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Multiracial Churches Cater to the White Congregants

Attitudes in multiracial American churches end up like those in white churches, a new study finds.
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(Photo: a katz/Shutterstock)

(Photo: a katz/Shutterstock)

Americans of different races have long worshipped in different churches, but in the past few years, that's been changing. About one in five churchgoing Americans now attend multiracial churches, where no more than 80 percent of the congregation is of any one race. That's almost twice as many as before the turn of the 21st century. The rise of multiracial churches made sociologist Ryon Cobb wonder: Has worshipping alongside minorities made white churchgoers more progressive?

In a new study, Cobb and two colleagues found that it hasn't. When it comes to attitudes about racial inequality in the United States, whites who attend multiracial churches aren't different from whites who go to white churches, the researchers found. Meanwhile, Americans of color who attend multiracial churches tend to take on a conservative view, believing that the reason black Americans tend to fall behind white Americans in income and achievement is because they're unmotivated—not because of racism, or differences in access to education. In contrast, black Americans who attend black churches are likely to attribute the black-white gap to racism and education access. No one has studied what Hispanic-American churchgoers think about the black-white achievement gap, but studies show that, historically, they've typically attributed poverty to structural problems more than individual motivation.

Multiracial churches end up catering to the sensibilities of white congregants.

"Individuals who attend these congregations, their attitudes are somewhat becoming like whites'," says Cobb, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Southern California.

The reason for this, according to Cobb, is that multiracial churches end up catering to the sensibilities of white congregants. Another possible explanation: Americans of color who are already conservative choose to attend multiracial churches over churches made up of congregants of their own race. Cobb doesn't think that's what's happening, however. His team's data show that black attendees of multicultural and black churches have similar average incomes and levels of education, he says, which might indicate that, initially, they weren't different from each other in terms of conservatism, either. "These people are not different from other black people," Cobb says.

Those who lead and go to multiracial churches often talk about wanting to bridge the color line in the U.S., adds Cobb, who is surveying multiracial churches as part of a separate, ongoing study. But the fact that multiracial churches only reinforce a white sensibility suggests they aren't really working. After all, even the most conservative conception for a bridging church would probably involve a reciprocal exchange of ideas and attitudes—not whitewashing everyone. "For people who are religious leaders, our findings really suggest they should re-think their services" in multiracial churches, Cobb says.

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