Reporters discover black women like religion

It's refreshing to read a story about the religious beliefs not necessarily tied to politics or fights or money or scandal. Most Americans really do just believe in some kind of faith, and it's nice to see media outlets covering demographic beliefs.

For instance, black women are among the country’s most religious groups, the Washington Post reports. A reader sent us the story, saying, "I am an absolute sucker for stories like this one because they are about real people and their relationship to God and not about politics and theological fights."

The poll, the most extensive look at black women’s lives in decades, reveals that as a group, black women are among the most religious people in the nation. Although black men are almost as religious as their female counterparts, there is a more stark divide along racial lines.

The survey found that 74 percent of black women and 70 percent of black men said that “living a religious life” is very important. On that same question, the number falls to 57 percent of white women and 43 percent of white men.

But in times of turmoil, about 87 percent of black women — much more than any other group — say they turn to their faith to get through. Black women, across education and income levels, say living a religious life is a greater priority than being married or having children, and this call to faith either surpasses or pulls even with having a career as a life goal, the survey shows.

The piece puts the study in historical context, illustrating why black Americans might be more religious. What's unclear from the summary is why black women are still more religious than black men.

African Americans are more likely to have grown up with gospel music in the background of their lives, as well as with a mother or grandmother who insisted on all-day church on Sundays and Bible school in the summers.

Inextricably woven into black culture has been the sense that devotion and faith in God more strongly connect black men and women to their slave ancestors, who leaned on religious faith to help maintain their dignity in the face of discrimination and harsh and unjust treatment.

Some theologians argue that women in general and black women in particular are more religious than men because of their experience with oppression.

As our reader friend put it:

I think there's some truth in the part about poverty and oppression leading to more belief in God. After all, there is Mark 10:25. But I wanted someone to offer that religious perspective and not for that to come from only secular sources.

The piece does follow up with those from a religious perspective but in more general terms.

In follow-up interviews with some of the black women surveyed, there seemed to be little or no angst about their religious beliefs or their role in the church. The women said their focus is on one thing: their personal relationship with God.

He may belong to everyone, the women said, but He knows them individually, and guides them, cares for them — even chastises them. He is a God they can talk to about anything, and He talks back, not in the booming Charlton Heston-like voice of the movies, but through the seeming coincidences that occur at just the right time. It’s when that good idea or answer to something they have been struggling with just appears to come out of nowhere, the women said. And it is that deeply felt, inexplicable sense about what is right or wrong.

When life is harsh and doesn’t turn out as they expect, they say, they rely even more strongly on God.

I like the initiative here to follow up with women surveyed, but it's unclear whether these summaries of what "women said" really means they all reported similar statements, or if the reporter is extending individual statements to the rest of the cohort.

Some black women, including Tricia Elam, a 58-year-old Buddhist, have found peace in non-Christian faiths.

Elam grew up attending a Protestant church and was drawn to Buddhism in her adult years. She has been practicing the faith for 25 years, starting when she was an administrative law judge and was envious of a co-worker’s resolute calm. When she asked him his secret and he revealed that he was a practicing Buddhist, Elam went to check out a Buddhist center.

She was captivated by the sound of the repetitive, songlike chant, performed collectively by members in a group. At the time, her newfound faith was the main thing that helped her survive an acrimonious divorce, she said. “It just seemed to be something I was hungry for.”

This anecdote is fine, but it left me wondering what the breakdown would be between kinds of religion black Americans practice. The Pew Forum, for instance, suggests that 59 percent attend historically black Protestant churches, 15 percent attend evangelical churches, 12 percent are unaffiliated, and just 5 percent attend churches that are not those, Catholic or mainline Protestant. So the number of black Buddhists who are women has to be pretty small. When you're divvying up your story space, it seems like it would make sense to use an anecdote that illustrates a more representative group, right?

The story subject and the angle were on track, but perhaps a few things could have been stronger in the editing process.

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