Black Women Most Religious: Surprised?

A poll finds racial and gender gaps in religiosity. We're not shocked. But the interesting question is, why?

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A quick survey of a diverse group of friends, colleagues and family -- or even just a perusal of pop culture -- could likely have led most Americans to the same conclusion as a nationwide survey conducted by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation: Black women, the poll found, are among the most religious people in the nation, with black men just slightly behind. From the Washington Post:

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.

When it comes to racial gaps in religiosity, the explanations are less obvious than numbers themselves. One expert the Post talked to suggested that "cultural influencers" are at play. And by "cultural influencers," she meant things like vacation Bible school and, yes, better music in the black church:

Clearly, according to the poll, the majority of white women are also believers. But cultural influences probably account for the racial gap, said Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, a professor of sociology and African American studies at Colby College in Maine.

Gilkes, an African American ordained minister and assistant pastor at a Baptist church in Massachusetts, said she has even heard as much from her white academic colleagues. "They say, 'If my parents had taken me to a church that had music like yours, I might still be religious,' " Gilkes said.

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.

Other explanations went a bit deeper, with some theologians arguing that women in general and black women in particular are more religious than men because of their experience with oppression:

"Black women have been the most mistreated and scandalized in U.S. society and culture as they wrestle both individually and collectively with the triple jeopardy of racism, sexism and classism," said Stacey Floyd-Thomas, an associate professor of ethics and society at Vanderbilt University Divinity School. "If that is the case -- and I believe it is -- it is no wonder that black women, due to their experience of sexism, would seek out their faith as a way of finding relief, reprieve, resolution and redemption."

Let us know in the comments: Was anyone surprised by these results? And how should we make sense of the latest evidence that black women continue to lead the way when it comes to religiosity?

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