Just Give ‘Em a Little Jesus: Black Marriage Meets White Paternalism

Photo courtesy of Rell via Creative Commons 2.0
Photo courtesy of Rell via Creative Commons 2.0

These days, a standard caveat from some religious black folk is that errant souls just “need Jesus” to straighten them out. From white Christian missionaries to inner-city street corner evangelists, “getting Jesus” and going to church have long been touted as the great antidotes to criminality and “bad behavior.”

In their new book Soul Mates: Religion, Sex, Love and Marriage Among African Americans and Latinos, white Family Studies’ researchers W. Bradford Wilcox and Nicholas H. Wolfinger use this thesis to draw sweeping conclusions about churchgoing and recidivism rates among African-American and Latino men, arguing that faith plays a key role in helping them “flourish.”

In a recent article in The Atlantic, entitled “How the Church Allows Black Men to Thrive,” the authors cite the higher levels of religiosity among African-American men, claiming that “compared to their less religious peers, these 6 million or so black men are significantly more likely to thrive.” But it’s unclear who these “less religious peers” are (other black men? Non-black men?), because in the previous sentence Wilcox and Wolfinger note that non-black men are significantly less religious than black men.

However, although African Americans as a whole are overwhelmingly religious, black men have disproportionate rates of homicide, unemployment, incarceration and homelessness. In their data, the authors found that “only 4 percent of young black men aged 22 to 26 who attended church earlier in their 20s ended up in prison, compared to 6 percent who did not regularly attend church, again after controlling for a wide range of social and economic factors.”

Yet, the 2 percent difference between those who did and did not recidivate is hardly a ringing endorsement of faith or churchgoing. And the suggestion that there is a causal relationship between faith and lower recidivism rates is simply not supported by the data. One might ask: how is “faith” being defined? Is it “faith” in biblical literalism with its rigid gender roles and prohibitions on female sexuality and autonomy? And what social supports and employment options did the two groups of men have? What crimes were they convicted of? Presumably those who attended church were also beneficiaries of prisoner reentry programming and structured initiatives provided by church institutions—resources that were unavailable to those who did not attend church. If this is the case, then “faith” did not curtail recidivism—job training, educational counseling, mentoring, etc. were likely more responsible.

The authors appear to confuse “faith” with social welfare provision—an institutional benefit that does not require religion or Christian morality. Because of the intersection of racial segregation, wealth inequality and capitalism, black churches are often the most prominent providers of social welfare in working-class and middle-class African-American communities. Given these disparities, some churches may in fact provide a path out of recidivism because they are literally the only accessible avenue for cultural and communal connection in neighborhoods devastated by economic depression. But to suggest that recidivism is the most salient measure of black male “flourishing” ignores the insidious harm caused by cultures of sexual abuse, homophobia and transphobia that male-dominated churches often prop up and enable.

Further, recent studies have reinforced the secular thesis that religiosity does not determine moral behavior. Indeed, a study published last year in Current Biology concluded that Christian and Muslim children were actually less moral than non-religious children due to a phenomenon dubbed “moral licensing.” Moral licensing entails “doing something that enhances one’s positive self-image and makes them less worried about the consequences of immoral behavior.”

Another claim the authors make is that “regular religious practice helps make black men more marriageable—a term social scientists use to explain why some men are more likely to get married than others.” Churchgoing, we’re led to believe, transforms offenders into upstanding, law-abiding citizens. In this missionary scenario, the sinners get Jesus—some even converting to Christianity in prison—and forswear a life of crime. As one of their interview subjects noted, God “met me when I was selling drugs in prison. So, you know, that was a big thing for me, knowing that I have a relationship with God.”

The authors’ conclusion that churchgoing makes (presumably heterosexual) black men more marriageable is laughable; that they would marry at higher rates is likely the result of the high numbers of single black women who go to church seeking eligible bachelors. (Deborrah Cooper chronicles the downside of this phenomenon in her scathing critique The Black Church: Where Women Pray and Men Prey.) The moral argument that church converts “disreputable” black men into respectable, marriageable patriarchs assumes that being in a straight marriage is the most desirable endgame and outcome for black men. According to this logic, black churches mold “successful” black men because they impart certain moral and ethical values.

But, again, the cold reality is that while African Americans remain the most solidly churched group in the U.S., our communities are plagued with some of the highest national rates of intimate partner violence, sexual abuse, sex trafficking (the majority of domestic minor sex trafficking victims in the U.S. are black girls), and HIV/AIDS contraction. Not only has the Black Church failed to adequately address these issues, but it has often sanctioned the sexism, misogyny and homophobia that drive these ills.

Thus, the authors’ endorsement of hetero-normative respectability is both an offensive caricature of social conservative bootstraps arguments and an insult to black LGBTQ folk who have been victimized by homophobic and transphobic religious discrimination. Simplistic cause-and-effect valorizations of “faith” without critical analysis of how organized religion can be complicit in structures of oppression only further hinder black America.