Dr. Allison Calhoun-Brown Researches Churches in the African American Community

Allison Calhoun-Brown has spent her career researching the political influence of churches in the African-American community. And her work hasn’t gone unnoticed: The prestigious Louisville Institute, a nonprofit program that supports research and leadership education on American religion, recently awarded the associate professor of political science a large grant to study the effects of suburbanization on black churches, both in Atlanta and elsewhere.  The African-American church and its community are changing,  she said, and the changes are still poorly understood. “There have been tremendous changes over the years related to suburbanization, and we’re looking at what that means for religion and politics going forward,”she said.Her study is two-fold. The first part of her survey is directed toward individuals, examining whether they subscribe to what is known as the Prosperity Gospel, which focuses on health, wealth and faith, and is one of the fastest growing segments of Christian belief. “We have very little information about the political implications of the Prosperity Gospel,” she says, adding that historically, African-American churches adhered to the Social Gospel espoused by Martin Luther King Jr., which applies Christian principles to social problems, especially poverty and inequality. “We don’t know whether or not the apparent appeal is related to the class stratification of the African-American community,” she says.She explains that the African-American community traditionally has been contained geographically, and class stratification within the community never fully manifested. Now, with many African-Americans living and working away from their communities’ historic core, they often drive long distances to church. The second part of Calhoun-Brown’s study looks at whether churches service their parishioners or their geographic communities, as they did in the past.  The project will include analysis of existing national surveys of African-American churches along with new surveys, focus groups and interviews with ministers and lay leaders. She hopes the data collection will wrap up by this fall.“I anticipate finding that African-American churches still play an important role in expressing the opinion of the African-American community, and in mobilizing people to participate,” Calhoun-Brown says. “But that role has adapted and changed.”

—William Inman