Season 3, Episode 9 - Father-son research team Ronald E. Brown and R. Khari Brown discuss their study of the impact of churches on the political views and activist efforts of parishioners
Ronald E. Brown and son R. Khari Brown, co-authors of Race and the Power of Sermons on American Politics, talk about how churches impact the political views of their members and help shape their sense of activism.
Ronald E. Brown is an associate professor of political science at Wayne State University. He regularly teaches Introduction to American Government courses, Religion and Politics and Detroit Politics to predominantly undergraduate students. Professor Brown participates in dinner and dialogue sessions with Detroit voters via CitizenDetroit, a nonprofit organization. While the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the in-person dinner sessions, the goal is to resume these vital citizen activities. Professor Brown's collaborative national survey research projects with R. Khari Brown explore the associative relationships between civil-religious discourse, public policy attitudes and political participation.
R. Khari Brown
R. Khari Brown, Ph.D., is an associate professor of sociology at Wayne State University and the president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. He teaches classes and does research on the sociology of religion. His research explores how race impacts the relationship between religion and social-political behaviors and attitudes. He is a co-investigator of National Politics Study, a project funded by the Louisville Institute, Issachar Fund and University of Michigan. The National Politics Study is a biannual study that assesses American political attitudes and behaviors and religious life. He also served as a consultant for the Pew Research Center's 2020-2021 survey on African American religion.
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Darrell Dawsey: Welcome to the Today@Wayne podcast. I'm Darrell Dawsey. While America's always been a secular nation with our Constitution drawing a clear line of separation between state and church, it still goes without saying that religion has always played a huge role in the daily lives of both American people and the nation's politics. Whether it was the Puritans who arrived here from Europe, or the Catholic church and its extensive school system, conservative evangelicalism with a politically charged Black Christianity that informed the left and the civil rights movement, religion and the houses of worship that extended them have always had a hand in shaping the nation's political direction. Now, research by two Wayne State University professors gives us an updated look into how churches shape not just the political views of their members, but the activism that springs from those views as well.
Ronald E. Brown is an associate professor of political science at Wayne State University. He regularly teaches Introduction to American Government courses, Religion and Politics and Detroit Politics to predominantly undergraduate students. His son, Dr. R. Khari Brown, is an associate professor of sociology at Wayne State University and the president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. Together, along with James S. Jackson, they have co-authored a new book, Race and the Power of Sermons on American Politics, that examines the impact that religion and religious institutions have on the lenses through which we view politics. Now, here to talk about the book and their research, are Dr. R. Khari Brown and Professor Ronald Brown. Thank you both for joining us.
R. Khari Brown: Thank you.
Ronald Brown: Thank you.
Darrell Dawsey: Well, let's just give our listeners a quick overview of what it is that you do. Can you give us some of the highlights of your recent research?
R. Khari Brown: Sure. Dad, do you want to go? How do you want to do this?
Ronald Brown: I'll go very first, and then you can go.
R. Khari Brown: Go ahead.
Ronald Brown: The most important highlight is the fact that across racial groups, across members in the Latinx community, white Americans, Black Americans, if you are attending a church where you hear sermons or you recall hearing sermons about politics, it's related to political engagement, particularly time-consuming political engagement — campaigning, going to meetings and communities — and that is consistent going back to the '60s forward.
R. Khari Brown: I'll jump in and piggyback off of what Dad said. In this book, we had four big questions that we wanted to answer. The one question is, what do Americans expect of their religion leaders and organizations? What do they hear? What types of sermon do they hear? We are particularly concerned about sermons related to social justice and human rights, sermons about race, sermons about poverty, sermons about immigration, sermons about war and peace. The next question we were interested in trying to answer is, what's the connection between what people hear from the religious leaders on those issues, and what they think the appropriate role of the government is in addressing issues of race disparities, immigration reform, war and peace issues, and reducing poverty? The final question that we were interested in looking at is, what impact does it have on what people actually do?
