Citing a report from ChurchClarity.org, NEWSWEEK proclaims that (anti-LGBT), “None of America’s 100 largest churches are LGBT-affirming and almost all of them are led by white men,” noting that, according to the site, “93 percent of the churches are led by a white pastor,” with only 7 percent “led by a person of color.”
Technically NEWSWEEK does not endorse Church Clarity’s claims, but its failure to report contrary perspectives or significant qualifications renders NEWSWEEK at least partly liable journalistically for promoting the information. Yet there are at least two problems with this way of framing the statistics, the second of which I find more conspicuous than the first.
What counts as “anti-LGBT”?
What does the article mean by “anti-LGBT”? Are these churches that campaign for the arrest of those who practice LGBT behavior? (I doubt that any churches on the list would fit that definition.) Churches that campaign against the legality of gay marriage? I am guessing that this would be a minority of these churches. Churches that teach their members not to practice same-sex intercourse? This would undoubtedly be a majority of those churches that ever comment on it publicly, though I know from experience that some large churches rarely comment on the subject. (Some churches may be megachurches partly because they dodge some publicly divisive issues when possible.)
ChurchClarity.org notes that, “0% of Outreach’s 100 Largest churches have affirming LGBTQ+ policies.” The NEWSWEEK article clarifies this figure as meaning that all the churches are “anti-LGBT.” Although more than half the churches’ websites did not publicly and clearly specify their “LGBTQ policies,” they are included as “all anti-LGBT,” because they were not explicitly supportive on their websites of marrying or ordaining LGBTQ persons.
Why imply a connection to racism?
ChurchClarity.org includes statistics regarding the color of the senior pastor, but it is the title of the NEWSWEEK article that trumpets together the churches being “anti-LGBT” and led by white men. The article does not state a connection between being “anti-LGBT” and being racially insensitive, but if no such connection is implied, it seems a red herring to combine them as issues in the title.
Now, far be it from me to suggest that racism is not a common problem among white people in the U.S. My wife and kids are black. I am ordained in an African-American denomination; for most of my many years in Philadelphia, I was an associate minister at Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church, an African-American megachurch there that already had some 13,000 members. I have been around enough to know very well that racism is common in the U.S.
But the statistics cited about the racial profiles of the pastors are simply misleading.
The list of the largest 100 churches used is based on figures in Outreach Magazine. But this list explicitly and transparently refers to “participating churches.” Enon, my church mentioned above, is not in any count of the 100 largest churches. But the list also excludes another church with which I am familiar: West Angeles Church of God in Christ, with roughly 25,000 members (and 13,000 in attendance), which could put it in the top 40.
I therefore looked for a more complete list. This one (though from 2015) is from the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. Using this more complete list, I count at least 21 of the 100 largest churches in the U.S. having African-American pastors, and at least three having Latino pastors. (A number of the other urban congregations are at least partly multicultural.) In other words, not 7 percent, but roughly one-quarter, of the largest churches in the U.S. have pastors who are not white Anglos.
Perhaps the article focuses on the different list because it is complaining only about evangelical pastors (NEWSWEEK notes that the site addresses “over 1.1. million evangelicals in America”). But if so, the complaint encounters another problem (cf. evangelical meaning). Some surveys count evangelicals in terms of white evangelical subculture, in which, not surprisingly, the vast majority (even more than 93 percent) of “white evangelicals” are white. If, by contrast, one counts “evangelical” in terms of its theological distinctives, one is back to the vast majority of churches, including most of the 21 with African-American pastors, being evangelical. After all, lots of churches become megachurches because they believe in evangelism (surprise of all surprises).
The U.S., including much of its church, is full of racial insensitivity, but I find it ironic that a NEWSWEEK article would imply such an association in its title. For much of the 1990s I was a faithful NEWSWEEK subscriber. I still respect a number of the authors who wrote for Newsweek at that time (e.g., Fareed Zakaria, Sharon Begley, Jon Meacham and others). The reason I eventually let my subscription lapse was the incongruity of Newsweek’s coverage of the personal lives of Hollywood celebrities while generally neglecting events such as the Congolese civil war. That war finally merited half a page after an estimated two million persons had died—something that would have earned front-page status globally had even 1 percent that many people died in Europe or North America. (NEWSWEEK was not alone among U.S.-based publications by any means. My news preference now is the BBC.)
Perhaps these observations can remind us what professors normally tell their students anyway: always read critically.