Throughout the Qur’an, God charges the faithful “not just to be nice and avoid doing wrong in their personal lives, but instead, to support the good and prohibit or resist that which is incompatible with al-sharia (the Path). This mandate, which is repeated over and over again throughout the Qur’an (e.g. 3:110 & 114, 7:157, 9:71 & 112, 31:17), has two distinctive characteristics: First, it is active rather than passive: believers are called to take action, rather than merely permitting or refraining from certain behaviors. Second, it is social rather than personal: enjoining and prohibition are actions which occur in the context of communities, undertaken with others, and for the sake of others.”
The Gospels are quite similar to the Qur’an in these respects. Most of the time Jesus discussed religion per se, it was to criticize performative religiosity, condemn those who profiteer on religion, or to denounce those who adopt a dogmatic and inhumane approach to religious faith and practice that misses the forest for the trees. Overall, his message was directed primarily towards how the faithful should act in the world – particularly, how they should engage with their fellow believers, and others who are vulnerable, suffering or oppressed. In short, the Gospel of Jesus is fundamentally social in its orientation.
These are not features unique to Christianity or Islam. Scriptures and faith traditions near-unanimously include messages about how society should be ordered and towards what ends, about the duties and responsibilities people have towards one-another, to the divine, and with respect to various earthly authorities. Therefore, to define religion primarily in terms of ‘personal’ beliefs is to misunderstand the character of religion entirely (for instance, beliefs about appropriate gender roles, family structures, sexual relations, about whether trans women are women – these structure how people interact with one-another in profound ways. Such beliefs can radically change, and indeed have radically changed, the course of societies).
Within the United States, black people seem to be particularly attuned to the political nature of religious faith. They are significantly less likely than whites or Hispanics to think that churches and houses of worship should stay out of politics – and much more likely than other racial groups to assert that religious institutions should express views on social and political questions, or even political candidates.
More than other religious congregants in the U.S., black people report that sermons within their places of worship touch on issues like voting, political participation and organizing, crime and criminal justice reform – and much more than most other Americans, black people view it as ‘essential’ or ‘important’ for places of worship to offer sermons on political topics. Not only do black places of worship touch on politics more, they help drive political and civic participation: African Americans who attend religious services are much more likely to volunteer in their communities, attend public hearings or neighborhood meetings, and to contact elected officials as compared to those who don’t attend religious services.
Black Americans describe combatting racism and sexism as essential to their faith, and recognize black churches as vehicles for promoting equality and helping the vulnerable and needy. African Americans report that their religious communities help them establish a sense of agency and control of their lives, even when they feel politically powerless.
And yet, black Americans, especially young people, have become significantly less likely to identify with organized religion. They have also become significantly less likely to belong to a church, mosque or synagogue: in the period from 1998-2000, 78 percent of African Americans belonged to a religious congregation. In 2008 – 2010, it was 70 percent. In the period from 2016- 2018 that number had dropped to 65 percent. In the period from 2018 – 2020, it was 59 percent. Although black Americans remain significantly more likely than whites and (especially) Hispanics to be a member of a church, synagogue or mosque, the gap between blacks and whites has been shrinking, because the declines have been sharper for the former than the latter.