If you hear a sermon that talks about race disparities or criminal justice, does it have any impact at all on your willingness to vote, to engage in protest, to contact your elected officials, to participate in any campaign-related activities? Those were the four major questions that we were interested in answering, and because we understand that race has a huge impact on the experiences of Americans, we also wanted to know how do these relationships vary by race? Those are the four big questions, and we can get into what we found and what it means in a bit.
Darrell Dawsey: Yes, let's talk about that. We can limit it to the highlights, since we don't have a lot of time, but I am interested. What is it that you discovered in the course of your research?
R. Khari Brown: Go ahead, Dad.
Ronald Brown: Very quickly, I have to back up: Why race? It's because of this idea of covenant, in terms of how large is the covenant, how small is the covenant? By that, your members, now they share a common memory, a common narrative, and the role of providence. Race has always divided the country, and that's why I think race is central for us. The fact that I grew up in an African American church, a Pentecostal church, and for me, my first exposure to religion and politics or church and politics was going to Chicago in the summer of '69 or 1970 — Operation Breadbasket, and hearing Jesse Jackson give a talk about that linkage. I think the four questions that Khari is talking about [are] race and its covenant…and that important dynamic.
R. Khari Brown: I'm going to get to the findings really quickly, but I do think it's important to understand theologically how the clergy are framing the issue that we really care about. What we discovered in our research, in our readings and all personal experiences is that there are two major theological frames of the American experience in this country: On the one hand, you have this providential frame that we, as Americans, are blessed by providence. We have the strongest military, the strongest economy, the best universities, we're the wealthiest nation. How do you explain this? One theological frame is that it's through providence — that is, God's blessing — that we are in this position. Now, basically, we as Americans are the new Israelites. The North American continent, and even beyond that, the Western Hemisphere, is the new canon and God has granted it to us.
An indication of our wealth are our constitutions, our universities, our military, the opportunities for advancement in this country. Looking at the American experience through this frame, you will come to the position that any form of inequality that exists in this country, or even beyond that, is not because of systemic racism or institutional racism; it's a reflection of your inability to take advantage of all the opportunities that God has made available for Americans, and any attempt from outside forces to weaken the U.S. is essentially an attempt to weaken God's blessing for us, the moral beacon of the world. That's one frame. The other frame, which we are particularly interested in, is this covenantal frame that Dad talked about: the idea that, yes, we have all these material gains in this country, but because we are in this position, we have a covenant with God to extend these opportunities to others and extend to which it is not extended to others — it's an indication that we are not moving close enough to God's will.
The clergy that talk about race, poverty, military aggression, they're saying we're not there yet. We have to move in that direction. Even if government policies and the popular media says that we are in the right, it does not mean that it is so; we have to continue moving in that direction. What we find, and just really quickly, African Americans, Hispanics, they're more likely to say, "We want to hear these types of messages," largely because of their condition in this country. They're more likely to be in church where they hear these types of messages. The final thing that we find, and we can talk a bit about this, is that even though you see these race disparities in terms of what people want to hear and what people actually hear, when whites hear these messages, it tends to have a larger impact on their consciousness than it does for African Americans and Hispanics.
Darrell Dawsey: In what way?
R. Khari Brown: Go ahead, sure. Dad, you want to jump in? Go ahead.
Ronald Brown: Yes. In what way? They are more likely to support what we would call social welfare policies or anti-military policies. The degree in which why Americans hear these sermons, they're more likely ... their policy positioners line up what you would want to expect to fight among Black Americans and Hispanic Americans. I mean, that's the difference when they hear the messages.
R. Khari Brown: It's true.
Ronald Brown: Now we should make this point that it's a small number. It's not a huge number, but nonetheless, the number that do hear it, their policy positions line up, which we're finding from African Americans and members of the Latinx community. What's important about that also is the fact that the influence of African American engagement over time — for us, what was intriguing is the fact that particularly King — Martin Luther King — comes up over and over again in terms of either directly or indirectly in the sermons that we explore and look at and show that. What's intriguing also is the fact that before George Floyd unfortunately was murdered, there were sermons being preached in progressive, predominantly white churches about Black Lives Matter. I think that we do see this pattern consistently; again, it's a small number, but it is consistent in terms of seeing that. I think that for us is most intriguing.
