What is a Black Protestant? Why Are They Their Own Category?

By Ryan P. Burge and Paul A. Djupe

Twitter is a lot of fun. We get a lot of critiques. The sample is too small, they don’t like the way we visualized something, God doesn’t exist. All kinds of good stuff. But, one stuck out when Burge posted a graph of the changes in the religious composition of the United States over the last 46 years.

The graph that Burge posted used a scheme called RELTRAD, which is the most widely used religious typology in academic social science. It was developed in 2000, by a team of sociologists and has become the accepted standard for how we classify American religion. It sorts everyone in the General Social Survey into one of seven categories: evangelical Protestant, mainline Protestant, Black Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, other faith, or none. These seven categories have been cited nearly 1500 times in published scholarship.

If you’re Protestant there are only three buckets for you: evangelical, mainline, and black. We already wrote an explainer about mainline Protestants. But, why is one religious category based on race and not just their religious beliefs? Well, it’s a little complicated. A terrific book on this is Blacks and Whites in Christian America by Shelton and Emerson. In it, they argue that black Protestants are very similar to white Protestants on a number of theological dimensions. However, because of a history of being oppressed, black Protestants have developed an entirely different perspective on religious practice and the role of government to help protect those who are disadvantaged. Because of this fundamentally different orientation, Black Protestants are often categorized unto themselves. Let us try and illustrate the similarities between black and evangelical Protestants and then describe the differences between the groups. By the way, we’ve included at the end of this post (end of this post) a figure showing the proportion who identify as black of each religious group, including Protestant denominations.

To begin broadly, the figure below shows the percentage of the three Protestant traditions (evangelical, mainline, black) that believe that the Bible is the literal word of God from each wave of the General Social Survey since 1972. That is visualized with 95% confidence intervals in the shaded areas. Clearly, the mainline Protestants stand apart with just about a quarter believing in a literal Bible. On the other hand, Black Protestants and white evangelicals have seen a striking level of consistency in their share of biblical literalists (the black sample is smaller so it fluctuates more). Note that in both 2016 and 2018 about 55% of each group believes that the bible should be taken word for word as the truth of God. So, on this one theological dimension (it’s true for others too), there is little daylight between white evangelicals and Black Protestants. How does that translate to social issues?

The GSS asks respondents: What about sexual relations between two adults of the same sex – do you think it is always wrong, almost always wrong, wrong only sometimes, or not wrong at all? The graph below is the percentage of each of the three Protestant traditions who said that they think it is “always wrong.” First, note that all three traditions have seen a decline in opposition to same sex relations, but the angle of that decline is much steeper for mainline Protestants. On the other hand, a majority of white evangelicals and black Protestants still believe that sex between two people of the same sex is always wrong – that’s the case for 3 in 5 white evangelicals and Black Protestants even into 2018. So, again, there is not a lot of daylight between white evangelicals and Black Protestants here in social conservatism.

What about the other key culture war issue: abortion? The bar graphs below indicate the percentage of each Protestant group who supports six different concepts or policies surrounding abortion rights. It’s fascinating to see where the three groups diverge, because it’s not a clear pattern. For instance, in several areas the most pro-choice group is black Protestants. Consider that they are least likely to support an employer declining to pay for abortion as part of their employee’s insurance coverage, or prohibiting federal funds for abortion. Yet, black Protestants are nearly twice as likely as their mainline counterparts to believe that abortion should be completely illegal. But it’s clear here that African-American Protestant views on abortion don’t align completely with the more pro-life white evangelicals and the more pro-choice mainline Protestants.

It seems that some of this opposition to restricting abortion is based on economic concerns. For instance, Joe Biden was persuaded to reject the Hyde Amendment because it made it difficult for women living in poverty to obtain an abortion, an idea that upsets many liberals because it indicates that women of financial means have more freedom than those who do not. And that is largely the crux of the difference between white evangelical and Black Protestants, according to Shelton and Emerson. They contend that decades of being economically disadvantaged has led them to develop a belief that government should help level the playing field for those who are at the bottom end of the socio-economic spectrum.

This comes to the fore in survey data. The CCES asks respondents to balance their state’s budgets with a mix of tax increases and spending reductions. A score of 50 indicates an even mix of increases and cuts, a zero is just tax increases and a 100 is just spending cuts. The figure below visualizes the distribution of responses for each of the three Protestant groups in a ridgeline plot above. The blue ridges denote Black Protestants clearly stand out from the other two groups. Black Protestants are the group that is most likely to pick a value between 0 and 50 – indicating that the balancing should occur more by revenue enhancements than service cuts. In addition, they are much more likely to pick the evenly balanced option of 50 than the other two groups. Both white religious groups – evangelicals and mainliners – indicate that spending cuts are the preferable way to balance the budget in this hypothetical scenario.

The puzzle is that Black Protestants are religiously conservative in belief and behavior and socially conservative by some measures as well, but of course are strongly Democratic. In the 2016 CCES, a whopping 4.4% identified as Republican; 66% were not just Democrats, but strong Democrats, and 24.5% complete the Democratic contingent (total=90.5% Democrats). While once strongly allied with the party of Lincoln, the economic and eventual racial liberalism of the Democratic Party won over Black Protestants so there is virtual unanimity among them in current politics. By contrast, the partisan leanings among mainline and white evangelicals are nowhere near unanimous – 53.5% of evangelicals are Republican, while mainliners are 46% Democrats and 41% Republican.

