The Interaction of Race & Theological Orientation in Congregational Social Service Provision
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AbstractThis project continues the tradition of scholarly attention to the social service activities of African-American religious organizations. Analysis of data from the 1998 National Congregations Study reveals that African-American congregations are not more or less likely to support social services in general. They are, however, more likely to support certain types of programs. Specifically, these are programs in the areas of substance abuse, mentoring/tutoring, and non-religious education. Further analysis of NCS indicates that, among African-American congregations, theological conservatism is associated with a greater likelihood of supporting social service programs. This runs counter to existing assumptions about theological conservatism, which has previously been associated with a focus on "other-worldly" concerns, such as getting into heaven. As such, theological conservatism has never been thought to encourage concern over "this-worldly" issues such as poverty, homelessness, and other social problems that are part of the social service realm. While these assumptions about theological conservatism hold true for non-African-American congregations, the same cannot be said for African-American congregations. This project attempts to figure out why this is the case. Does theological conservatism mean something different in African-American congregations than what it does in other congregations? If so, what are these different meanings?To answer these questions, the project includes nineteen interviews with key informants, such as ministers, priests, or other staff people/leaders, from local religious congregations in a mid-sized city in the southwestern U.S. Nine of the informants are affiliated with African-American congregations, and the other ten are affiliated with non-African-American congregations. The interviews establish the racial/ethnic composition, theological & political orientations (liberal, conservative, or in the middle) of each informant's congregation, as well as whether the congregation supports any social service programs. The interview data show the ways in which many of the stereotypes about theological conservatism do not apply to African-American, theologically conservative congregations. Many of the interviewees from African-American, theologically conservative congregations emphasize the importance of relationships and community in ways that the non-African-American theological conservatives do not. This explains why these African-American congregations are more likely to support social service programs, unlike other theologically conservative congregations.