Now we're using — just to say to those listening, we're using survey data. We're exploring this phenomenon among respondents and surveys that go back as far as 1960, '61, in terms of Matthew [inaudible 00:10:24] study about civil rights, all the way to the works Khari and I and the late James Jackson were working on, in terms of the national politics study. We find this kind of ... if whites hear it, they're lining up with how Black Americans would feel about a progressive covenant — a covenant in which everyone is included.
Darrell Dawsey: Right.
R. Khari Brown: Go ahead.
Darrell Dawsey: Now, for those folks, let's ... somebody once said, "The most segregated day in America is on Sunday when we have folks going to their respective churches based along racial lines." You talk about how these religious principles impact views on race and other political matters, but to what degree do you think race impacts the religious views themselves? To what degree are the religious views designed or shaped around already preexisting notions about race, and is that a problem?
R. Khari Brown: Yes, I think you're right. I think the experiences that people bring into the places of worship, they're going to impact what people are willing to consider once they're in the place of worship. It's also going to impact what the clergy's willing to preach about because, as you mentioned, the person who knows the Constitution allows for freedom of religion, which means you don't have to go, period. The clergy is dependent upon the congregant to attend. Even in those denominations where you have a bishop appointing someone to a place of worship, if people don't show up, you don't have a congregation. It's the racial experiences, and when we talk about racial experiences, it's just your individual experience; it's also your collective experience as well from what you've been led to believe from what you've learned in school, family members what you see in the media. That has a huge impact on how people frame their racial group interests and what they're willing to consider about what government policies they're willing to consider.
If a clergy member gets up in a predominantly white, theologically, politically conservative, Republican-dominated place of worship, that individual has to tread lightly because he or she may lose the congregation if they go too far beyond what their congregates are willing to accept. Definitely, it does. I think, in terms of our findings, that has a large impact on what we find. On the one hand, African Americans and Hispanics, like we said, are more willing to say, "Yes, please talk about injustices in varying forms," because they're on the bottom. But if you're white overall — but particularly among Republicans, are less likely to say, "We are willing to hear these messages," because again, they have a different framework in terms of where we are in this country. We are in this country because of —
Darrell Dawsey: You want to hear a message that justifies your current social position.
R. Khari Brown: If it doesn't, the pastor often is saying, "You need to sacrifice. Psychologically, economically, you need to sacrifice." That's hard for people.
Darrell Dawsey: OK. Let me ask you: This is a nation that has, at least outwardly, presented itself as a secular nation. We have a very strong demarcation in the superseding document in this country, the Constitution between church and state, but obviously that line gets crossed all the time. Just based on your findings, have you come to any conclusions about what we are as a country in terms of our identity and what it is we claim to be, versus what it is that we really are? Are there any sort of general takeaways that you guys were able to develop based on it?
Ronald Brown: Well, I think one takeaway is the fact that the idea of sin in the Judeo-Christian tradition is predominant in the American political narrative. I think that is a theme that one sees. While there is no separation of church and the state, that's where everything gets blurry. One of the things that Khari and I write about in this book is the fact that clergy are also competing with a civic religious tradition of American presidents who are very charismatic. Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama, Lincoln's narratives all take this idea of sin, of being fragile, providence. You're competing with a very powerful entity in the American president who has power, in terms of determining the well-being of the economy and the nation. I think clergy also find themselves in that particular challenge. I don't know if Khari talked about it, in terms of what we find in terms of Reverend Rodriguez, correct? Khari, did you find that?
R. Khari Brown: Yes, that's a good segue. It relates to what you stated, Darrell, as well in terms of where we are as a nation — well, the separation between church and state. I think one thing to remember with this is that with that clause, it was intended to ensure that the government couldn't force people to accept a state religion that essentially would say that God has mandated that I am president, or God has mandated that the policies that we have — you cannot oppose these policies because God has mandated them. If you allow people to select the congregations, they may select congregations that take no position at all on anything, which most congregations don't. Most congregations do not take a — they don't preach political sermons. It is important to mention that in our — Dad stated, you get about 30% of the time consistently that clergy are talking about political issues. This is at least one time a year.
