, and Hispanics. Statistical weighting has been applied in order to maximize representation by age, gender, ethnicity, education, and region. The margin of error is plus or minus 1.89 at a 95% confidence interval.
Practicing Christians are self-identified Christians who have attended a worship service within the past month and agree strongly that their faith is very important in their life.
Barna research is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.
© Barna Group, 2020