The difference in how blacks and Caucasians worship is the subject of a new book written by a UTA sociology and anthropology professor.
Blacks and Whites in Christian America: How Racial Discrimination Shapes Religious Convictions is the result of a study that began when authors Jason Shelton and Michael Emerson noticed black people pray more than Caucasians.
Shelton, a sociology and anthropology assistant professor, and Emerson, a professor of sociology at Rice University in Houston, took a look at race and Christianity through focus groups and 14 clergy members of both races.
Shelton said he became inspired to write the book after spending time doing sociology research at Rice University in Houston.
During his research, Shelton noticed the difference between the way black and Caucasians worship. He said he didn’t set out to write the book, but he couldn’t ignore his findings.
“What I was finding was a couple of things,” he said. “The idea that African-Americans go to church more often than white people, why would that be? Also blacks tend to interpret the Bible more literally, an accumulation of all of these findings, is what led to the accumulation of the results.”
In the book, he and Emerson didn’t get serious about writing until an encounter with a woman, who they called Sharon.
The woman was black and was there for a research interview. Before the interview, Shelton and Emerson allowed her some time to freshen up.
Shelton said in the book, he thought the woman sensed the interview wasn’t going well, so she said to ease her nerves, she prayed in the bathroom. She also went on to share how many times she prays and where.
“We all shared in a good laugh,” the authors said in the book, after the woman told them of praying in the bathroom. “But then she went on to tell us how she prays several times a day, just about anywhere and whenever she feels the need to ‘call on the Lord.’ ”
The authors looked at the subject through social relationships and built on research of others.
“Before going any further, we must establish several points,” the authors said in the book. “First we are trained as sociologists, not as theologians or historians. Most of the existing research in this area has been produced by the latter groups, rather than the former.”
Shelton, who is black, interviewed the black participants and Emerson, who is Caucasian, interviewed the Caucasian participants. The authors said they did this to make each race feel more open to speaking about their religion.
They found that there is a large difference in the way blacks and Caucasians worship. They also found that blacks are more comfortable talking about racial divide than Caucasians. Two Caucasian subjects who decided later not to participate in the study stated the reason they were uncomfortable with the research was to them, religion should see no color.
“For instance, a white woman who participated in a focus group was forthcoming in her confusion about a survey finding that people who say that their race is ‘very important’ to them also tend to pray more than other people,” the unidentified pair said in the book. “In an irritated tone she said, ‘I’m really shocked at that statement, that people who pay more attention to their race pray more. That blows me away. But it should be the opposite. I can’t quite put it together, but that doesn’t jibe right with me, because Christians shouldn’t even be looking at race.’ ”
In the book, they also delve into why people tend to worship inside their own racial groups.
“Blacks tend to celebrate enthusiastically, and whites worship more internally,” a quote from the book states. “They celebrate their different religions very differently, they also have different moral meanings. At the core of religious differences, however, whites and blacks have the same beliefs.”
Walter Turner, Intervarsity Christian Fellowship director at UTA, said he grew up in an all-black Evangelical church. Turner, a black minister, agrees that black people celebrate differently. Now he goes to a Pentecostal church where the parishioners are mainly Caucasian. Turner said the difference is in the music and interaction with the minister.
“In black churches, they are more expressive and outspoken. They respond to the minister or shout an ‘Amen,’” he said. “The church I go to now, when someone shouts ‘Amen,’ it’s usually me. Everybody says ‘There’s Walter, again.’ ”
The authors take the differences in religious worship all the way back to the days of slavery. Blacks during that time period would hold secret religious worship sessions. They relied on God to help them out of the dark situation slavery brought. This belief still holds true for the importance of religion to blacks even today. Reliance on God will help them overcome even the darkest situations in their lives.
“The God evoked by oppressed blacks was a God seeking their best interests. This God, through Jesus Christ, desired to release them from suffering and give them freedom,” the book states.
The book shows blacks have a larger spiritual aspect in their faith than Caucasians. Black people tend to believe in what the book calls the black sacred cosmos, which relates to non-Christian aspects such as more supernatural beliefs that go against traditional Christian-based theology.
Shelton said he found this aspect of the study the most surprising.
He said blacks tend to believe in more far-reaching fundamentals such as astrology and reincarnation. He said more blacks read horoscopes. Also, he said it’s not that someone comes back in a different way, it’s more of seeing loved ones after they die.
“The thinking is from a major form of African faith, which is just because your loved one dies doesn’t mean you won’t see them again,” he said. “They believe they will see their loved ones again in another form, such as a dream where they give them a message that helps them through a situation in their lives.”
Gary Stidham, Baptist Student Ministry director, said he agrees that people in general tend to worship inside their own racial groups. However, he said he doesn’t think that’s a bad thing.
“The way we explain unity and diversity is this, ‘We worship Jesus and he unifies us,’” he said. “We don’t see diversity as division.”
Jason Shelton is a sociology and anthropology assistant professor.