Religious People Tend to Be More Racist, Study Finds


An intriguing study conducted by USC examined the connection between religious groups and racism, arriving at a provocative conclusion. The analysis was led by Wendy Wood, provost professor of psychology and business at USC College and the USC Marshall School of Business.

The purpose of the study is to be "a meta-analytic review of past research evaluated the link between religiosity and racism in the United States since the Civil Rights Act." The report observed that "members of religious congregations tend to harbor prejudiced views of other races." The study surveyed over 20,000 white Christians, citing their role as the largest demographic, both in terms of race and religious denomination, in the United States.

I was quite interested in the findings, because as a life-long resident of the South I often witness racist behavior. I grew up only a few miles from Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which often referred to as "the buckle of the Bible belt." In a region so proud of its Christian attributes, this behavior is quite baffling to watch. The study identifies root causes of this racist behavior in religious practitioners as well as speculates on the driving forces specific to Christianity. I want to discuss the report's two main points and postulate how these abhorrent findings can be overcome in the future.

The Exclusivity Of Group Identity and In-Group Prejudice:

In an interview with USC News, Wood stated that “all religions offer a moral group identity, and so across world religions — including Buddhism, Hinduism, Muslim, Judaism and Christianity — the religious in-group is valued over out-groups.” This notion is perhaps a basic human tendency, to value familiar social constructs over foreign or competing interests, often the driving force in tribalism and nationalism.

The message of Jesus was universal and most certainly did not include racism. One of my favorite quotes is attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ.” I feel this quote more than adequately describes the disparity between Christ's teachings and many of his proclaimed followers. A term commonly thrown around the discourse of perceived attitudes in regards to this Christian community is “holier than thou.” This attitude can best be described as holding an opinion of one’s self that is expressed by asserting their own opinions or actions are superior to another’s.

While Wood points out that this behavior is not exclusive to Christians; the connotation of “holier than thou” is most commonly associated with Christians in the United States. But the question begging to be asked is “what are the origins of this behavior?” The answer can easily be summarized as a side effect of the human condition. When instilled with a confidence that a person holds a truth that another may not be aware of, an air of conceit and arrogance seems to overcome the person holding the alleged ultimate truth. Christians want to be like Jesus because he was such an inspiring figure, however, there is a blatant problem that exists when attempting this emulation. If a person claims to be a Christian, most likely, his/her belief is that Jesus was part God-incarnate. Since no human will ever be a being of that caliber of supernatural stature, this emulation is inhibited, and presented in the "holier than thou" quandary. So if this truth is what stokes this fire of the human condition, it demands to be examined.

Morality As the Key to Group Membership

Wood also noted that "religion has a downside, like any group membership, particularly [when] a group membership is associated with morality." The logic is that morality and the practice of those tenets, ethics, are what determine a religious denomination. Catholics have their specific morality, while Protestants have theirs. In the context of today's religious plurality and spiritual marketplace, these denominations have more similarities than differences, when say compared to other non-Christian denominations, like Islam or Hinduism.

The study reported that "highly devout groups showed the greatest correlation between religion and racism." In my opinion, an affirmation of specific morality comes from John 14:6 - “Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." 

More devout and strict adherents would likely hold that the "correct" morality is limited to their religion, thus increasing the exclusivity of the group's membership. However, all throughout history examples of the existence of the morality and ethics echoed in the New Testament can be found in instances completely uninfluenced by Christian teachings; such as Native American tribes, Buddhist and other eastern traditions, and even in numerous Pagan theologies. The USC article bolsters this relationship between devoutness and racism citing that "her analysis found significantly less racism among people without strong religious beliefs."

Ending the Hypocrisy and Looking to the Future:

The report also uncovered a possibly remedy to the racism issue. Wood found that "people who are religious for conservative reasons [respect for tradition, social conventionalism], they have become less racist in recent years as racism has become less socially acceptable." With a nod to the old adage, 'time heals all wounds,' so too could racism vacate itself from Christianity. As liberalism of previously staunch and harsh social protocols often continue to ease up with future generations, simply put, racism in Christianity could die along with older, more prejudiced generation of practitioners.

According to Wood the report's findings "may ring false to practicing Christians in mixed-race congregations," noting however that "there aren't many churches that practice with a mixed-race congregation." Interaction and exposure to Christians of other races would easily help to eliminate the myths and false notions that fuel racism. What is quite ironic, and even hilarious, is that Christ himself was an Arab Jew, a Levantine native and dark skinned. Reality is quite contrary to the classical image of the white, hunky, and hippie-esque imagery that proliferated in medieval and renaissance Europe and still resonates in the minds of Christians.

USC's study is quite illuminating, but regardless of why these racist sentiments exists or how they are justified, the fact remains that racism must go. I will close this article in the spirit of another quote attributed to Gandhi that easily solves this problem, "be the change you wish to see in the world."

Nolan Kraszkiewicz also published this article on his blog -