These differences should appear in their institutional engagements and they do. Congregations tend to be racially segregated in the US so that 11am on Sunday is the most segregated hour in the week. Therefore, the classification scheme is not just an individual one but a corporate, organizational one. Moreover, many black congregations are part of majority black denominations, ones split off from, for instance, the Southern Baptist Convention long ago, reflecting the legacy in the South of sending slaves to church.[1] The SBC apologized in 1995 for its role in supporting slavery and opposition to civil rights through this resolution.

Below we draw on the National Congregations Study panel data available from the ARDA, which surveyed congregations identified by General Social Survey participants. It’s a smart way of getting a national sample of congregations (weighted by attendance). In each of the three waves, the survey asked an informant if the congregation engaged in a wide variety of activities, including several overtly political ones: voter registration, political discussion, get out the vote, “to organize or participate in efforts to lobby elected officials of any sort,” and “to organize or participate in a demonstration or march either in support of or opposition to some public issue or policy.” The mode (most common response) for each religious group was zero of these activities, but the mode was vastly different in size across groups. Only 24% of Catholic parishes engaged in zero activities, while 68% of white conservative Protestants engaged in zero. Lest you think there’s an ideological gap rather than a racial gap, 64% of those gauged to be white liberal or moderate Protestants (essentially the mainline) engaged in zero as well.

It is common to stereotype Black Protestant congregations as highly political. The results showcase that politics is present and even regular in congregations, if not an overwhelming presence. Of course, how we’ve measured this through the NCS is not the only way for a congregation to be political (it’s missing political speech by clergy, for instance), but Black Protestants are more engaged than majority white Protestant denominations. It is very uncommon for a congregation to be engaged in all 5, though there are some – 8% of non-Christians and 2% of Black Protestants, for instance. It is important to affirm, however, that there is a range of political engagement among all congregations in the US, Black Protestants included.

Political action by religious groups is linked to specific public policy concerns (they act on purpose), but those are surprisingly plural. Another way to think about their political involvement is that their concerns often lie close to the needs of the congregation and community (check out the research of Michael Leo Owens on this point in God and Government in the Ghetto: The Politics of Church-State Collaboration in Black America). If this is true, then congregations should be more involved when they recognize unfilled community needs (Djupe and Gilbert’s 2003 book engages this as does Laura Olson’s 2000 book). Fortunately, the NCS data asked about this in their panel and the results are below. In each tradition, conducting some form of community needs assessment is linked to roughly double the rate of political activity. The baseline is different across traditions, highlighting the different experiences that white religious groups have versus traditions with more racial minorities.

Black Protestants are the most likely to engage in community needs assessments (67%) followed by non-Christians and Catholics. It is actually Catholics who are the most politically active, however the rate of increase from engaging in a community needs assessment is almost the same across religious groups – each group almost doubles their political activity (~1.8). The lesson is that the needs of the local community are tantamount in motivating political activity among religious groups in the United States. Racial minorities and hence their religious groups and communities face greater needs from poverty and discrimination and its associated problems than whites and their religious groups.

The very fact that we’re writing this tells us something very important about religion. The social and political implications of religion will vary depending on who believes it and where it is situated. Black Protestants and whites evangelicals could both be called evangelicals, in the main, given their religious beliefs and behaviors, but their experiences in the US lead them on far different political paths. That does not sound much like Religious Influence, but it does sound like religious influence where religion is a tool for local communities of believers. In this way, religion is deeply enmeshed in the Black community’s ongoing struggle for civil rights, more central in some communities relative to others. That treatment has had lasting implications expressed in black congregations, black clergy, black denominations, and black civil rights organizations that are their own forces in American politics and help hold this political coalition together and mobilized.

Ryan P. Burge teaches at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. He can be contacted via Twitter or his personal website.

Paul A. Djupe, Denison University, is an affiliated scholar with PRRI, the series editor of Religious Engagement in Democratic Politics (Temple), and co-creator of religioninpublic.blog (see his list of posts). Further information about his work can be found at his website and on Twitter.

Further Reading

McDaniel, Eric L. 2008. Politics in the Pews: The Political Mobilization of Black Churches. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Owens, Michael L. 2007. God and Government in the Ghetto: The Politics of Church-State Collaboration in Black America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Shelton, Jason E., and Ryon J. Cobb. 2018. “Black Reltrad: Measuring Religious Diversity and Commonality Among African Americans.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 56(4): 737-764.

Shelton, Jason E., and Michael O. Emerson. 2012. Blacks and Whites in Christian America: How Racial Discrimination Shapes Religious Convictions. New York: NYU Press.


1. How classification schemes treat race varies. Without detailed denominational measures, some schemes simply filter all Blacks who are Protestant to be Black Protestant. The Steensland et al. scheme selects historically Black denominations and then selectively filters white denominations – blacks who attend the ELCA are not filtered into Black Protestantism, while blacks who attend SBC or ABC churches are filtered into the Black Protestant category.

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