I think most are probably saying there's a few times a year, and there's very few that are actually in the streets practicing what they're preaching; those are maybe two or 3% that are actually the super activists. That's what you find. It's rare, but it's a committed group that are engaged in those type of activities. For them, religion is a frame for how they understand their experiences, is a frame for how am I supposed to relate to my neighbor, my neighborhood, my city, my nation, all over the world? That's the frame. But yes, Dad said the challenge is that we're constantly being reminded that, "No, your neighbors are really restricted to certain groups, either your race group or your nation group, and that is it." You have clergy that are talking about race, poverty, immigration, world peace. They're saying, "No, that's not it. Your neighbors are all of humankind, that is your neighbor." That's the challenge, in terms of what should the government do to ensure that we can relate to one another as Americans and as humans?
Darrell Dawsey: Correct me if I'm wrong, but it sounds like a lot of your work looked at the Christian Church. Metro Detroit has a large Muslim community, Muslim population — mosques, masjids, they play a huge role in the daily lives of folks here. Synagogues play a huge role. Does your research in any way look at how the institutions representative of these other major religions impact the political views and activism of their members? If so, can you tell me a little bit about how?
Ronald Brown: Well, I'm going to say no, because we — again, going back ... we're looking at survey research, which are national representative samples. We do have respondents that identify as Jewish, or they may identify either as Sunni or Shia Muslims, but it's so small that we cannot do any type of analysis and draw answers, in terms of what we find. Yes, our data is limited to that. But let me say this, though: We are proposing to do a Detroit metropolitan survey, and we're hoping to actually pick up maybe a wider breadth of individuals, but no, our limited…But let me say this, however, I'm going to draw an inference that I said earlier, and that is to say that the degree to which these other groups — particularly if you look at post 9/11, Detroit, New York City, the degree to which an Imam is too active, too vocal, what they're going to find is police surveillance — police surveillance, in terms of the mosque.
Also, I think that indeed — I'm thinking back to when President Bush gave the speeches, that what he did largely was to frame, which this is not against Islam, but the way he framed it was the offering that took place. I would say that you run the risk if you are a member of a smaller minority group in the country, politically, of state intervention and state surveillance in the same way one finds the burning of Black churches, assassination of Malcolm X, King and others, that Imams have to be extremely careful because of the possibility of police surveillance. I think that is a theme that we can draw, an inference we can draw based upon the research that we've been doing, in terms of our national surveys.
Darrell Dawsey: OK. All right, we're getting close to ending, so we're going to try to wrap things up, but I do want to ask one of the questions: I saw a Pew survey recently that suggested that the largest growing "religious group" in the country are actually non-religious people, those who either don't have an affiliation or those who don't share a particular belief — or have, at best, perhaps a sort of vaguely defined belief system that may not fall under the heading of Christianity or Judaism or Islam or anything like that. As these numbers grow — well, first of all, are you seeing the impact of this growth on the influence of the church and its ability to kind of shape these views? What does this sort of mean, what does this portend for the future impact of the church in the ways that we've been talking about?
R. Khari Brown: It's definitely a challenge. You are seeing declines among many different demographics, racial groups. But the biggest challenge is that it's the growth of the none, the religious none population is growing faster among the youngest Americans. It does have implications for the future of the relevance of religion on how we see the world, how we relate to one another, but I think there's opportunities, though, which we are particularly interested in the progressive religious groups, regardless of religious faith and denomination. The messages and the causes that, for example, the clergy that took a public position on at Black Lives Matter protests during the period from May 25, 2020, to now, in terms of opening their churches for BLM activists, having prayer visuals, having public worship services where they're declaring support for anti-racism and working with groups to try to change local and national policies, they're positions on not just criminal justice reform, but also minimum wage movement, environmental movement. It's very consistent with political ideologies and the philosophical world views of the group in which are abandoning religious circles.
