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New poll shows racial issues divide Americans. But people of faith can help unite us.

Americans have reached a consensus about one thing. Racial issues are dividing the nation. We need help agreeing on identifying, defining and solving those challenges. A new Public Agenda/USA TODAY Hidden Common Ground poll offers a snapshot of how Americans from all walks of life, including spirituality, view the issues.

As a public theologian and cultural critic who identifies as a Black woman, I glean hope from this data. Americans of every faith tradition can confront structural racism and its historical and ongoing harm to our society. They need a lens allowing them to see the problems clearly and the power to resolve them.

Survey results revealed interesting insights about intersectionality of American life and racial injustice in our society. Nearly two-thirds of our neighbors say religious or spiritual people should speak out about racism. An equal number say faith leaders and institutions should fight racial injustice.

Meanwhile, more than 50% of Americans see institutions of faith as places where people can become beloved communities. That highlights Americans’ enduring belief in the power of religious and spiritual people and places to unite us.

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Faith helps people of color navigate American society

Faith and religion influenced the United States’ inception. And they continue to impact how we, especially as people of color, navigate our communities and the broader American society. This includes confronting racism and interrogating religion’s role in making true racial justice a reality, actions especially relevant and vital as our nation celebrates Juneteenth this holiday weekend.

Charlie Maxwell, a member of the Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church, votes as part of the Souls to the Polls in Milwaukee on Oct. 30, 2022. Souls to the Polls Sunday is a historically energized day across the nation for congregations of Black churches to vote early together.
Charlie Maxwell, a member of the Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church, votes as part of the Souls to the Polls in Milwaukee on Oct. 30, 2022. Souls to the Polls Sunday is a historically energized day across the nation for congregations of Black churches to vote early together.

Historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. reflected on how religion released enslaved Africans from bondage in his book, "The Black Church: This is Our Story, This is Our Song": “The miracle of African American survival can be traced directly to the miraculous ways that our ancestors reinvented the religion that their 'masters' thought would keep them subservient.”

Ironically, religion helped them survive and thrive. Belief allowed enslaved Africans to transform their suffocating world into a space that built endurance to fight for their freedom. Gates noted that embracing their faith allowed them to bequeath their faithful fortitude to their descendants.

The Black church has been a beacon of equality, justice and civil rights since our nation’s earliest days. Later, leaders such as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., an ordained minister himself, advanced the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gestures to his congregation in Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Ga. on April 30, 1967.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gestures to his congregation in Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Ga. on April 30, 1967.

Black pastors more likely to address racism and justice

Pew Research Center found Black Protestant pastors spoke out more about racism, voter turnout and justice during the COVID-19 pandemic than any other group of faith leaders.

Leading the Aspen Institute’s Racial Justice & Religion Initiative, housed within its Religion & Society Program, allows me to facilitate a conversation about religion and racial justice’s convergence.

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My work allows me to lift up leaders actively empowering marginalized communities and identifying ways religion can create positive change. Generous support from the Henry Luce Foundation makes the initiative, which launched in May, possible.

Changemakers grounded in faith must convince our faithful neighbors that change is necessary. Saying institutions should confront and combat racism is easier said than done.

The Hidden Common Ground survey revealed that many people prefer organizations – governments, faith institutions and others – to hide under bushels rather than work to end racism in America:

  • 73% say Americans have a role to play in overcoming racism.

  • Only 56% see roles for the government in overcoming racism.

  • Half of Americans surveyed see roles for religious leaders and communities.

  • 47% see roles for spiritual leaders and communities.

Understanding religion’s fundamental role in yielding racial justice is to grasp the context and history of religion in the United States. Religion has been a baton of oppression, but it has also offered a firm foundation for good, hard work.

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Making true racial justice and equity a reality remains an elusive dream. Creating Dr. King’s beloved community requires remembering that faith and religion are its cornerstones. Faith and belief have played and will continue to play in its fundamental construction.

The Rev. Audrey C. Price is an associate director of the Religion & Society Program at the Aspen Institute.
The Rev. Audrey C. Price is an associate director of the Religion & Society Program at the Aspen Institute.

Faith leaders and institutions have been at the forefront of social change throughout American history. Even as attendance or membership in houses of worship dwindles, Americans remain profoundly spiritual.

As our nation addresses the painful legacy of enslaving Africans, massacring Native Americans and exploiting other ethnic minorities, faithful Americans can speak with unique clarity. May we all work to do so.

The Rev. Audrey C. Price is an associate director of the Religion & Society Program at the Aspen Institute.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: US is divided on racism. Faith, religion can help unite us.