Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Not Black Enough... for Church?

Several months back, I was contacted by a producer from Soledad O'Brien's "Black in America" series. While I was hoping that Soledad wanted to interview me, that wasn't the request. Instead, the producer was reaching out to those of us who write about interracial relationships to see if we could help with a story. They were looking for an engaged interracial couple looking to marry in a church in which they both felt comfortable.

While the request may sound a little contrived, it's clear the effort was reaching for the complex issues surrounding how segregated religion remains in America. Looking for an interracial couple would allow Soledad and her producers to explore that fact through the unique paradigm of a fast-growing segment of the marrying population.

I did my best to help with the project, but when I talked to the couples I knew, I discovered something interesting: none of them were religious enough to be planning a church wedding. And that becomes even more interesting when you consider the data on black Americans and religion.

In a study published last year, The Pew Research Foundation found that compared to other racial groups, African-Americans are among the most likely to report a formal religious affiliation, with fully 87% of African-Americans describing themselves as belonging to one religious group or another, according to the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, conducted in 2007 by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life. Fifty-nine percent of those who identified a denomination said that they belonged to "historically black Protestant churches."

For those of you who don't understand what this means, it means that eight out of ten black Americans are religious, and that of those, more than half belong to an all-black church.

When you think it about, these numbers explain why the "Black in America" producers were interested in finding an interracial couple for their program-- and why they had to put out the "all-alert" to find a couple that fit their parameters. It stands to reason that people who are deeply religious would choose to marry those who share their spiritual beliefs and belong to a similar (or the same) church. That bears true with the religious married interracial couples that I know: they either belonged to the same church when they met or very similar ones. These were mixed race churches where they both already felt welcome.

But the non-religious couples were what intrigued me. This is far from scientific, of course, since I only know a handful of engaged interracial couples, but each of them said they weren't religious AT ALL and no plans for church weddings. Actually, these black women and their white fiances mirrored my own situation: neither Kevin or I are particularly religious. We were married at the county courthouse--not in a church. And while we have attended both predominantly white and black churches together, it's our own choice, not the composition of the churches that has kept us from joining.

Being more agnostic in my spiritual beliefs puts me outside the norm for a black american woman, since the Pew study found that 84% of black women surveyed said that their religious beliefs were "very important" to them. And fully 91% of black women said that they were affiliated with some kind of organized religious institution. Only 9% of black women say they are unaffiliated-- compared to 16% of men.

These numbers remind me of some other statistics-- the statistics on black men (15%) and black women(6.5%) who are married interracially. Is there a link?

Deborrah Cooper, author of the blog surviving dating thinks so. In a recent post, entitled,The Black Church: How Black Churches Keep African American Women Single and Lonely she interpreted the Pew Study to suggest that traditional black churches are part of the problem for black women, who may follow teachings that discourage them from "going where the men are."

I don't know that I completely agree, but I did find it interesting that so many of the interracial engaged couples I spoke with in my efforts to help out this TV producers laughed at the idea of a church wedding and proclaimed themselves "not into that." These black women were, like me, in the minority co-hort of women of our race...both in our attitudes toward religion and our choice of partner.

I've been called "not black enough" for other reasons in my life (liking school, talking a certain way, marrying white etc.) but this is an interesting new divide. Deborrah Cooper's piece has a lot of people talking about race, religion and romance. I think that's a good thing. I often tell people that if you do what you've always done, you'll get what you've always gotten. It's fine as long as you're happy with what's in your life. But if you're not, things may have to change... including, perhaps where you worship and with whom.


  1. Well, I'm someone who considers herself to be Christian, who attends church almost every Sunday, and who is also very open to dating IR. LOL! But I do have to acknowledge that I am probably not as devout as some and, I'm also not steadfast about the religion of my partner as I'm also open to dating and marrying men of other religious backgrounds as well.

    I think the problem for many women, as Deborrah Cooper discussed in her blog, is that they don't venture too far away from church. I may attend church services regularly but I'm also willing to go to sports bars or go online to meet men. You can't put all your eggs in one basket.

    I also don't look at church solely as a venue to meet men- it's just one avenue. It's a place where I can go to develop myself spiritually.

  2. Zabeth,

    I think you're right. Deborrah is also critical of churches that teach that women shouldn't make any efforts to pursue relationships and should instead "wait" for God to provide. Whatever happened to "heaven helps those who help themselves"?

    I think a certain degree of ideological flexibility is important-- especially in IR, since chances are pretty good that religion is just one of the many areas that we might have been socialized differently.

    Didn't mean any offense to regular churchgoers, though. Just a very non-scientific observation!

  3. Karyn, the "minister" (I don't know his divinity credentials) here says online dating is inappropriate for husband-seeking Christian women. Do you think this sort of church teaching might just keep these alone and waiting for a man to drop out of the sky?