Excuse me: To use a business analogy, I think it's a marketing issue, making it very clear in terms of how they position their religious faith with their views about how we should relate to one another, how our government should relate to us as citizens. That's a tough task, however, because the frame that many people have of religion is that it's very conservative, that it's very anti — I don't know if we're allowed to use the word, but "anti-woke." When you look at what's happening on the ground, there's quite a few examples of clergy that are very outspoken walking with the people on the issues that they care about. I think that it is a challenge, but I think it's something that, through careful thought and study, they can work around. The last point I'll make on this is that the issue is not a belief in a higher power, or a belief in faith or belief in the possibility of a better tomorrow — the issue is institutional.
It's how they perceive the organization of religion, not the potential of what religion can do for how we relate to one another. That's what I think progressive churches need to get a handle around and try to capture this and to share this message with potential Congress. Go ahead.
Darrell Dawsey: They're wanting to kind of build on the legacy, get out there, struggle with the people around the issues that matter to the people, to that degree, will they continue to have relevance or gain greater relevance?
R. Khari Brown: Make them aware of what they're doing, because a lot of them already doing it, just make them aware of what they're already doing. I'll stay there. You can go ahead, Dad.
Ronald Brown: Darrell, I wanted to circle back to your question about the Detroit metro area. One way for us to fill this is the interfaith councils in the area, and so that their website is available, and listening to the president of that group, well, you hear the same messages that we find in our research. It's kind of hard to state it, it's about collective idea of solidarity with one's neighbor. The Interfaith Council [for] Peace [and Justice] has a variety of religious groups in the Detroit metro area — again, it's small. I'll say the same thing: It's a very small group, but their message is very similar to what we find in our research, and so I want to say that and say that also the decline of youth, the pandemic may change all of this. I mean, what's interesting is that the pandemic may change all of this because our idea — we're losing faith in science.
R. Khari Brown: That's true.
Ronald Brown: We're losing faith in science, trust in principles, trust in clergy, so this may force all of us as a society to rethink about, like you said earlier, what is the covenant? What is the covenant, who's in, who's out? The clergy, both inside institutions and outside of it, their challenge is to have us reimagine and rethink what it means to be guided by providence. I think this idea of being guided by providence, whether one's inside or outside of an institution, is in America because most Americans still believe in heaven and hell. Whether you're inside or outside, the idea of the afterlife in a separate society is predominant in society. Again, I think this pandemic — we don't know yet, we have to see what it looks like in the future, it could change everything because of the impact it's had on all of us.
Darrell Dawsey: Absolutely. Well, listen, I don't want to hold you guys up too much longer. That's about it, in terms of my line of questioning, but I do want to give you an opportunity to close things out, give you the last word if I can. Is there anything perhaps that we may not have touched on that you want to address, or something you want to clarify or amplify on before we get out of here?
Ronald Brown: I'll let Khari do that.
R. Khari Brown: Sure. This is a very insightful conversation. I really appreciate you having us on. I think what I want to end with is just the potential for the future and hope for the future. I think the congregations that are most active, and the one congregation I keep mentioning as an example, is Central United Methodist Church, which is located in downtown Detroit. They have a history of human rights activism going from 1963 with a march on Woodward; King spoke at Central before leading the march down Woodward in 1963. Even though it seems as if, materially, things are changing very slowly, these congregations that are on the front line, they have hope and faith that there will be a better day. That gives me hope when I look at these institutions, and hope as just a human being that things will get better. I'll stop there. I want to thank you again for having us on.
Darrell Dawsey: Well, thank you so much. I really appreciate you both taking the time.
Ronald Brown: Thank you, Darrell.
R. Khari Brown: Thank you.
Darrell Dawsey: You guys are doing fantastic research. I'm looking forward to reading more of your findings to see what you've learned and what you've got to teach us.
R. Khari Brown: Thank you.