In a fascinating and provocative article published at The Atlantic, two white men argue that the Church in Black America helps Black men flourish, thanks to ‘the structure it provides, along with the values it instills’ and the way the Church ‘strengthens employment prospects, family life and more.’ This is an interesting argument, but it does make me a bit twitchy. There is no doubt in my mind that the destruction of the Black nuclear family that followed the Moynihan Report is central to the poverty and poor prospects that confront some, but not all, Black Americans. Black children, especially boys, suffer enormously when they are raised in homes without fathers, but is Christianity the solution, or does it just help to create docility in the Black male population?
Let me say straight up that I was raised as a Christian, but I do not ever remember a time in my life when I believed there was a God. I remember asking my father who created God, and getting a whipping for even asking. I was around six years old. I am not an atheist because I had a bad experience with religion, or because I’m trying to be edgy or cool or rebellious and I certainly don’t think religion is stupid or evil.
I just don’t believe.
It makes no sense to my mind that the universe could exist as a singularity (not a fan of multiple or parallel universe theories), and yet have something outside of it that ‘created’ it. I am well aware that many scientists and scholars who understand the universe deeply have come to the exact opposite conclusion: the existence of the universe is all the proof they need that God exists, and fair enough. Pretty hard to call particle physicists or quantum theorists ‘stupid’. It’s entirely possible that I am the stupid one.
So I write this bearing no ill-will to Christians or Christianity.
Wilcox and Wolfinger ask ‘why do some Black men flourish while others struggle?’, and offer the article of Christian faith and church participation as a key variable.
African American men attend church at rates notably above the national average: 37 percent of those aged 18 to 60 attend several times a month or more, compared to 30 percent of non-black men, according to the 2008-2014 General Social Survey. And compared to their less religious peers, these 6 million or so black men are significantly more likely to thrive. Our new book, Soul Mates: Religion, Sex, Love and Marriage Among African Americans and Latinos, shows they are more likely to be working, avoid crime and incarceration, and get married.
Causation or correlation? There are different theories as to why there is such a disparity between whites and Blacks in America. The political right is generally satisfied with the ‘poor life choices’ narrative, and the left prefers the ‘racism’ narrative. Obviously, both of these things can be true at the same time. Poor life choices leads to felony charges, and racism results in Black men serving longer sentences for the same crimes committed by whites, just as men (of all races) are sentenced to longer prison terms than women for the same crimes.
Wilcox and Wolfinger point to participation in the Black church as a key variable, but what is really startling is that while differences in outcomes are statistically significant, they are still really small! Look at serious crime rates, for example. 24% of non-church attending Black men confessed to committing a serious crime in the previous year, but for those attending church regularly, the rate is still 20%!
Incarceration rates are not that different either:
We see a bigger difference when it comes to Black men either working or going to school, with the regular church-goers clocking in at 81% employed or studying.
And marriage rates are higher for church-going men:
Wilcox and Wolfinger chalk this up to Christian values that include eschewing ‘drunkenness, idleness and immorality’, but is that really the explanation? Certainly Black churches offer a strong sense of community, and brethren from the same denominations likely provide each other with employment networks that allow them to find work opportunities, but that’s true for all organizations, from Churches to bowling leagues. Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone is an excellent exploration of how the breakdown of these community-based networks has led to tremendous alienation for modern societies, and shattered our connections to each other as humans.
Commenters at the Atlantic article expressed fury at what they interpret as a racist attempt to keep Black men on their knees in front of the white master’s God, but I find this accusation baseless. To understand why Churches help Black men in particular, I think we need to look at what purpose religion serves. I’ve been thinking about this issue for some time, and in my view, religion serves three basic purposes for human beings.
First, it answers scientific queries like ‘what is the origin of the universe’ and ‘where did I come from and what is my purpose’ and ‘why do we have so many different types of bugs, but only a few types of horses’? I don’t mean those things to be flippant at all. The more primitive the society, the stronger their religious beliefs, because they have no others means of answering these questions. People are smart and curious. We’ve always wanted to know these things, and religion provides answers. There is nothing stupid or evil about this.
Second, I think religion offers a moral guide for how to live, and most importantly, how to process grief and loss. For most of human history, parents were incredibly unlikely to see all their offspring survive. I’m not sure there is a greater pain than burying a child. And most parents would have had to go through that more than once. I can easily imagine that had I dug graves for five or even more of my own children, I might see religion differently. I expect I would go mad, unless I believed that I was sending them somewhere wonderful and I would hold them once again in the afterlife. There is nothing stupid or evil about this either.
But more importantly than any of this, I think religion provides us with the one single thing we all instinctively crave, need and cannot survive without: the love of a Father. Feminists like to say that the fact most Gods take a male form is evidence for patriarchy and male supremacy, but this is nonsense. It’s pure, brute survival. Without a father, few of us would survive. Religion provides us with a Father who loves us, even if our own fathers do not.
And this is why I think Black men flourish in Black churches.
Every Sunday, they step into the House of their loving Father, no matter where their actual father is. Christianity gives Black men the love of a father, and there is no group of men in America less likely to grow up with a loving, present father than Black men. In 1965, 24% of Black children were born out of wedlock. In 2015, it was 72.2%, compared to 29.4% of white births, and 17.1% for Asians.
Wilcox and Wolfington want to push involvement in organized religion as a strategy to address the problems Black men face, and it’s a nice idea, but Black men would be served far better by addressing their deep need to experience the love of their own fathers. We could accomplish far more to help all men, and by extension all women and all children, by understanding the critical importance of fathers. Children raised with their biological fathers do better on every scale than children raised without their fathers. Kids with dads are happier, smarter and do better in education and employment. Fathers are what Black men are searching for, and the Church is where they find one. It doesn’t have to be that way. We could support Black fathers now, in real, tangible ways, beginning with the simple acknowledgement that they are essential. They’re not luxuries some kids get.
A heavenly Father is a very nice thing, but it’s no substitute for the real thing.
Lots of love,