Welcoming the stranger… as long as they look and sound like me

Christians are called to welcome the stranger in their midst, but, according to a new study, members of mainline Protestant churches are much more likely to reply to an email from a potential new member with a white-sounding name than a black-, Hispanic- or Asian-sounding name.


The study was published in September in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, a peer-reviewed academic journal. A team led by Bradley Wright, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut, sent emails to more than 3,000 churches across America. Each email was ostensibly from a person who had recently moved to the neighborhood, was thinking about joining the congregation, and wanted information about the church or parish. The researchers signed the emails with names that were considered identifiable as white, black, Hispanic or Asian to see whether churches replied to them in different ways. To select the names, researchers used census data to create a short list of names that strongly correlated with a particular racial identity and then used small surveys to see whether people did indeed identify a given name with a particular race.

Overall, churches were statistically significantly1 more likely to reply to writers with names that sounded white. The response rate was 63.5 percent for names considered white, 59.1 percent for Hispanic names, 58.9 percent for black names and 53.8 percent for Asian names. Because all contact was made through email, some churches may have been less prepared to reply at all, but, Wright told me, even the churches with the lowest response rate overall (Pentecostal and Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), with 49.4 percent each) sent enough responses to allow researchers to detect racial biases.

When the researchers grouped churches by affiliation with either the Roman Catholic, mainline Protestant or Evangelical Protestant traditions, they found that Catholics and Evangelical Protestants responded equally to all the names. But they found a significant racial gap in the response of mainline Protestants: a 67.1 percent reply rate for white names, 59.9 percent for blacks, 57.5 percent for Hispanics and 48.9 percent for Asians.2

Only two denominations of the 12 studied had large enough racial gaps to be statistically significant when scrutinized on their own: the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), which is, despite its name, a mainline church, and the American Baptist Churches (also mainline).3 ELCA churches were much more likely to reply to whites than people of other races, and American Baptist churches were more likely to reply to blacks than people of any other race.

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