As racial tensions have risen in recent months, a new report reveals that some Christians are becoming less motivated to act on racial justice, and an increasing share say there is “definitely” not a race problem in the country.

“Christians generally, and practicing Christians in particular, have changed their minds on addressing racial injustice, but if anything, they're actually moving away from being motivated,” said David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group.

“It's not a majority of Christians, but it is a segment of Christians who say they're unmotivated or not at all motivated to address racial injustice,” he said, adding that the group has “essentially doubled” in the last year.

US Washington protests against racial injustice

Demonstrators hold signs and wear shirts about breathing while protesting against racial injustice in Washington, DC, on 6th June. PICTURE: Clay Banks/Unsplash/Creative Commons

Thirty per cent of practicing Christians - people who identify themselves as Christians, have attended worship in the past month and claim to strongly prioritise their faith - say they are not motivated to engage in matters of racial injustice (12 per cent unmotivated, 18 per cent not at all motivated). That's an increase from 2019, when 17 per cent said they were not motivated (nine per cent unmotivated, eight per cent not at all motivated).

That was one of the most surprising findings of the summer study on race by Kinnaman's California-based research firm.

“I think there was a lot of anticipation that the last three, four months might change Christians' perspectives on some of these things, but when you look at white, practicing Christians, the same pattern holds true,” he said. “The motivation to address racial injustice has declined.”

Meanwhile, for Black self-identified Christians, the motivation to address racial injustice increased from 63 per cent who were motivated or very motivated in 2019 to 70 per cent in 2020 (the sample size for Black practicing Christians was too small in 2020 to use as a comparison, according to Barna).

The findings are based on an online survey of 1,525 US adults between 18th June and 6th July, a time period characterised by national protests over the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer in May, as well as the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky.

Kinnaman said Barna separately conducted a survey of 400 Protestant pastors in June and found the vast majority (62 per cent) said their church had made statements on the protests and unrest that followed Floyd’s death on 25th May. More than seven in 10 (72 per cent) agreed strongly that the church “has a responsibility to publicly denounce racial discrimination.”

“They were more open to and more open-hearted to the issues that were being raised through the summer,” he said, comparing pastors to their congregants.

But many US adults in general - and practicing Christians specifically - continue to think there is not a race problem in the country, the report found. The number of US adults who said there “definitely” is such a problem remained nearly the same from 2019 to 2020, dropping slightly from 49 per cent to 46 per cent, while practicing Christians’ response similarly dipped slightly from 46 per cent to 43 per cent.

“Instead of going in the direction you might expect it to go, where people would grow in their awareness of a race problem,” Kinnaman said, “if anything, people's sensitivity to a race problem has declined or it's at least the same.”

Despite the evidence of the 30 per cent unmotivated, “especially reluctant group of white practicing Christians,” there are signs that a larger segment of practicing Christians is willing to take action to improve their understanding of racism.

Asked if they would take certain steps "if [those steps would] improve racial equality," practicing Christians said they would read a book about racism (62 per cent); attend diversity training (48 per cent); attend implicit bias training (40 per cent); take a course on race and ethnicity (46 per cent); support some form of reparations (40 per cent); change the type of candidate they typically vote for (42 per cent); change their news media consumption habits to be more justice oriented (46 per cent); and change their spending habits to be more justice oriented (47 per cent).

“There's a fair amount of engagement on these issues among practicing Christians and a willingness to engage on those, especially if they promote racial equity,” Kinnaman said.

Racial justice graphic2

A particularly motivated if smaller group of practicing Christians has already taken action, saying they did one or more of the following in the weeks after Floyd's death: watched a documentary to better understand what’s happening (15 per cent); spoke with someone in the Black community to better understand what’s happening (14 per cent); educated myself further on racial justice terms such as “systemic racism,” “implicit bias,” “colorism,” “intersectionality,” or “systemic analyses” (14 per cent).

The report also showed the role church leaders may play in influencing the practicing Christians in their congregations.

More than a third - 36 per cent - of practicing Christians cited religious leaders as the most influential among a list of the types of leaders they are listening to about racial justice. But 29 per cent of practicing Christians said clergy were among those they thought needed to “step up as a leader regarding racial justice.” The only leader who ranked higher in the need-to-step-up category for those Christians was the US President, at 35 per cent.

Asked what they “need to feel more able to end racism,” a quarter (26 per cent) of practicing Christians said “support from my religious community.” That answer ranked fourth after support from local (34 per cent) or national (32 per cent) government and “education” (30 per cent).

The research, conducted in partnership with Dynata, a Texas-based research firm, has an overall margin of error of plus or minus 1.8 percentage points.