Vol. 10, No. 6 email@example.com www.thespiritualherald.org June 2011 © 2011 Eastern Tsalagi Publishing Co.
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People Turn to Faith in Times of Trouble
By Wilbur Smith
NEW YORK--Religion in America is in a state of flux, but the black church continues to face not only discrimination and poverty, but new economic woes, as well.
There are many factors for the changing state--outstanding among them is long-standing racism--but the economy is proving to be a new engine that is driving the problem to new heights.
When religion collides with the economy, the people turn to God, Howard University Theology Professor Harold Dean Trulear, Ph.D., told The Spiritual Herald.
“More and more people historically in times of poverty and economic distress turn to religion,” he said. “Religion is one of the places people turn when they don’t have money.”
It certainly seems to be the case in these days of recession and unemployment. “So I would expect to see a disproportionate number of people with religious affiliations being poorer,” he added.
An economy that condemns racial and ethnic minorities to poverty through discrimination and disparities batters, discourages and breaks down churches and congregations that cannot participate or support them.
Trulear’s comments were made in connection with a recent Pew Forum survey that indicated that much of the black church in America today exists somewhere East of Eden in an economically deprived Land of Nod.
The broad survey also focuses on some affluent religions—and there are thriving, healthy African American congregations—but a majority of minority churches--Pentecostals, Baptists, and other traditionally black Protestant denominations—fall into a category of the low-income poor.
The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life based on interviews with more than 35,000 Americans found that economic disparities are immense, especially between the predominantly white churches and those of African Americans, other people of color, and minorities.
Reasons for the disparities, including racial discrimination, were not extensively analyzed, but the current recession with widespread unemployment and the squeezed lives of minorities is certainly significant.
Professor Trulear noted too the effect of poverty on the disintegration of social unity in black neighborhoods as those who could moved away, leaving the neighborhood and its church in a more distressed condition.
“The black church was an economic anchor at a time when it was the center of the community,” he said. “That’s geographically as well as activity-wise, so that you had more neighborhood churches, more interactions between people, economically.
"The dollar was circulating in a different manner. Now, so many black churches are commuter churches. People drive in from Harlem or drive into Brooklyn from Long Island. It’s no longer the geographic hub of activity, and it no longer produces the kind of social capital, the kind of relationships, that enabled people to do the kind of trading that’s characteristic of an economic system.
"It’s not clear to me that the discrimination is religion-based, which is what I think the Pew survey was getting at. But discrimination does seem to be race-based and ethnicity-based."
Indeed, the material suggests that racial and ethnic discrimination and poverty are assailing the black church and neighborhoods and not religion.
The survey found there is a considerable falling off of religious affiliation, including the black Protestant church. "The United States is on the verge of becoming a minority Protestant country,” Pew reported. "The number of Americans who report that they are members of Protestant denominations now stands at barely 51 percent.
“The Protestant population is characterized by significant internal diversity and fragmentation, encompassing hundreds of different denominations loosely grouped around three fairly distinct religious traditions—evangelical Protestant churches (26.3 percent of the overall adult population), mainline Protestant churches (18.1 percent) and historically black Protestant churches (6.9 percent).
“Although there are about half as many Catholics in the U.S. as Protestants, the number of Catholics nearly rivals the number of members of evangelical Protestant churches and far exceeds the number of members of both mainline Protestant churches and historically black Protestant churches.” said Pew.
The money income divide tells a grim story. The economic divergence among religions is wide, and even more so by regions and states; the South with large black populations, Baptists and Pentecostals, is the hardest hit.
Leading income levels among main line faiths is Reform Judaism, with 67 percent earning more than $75,000 a year compared with only 31 percent of the population as a whole. Hindus were second, at 65 percent, and Conservative Jews were third, at 57 percent.
At the lower end are Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Baptists. Baptists came in at about $40,000, and only 20 percent or fewer made at least $75,000. The share of Baptist households making $40,000 or less is roughly the same as the share of Reform Jews making $100,000 or more.
Religion like everything else in America, it seems, rises or falls on the economy and not on the faith of its religion or its followers. How many worshippers or their children fall away from church or do not attend because they are distracted by poverty, street crime, sickness or hunger?
It does not appear to be a lack of faith among African Americans, as Pew noted. "Of all the major racial and ethnic groups in the United States, black Americans are the most likely to report a formal religious affiliation.
“Even among those blacks who are unaffiliated, three-in-four belong to the 'religious unaffiliated' category (that is, they say that religion is either somewhat or very important in their lives), compared with slightly more than one-third of the unaffiliated population overall.
“Members of Baptist churches account for one-third of all Protestants and close to one-fifth of the total U.S. adult population. Baptists also account for nearly two-thirds of members of historically black Protestant churches."
Professor Trulear told The Herald, “African Americans tend to score lower on economic indexes, but they’re also higher on religiosity and religious participation, so therefore there would be a religious disparity based on the fact that most of these poor people have some kind of religious affiliation.
"I’m surprised that religion would be a controlling variable for economic well-being, because historically religion has not been a determinative factor, though sometimes it’s reflective."
The economic reality is that the more affluent religions have the resources to provide good schools, better education, send their children to college and give them a leg up to enter professions, while the poor attend indifferent schools, drop out, and if they continue face low pay or unemployment. It is the economic social and cultural gap that defines them and not their struggling churches.
Professor Trulear considered the effect of poverty on faith.
"When I was in New York in the 1990s, 90 percent of all white people in the City of New York who went to church were Catholic. The Protestant community was overwhelmingly black, Latino and Asian.
"There was a sense that the white Protestant church and white Protestants had abandoned New York City. That was 20 years ago. Today what you see is more and more African American Protestants leaving the city. We used to talk about 'white flight,' now you have a parallel black middle class flight across the country.
“You have more and more people who are commuting back in to their old church. There are also these growing megachurches where people from the neighborhood are going to church outside to the megachurch. You have people in Harlem and Long Island going to church in Brooklyn.
“Horizontal mobility has destabilized neighborhoods, and churches can’t have the impact they once had," he said. "Now they can provide services—they can feed the hungry or pass out clothes or do counseling.
“I came from a generation where people did it because you were a neighbor. People just did things for each other that now we have to put into the service industry. It’s not that the churches aren’t serving people, but what they’ve done is turn them into clients and they’ve lost the sense of ‘neighbor.’
“What you’ve done is taken away the relationships, the neighborhood feel. The church can’t anchor the neighborhood because the people in the neighborhood don’t necessarily go to that church,” Trulear added.