One of the recurring topics of our class has been the fact that the Christian Church in America is a tool that reinforces segregation. We first saw this in I Am Not Your Negro, in which Baldwin, in an interview with Dick Cavett, exclaims: “I don’t know if white Christians hate Negroes or not, but I know we have a Christian Church which is white and a Christian Church which is Black. I know, as Malcolm X once put it, the most segregated hour in American life is high noon on Sunday. That says a great deal for me about a Christian nation. It means I can’t afford to trust most white Christians and I certainly cannot trust the Christian Church.” I was interested in this quote, as we discussed the misattribution of it in class on Wednesday. For that reason, I did a little bit of research about the quote as well as the topic of racial segregation in Christian churches.
Although Baldwin attributes the quote to Malcolm X, I was only able to find a similar quote from Martin Luther King Jr., who said, “I think it is one of the tragedies –– one of the shameful tragedies –– that 11 o’clock on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours, if not the most segregated hour, in Christian America” (King). Baldwin reiterates King’s point in later works such as “Down at the Cross,” in which he writes “In the same way that we, for white people, were the descendants of Ham, and were cursed forever, white people were, for us, the descendants of Cain” (Collected Essays 310).
This begs the question: has anything changed? Are churches today more integrated than they were fifty years ago? Well, the answer is complicated. According to a 2001 article, up to 87% of Christian churches were racially homogenous, with 69% of congregations being almost entirely white and 18% of congregations almost entirely Black (Vischer). But of course, such a statistic is suspect, as the study only considered Black and white Americans, without noting if a church was attended by Asian, latinx, or Indigenous populations. More recently, the Pew research center noted that “[m]any U.S. congregations are still racially segregated, but things are changing” (Lipka). According to their 2014 study, 20% of Americans attend a church in which no single racial group constitutes more than 80% of the congregation. This begs new questions: is a Church that’s 80% white, but say, 20% latinx no longer a tool of anti-Black segregation? Likewise, just because 20% of Americans attend such churches, that doesn’t mean that anything has changed. Maybe those individuals just attend a handful of “Megachurches” with huge populations. Regardless, the fact remains that Christian churches, on average, are largely racially homogenous. Until things seriously change, Baldwin’s statements reflect a vital and highly disconcerting critique that Christians of all denominations should reflect upon.