50 Years After MLK, Sunday Segregation Isn’t Theological
April 4, 2018
According to sociology’s top survey, black and white evangelicals have more in common than politics conveys.
One of Martin Luther King Jr.’s most enduring statements regarding the church was his observation that “the most segregated hour of the week” was 11 a.m. on Sunday.
King’s commentary on how the modern church had failed to racially integrate in any meaningful way may be decades old; however, those who study religiosity in the United States continue to see the difficulty in bringing together Protestant traditions that have historically split along racial lines.
Anyone who has participated in both can immediately attest to the differences between a traditional evangelical worship service, such as at a Southern Baptist church, and a service at a historically black church, such as an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) congregation.
But, are those distinctions mostly stylistic? Do African American Protestants adopt a different theological perspective than their white counterparts? The data points to a simple reality: These two groups that seem so disparate on the surface actually have much more in common than either realize.
In 1984, the General Social Survey (GSS)—sociology’s gold standard due to its longevity and massive sample size—began asking respondents how they viewed the Bible, with responses ranging from “the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally” to “the Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by men.”
The GSS findings reflect essentially two strains of theology in American Christianity. On the one hand, very few mainline Protestants and Catholics hold a literalist view of the Bible. Over the last 30 years, about 1 in 5 of each group would say the Bible is literally true.