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Mainline Protestant Churches Are Warmer To Potential Members If They’re White

Christians are called to welcome the stranger in their midst, but, according to a new academic study, some churches are much more likely to reply to an email from a potential new member with a white-sounding name than a black-, Hispanic- or Asian-sounding name.

The study was published in September in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, a peer-reviewed academic journal. A team led by Bradley Wright, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut, sent emails to more than 3,000 churches across America. Each email was ostensibly from a person who had recently moved to the neighborhood, was thinking about joining the congregation, and wanted information about the church or parish. The researchers signed the emails with names that were considered identifiable as white, black, Hispanic or Asian to see whether churches replied to them in different ways. To select the names, researchers used census data to create a short list of names that strongly correlated with a particular racial identity and then used small surveys to see whether people did indeed identify a given name with a particular race.

Overall, churches were statistically significantly1 more likely to reply to writers with names that sounded white. The response rate was 63.5 percent for names considered white, 59.1 percent for Hispanic names, 58.9 percent for black names and 53.8 percent for Asian names. Because all contact was made through email, some churches may have been less prepared to reply at all, but, Wright told me, even the churches with the lowest response rate overall (Pentecostal and Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), with 49.4 percent each) sent enough responses to allow researchers to detect racial biases.

When the researchers grouped churches by affiliation with either the Roman Catholic, mainline Protestant or Evangelical Protestant traditions, they found that Catholics and Evangelical Protestants responded equally to all the names. But they found a significant racial gap in the response of mainline Protestants: a 67.1 percent reply rate for white names, 59.9 percent for blacks, 57.5 percent for Hispanics and 48.9 percent for Asians.2

Only two denominations of the 12 studied had large enough racial gaps to be statistically significant when scrutinized on their own: the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), which is, despite its name, a mainline church, and the American Baptist Churches (also mainline).3 ELCA churches were much more likely to reply to whites than people of other races, and American Baptist churches were more likely to reply to blacks than people of any other race.

The ELCA and several other denominations contacted by FiveThirtyEight did not reply to requests for comment.

In the table below, LCMS refers to the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, and PCUSA refers to the Presbyterian church.

CHANCE OF RECEIVING REPLY BY RACE OF SENDER
DENOMINATION PERCENT WHITE WHITE BLACK HISPANIC ASIAN
ELCA 97% 75% 52% 57% 42%
LCMS 95 69 62 69 59
United Methodist 93 66 46 57 51
Episcopal 92 82 71 65 63
PCUSA 91 48 58 52 40
Southern Baptist 85 59 49 45 43
American Baptist 81 65 72 57 49
Church of Christ 76 52 48 60 55
Assembly of God 72 55 68 51 66
Catholic 65 71 61 66 65
Pentecostal 56 52 49 56 40
Willow Creek N/A 69 71 74 74

The researchers also graded churches on the terseness of their replies, the time elapsed before they sent their replies, whether they volunteered details on their worship services and whether the reply closed with a religious sign-off. Some of these criteria don’t lend themselves to direct comparisons among denominations (e.g., Catholics, who worship according to a standardized liturgy, were unlikely to discuss worship details with email writers of any race).

However, when the letters were graded by readers for the quality of information provided, once again, mainline Protestant churches had a significant racial gap. Blacks and whites received about equally informative replies, but replies sent to Asians and Hispanics were judged to be considerably less helpful. Evangelical Protestants and Catholic churches did not have a significant variation in the quality of their replies by race.

Footnotes

  1. At a p-value of 0.002.
  2. The study contacted 260 congregations for each denomination studied, but, because there are many sub-denominations under the Evangelical or mainline umbrellas but only one Roman Catholic Church, the sample includes far more Evangelical and mainline Protestant congregations than Catholic ones. Specifically, it includes 1,560 Evangelical churches, 1,300 mainline churches and 260 Catholic parishes. Small, but real, racial gaps would be easier to detect in either of the Protestant groupings than for Catholics.
  3. Each of these had a p-value of less than 0.05. Racial gaps would need to be more pronounced to be detectable at the denomination level, as these were.

Leah Libresco is a former news writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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