Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Broadly, the relationships between civil rights and the churches and religion in the United States are at least threefold: (1) behaviors and attitudes of church members of majority, predominantly white churches and denominations relative to inclusive membership; (2) the attitudes of these members to social activism, especially by the clergy; and (3) African American religion and the black church as helping or hindering civil rights advances.

Early studies on racial inclusiveness often focused on white attitudes. In 1965, Earl D. C. Brewer reported on data from delegates to the white United Methodist Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference. Clergy held more inclusive attitudes than laity. Also more inclusive were younger respondents, those exhibiting geographic mobility, residents of larger cities, and those with more education.

Some researchers have examined the degree to which inclusiveness actually occurs and in what contexts. C. Kirk Hadaway and colleagues (1984), using national sample data, report that about a third of whites do attend churches with at least a few blacks. Factors associated with this include education and income levels, region, and place of residence. Most important in predicting inclusiveness was living in urban areas and not living in the South and Midwest. For blacks, it is noted, the "fear of assimilation into 'white culture,' while certainly not new, may now overshadow concern with segregation in the church environment" (p. 217). For earlier studies on racial inclusiveness, with some data, see the references given by Nelsen (1975).

Half a century earlier, the classic study by H. Richard Niebuhr, The Social Sources of Denominationalism (Holt 1929), had a chapter titled "Denominationalism and the Color Line," which emphasized the social source (racism) as the cause of racial schism. Niebuhr held out little hope for the union of white and black denominations that were so divided (see Hill [1967] for a later analysis). Hadaway et al. (1984) observe that "a surprisingly large proportion of whites do attend churches with blacks" and that levels have increased since the 1960s.

The 1950s and 1960s saw the clergy increasingly involved in civil rights activism. The African American churches provided leadership, places to meet, and, especially, a network of members within the churches that could be counted upon for resources (especially see Morris 1984, also McAdam 1982; for an overview of Martin Luther King, Jr., and his ministry and leadership, Fairclough 1995). The white churches and leaders (ministers) were also involved but less so (and more in the 1960s than the 1950s). White clergy were more favorable to civil rights activism and were more likely to be involved than their laity (see Hadden 1969). Earlier, Hadden and Rymph studied clergy from several denominations attending an urban training program in Chicago. Half of these clergy chose to participate in a civil rights demonstration and to be arrested. Those arrested were younger, were from denominations taking pro-integration stands, were themselves not responsible to all-white congregations, and had roommates at this program who also chose to be arrested.

Perhaps the classic study on (mostly the lack of) civil rights activism in (southern) white churches was by Campbell and Pettigrew, who examined the relationship between attitude and behavior on the part of Little Rock ministers relative to the crisis over the admission of black students to Central High School in the fall of 1957. For the Little Rock ministers, there existed three reference systems relating to the final outcome of behavior (two of four ministers escorting the black students, along with numerous black leaders, were local white clergy). Of 29 local clergy interviewed, sixteen were "inactive integrationists," eight were active integrationists (most of whom experienced "serious difficulty with their members"), and five were segregationists not active in defending that position. The three reference systems were self (ministers' own views), membership (already noted), and professional (other ministers and church bureaucrats, who did not impose sanctions, in part because local clergy were not expected to lose their churches or their members). Campbell and Pettigrew saw inaction as a "typical response to conflicting pressures." (On social justice power, and for an introduction to the Campbell and Pettigrew study, see Neal 1984.) Campbell and Pettigrew did not see clergy roles centering on social action as existing (but see Nelsen et al. 1973, Quinley 1974).

From his study of 28 denominations, James R. Wood (1970) found that the strength of the church's policy on civil rights is positively related to the degree of leadership authority, with the more hierarchical churches being more in favor and the congregational type less so. The denomination's stand could range from commending integrated services and citizens having equal access to public accommodation, to providing sanctions against local units (churches) refusing to integrate and not approving interracial marriage. The continuing importance of the liberal Protestant denominations relative to social action has been discussed by Wood as recently as 1990.

Hart M. Nelsen


E. D. C. Brewer, "Attitudes Toward Inclusive Practices in the Methodist Church in the Southeast," Review of Religious Research 6(1965):82-89

E. Q. Campbell and T. F. Pettigrew, Christians in Racial Crisis (Washington, D.C.: Public Affairs Press, 1959a)

E. Q. Campbell and T. F. Pettigrew, "Racial and Moral Crisis," American Journal of Sociology 64(1959b):509-516

A. Fairclough, Martin Luther King, Jr . (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995)

C. K. Hadaway et al., "The Most Segregated Institution," Review of Religious Research 23(1984):204-219

J. K. Hadden, The Gathering Storm in the Churches (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1969)

J. K. Hadden and R. C. Rymph, "Social Structure and Civil Rights Involvement," Social Forces 45(1966):51-61

S. S. Hill, Southern Churches in Crisis (New York: Holt, 1967)

D. McAdam, Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982)

A. Morris, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement (New York: Free Press, 1984)

M. A. Neal, "Social Justice and the Right to Use Power," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 23(1984):329-340

H. M. Nelsen, "Why Do Pastors Preach on Social Issues?" Theology Today 32(1975):56-73

H. M. Nelson et al., "Ministerial Roles and Social Actionist Stance," American Sociological Review 38(1973):375-386

H. E. Quinley, The Prophetic Clergy (New York: Wiley, 1974)

J. R. Wood, "Authority and Controversial Policy," American Sociological Review 35(1970):1057-1069

J. R. Wood, "Liberal Protestant Social Action in a Period of Decline," in Faith and Philanthropy in America , ed. R. Wuthnow and V. Hodgkinson (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1990): 164-186.

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