The conservative Christian who sees science as a threat to faith is a common stereotype. Religious studies scholar Cleve Tinsley IV points out, however, that this view lumps conservative black Protestants into the same category as conservative white evangelicals, neglecting how African Americans’ unique history and justice concerns could shape their views of science.

For Tinsley, whose spiritual formation happened within black evangelicalism, the church was his first site of critical inquiry that set him on a path to become a scholar. Since he is also a minister, he recently used his connection to African American churches to engage congregants in a sociological study.

As part of broader nationwide research at the Religion and Public Life Program at Rice University, Tinsley and his colleagues studied three black Protestant congregations—two lower income and one higher income—in Chicago and Houston. Interviewing 50 individuals, they explored how factors like income and education affect views on the relationship between science and faith.

Tinsley and his team wondered whether congregants would mention the history of abuses by the scientific community against African Americans, such as the Tuskegee study from the 1930s-1970s that withheld effective treatment from black men with syphilis or the use of Henrietta Lacks’s “immortal” cells beginning in the 1950s without informed consent.

They found that respondents held a cultural memory of scientific research that reinforced ideas of black inferiority (though they didn’t mention specific events), along with faith concerns that sometimes compounded mistrust of scientists.

Many respondents in the lower-income congregations, and a few in the higher-income congregation, felt that science—or at least scientists—directly opposed their beliefs. Yet others across socioeconomic status understood science and faith as two separate ways of explaining reality. And many saw medical science as compatible with faith, particularly when it has improved lives.

We interviewed Tinsley about these findings, published recently in the Du Bois Review. They are important, he said, because black Protestants’ relationship to (and representation within) the field of science affects their health and overall thriving. They are also a window into the larger black struggle in the United States for identity and meaning.

Article continues below

Why is there such a lack of research around black Protestant views of science, and views of science among minorities in general?

On the one hand, there is an access issue. There are not many black scholars or scholars of color going into Christian communities, because of issues of trust. There’s a long history of mistrust of science and scientifically inquiring folks.

As a supposedly disinterested academic, there’s going to be a lack of trust from these communities to invite people in to “study” them. Obviously, there’s a problem with this in history, whether it’s Henrietta Lacks or Tuskegee. There’s always this reluctance from scholars as to how to establish that trust.

Communities, on the other hand, have this issue with science as well. What we try to engage in this study is: Hey—are black congregants aware of some of this history of science? Also, the study of science and religion is relatively new. My colleague and mentor, Elaine Ecklund, and I saw this project as germane and necessary.

One of the more surprising findings from this study was that respondents, regardless of class, didn’t mention past abuses in medical research, such as the Tuskegee trials. What is going on here?

We were very careful in crafting our interview guide not to have any leading questions. We had generic questions: “What do you think about the interaction between science and religion?” “What are you aware of harmful instances?” We happened to not get very many responses at all mentioning the Tuskegee incident explicitly. However, there was a lot of cultural memory of how science more generically has served these views of black inferiority. But the mention of that specific case didn’t come out.

Some of your respondents, particularly those of lower socioeconomic status, take issue with scientists but not necessarily science. Can you explain this distinction?

By and large the conflict was with the scientist as this atheistic person, all about investigation and against faith perspectives. They weren’t opposed necessarily to scientific approaches or progress as much as they were the type of representation of the scientist as this larger specter of unbelief. For our participants, scientific advances were also the work of God.

The study found these different narratives: Some people saw science and faith as conflicting, while others saw them as independent or collaborative. Do the different narratives correspond to different actions when it comes to health care?

That came out more in another article called “Heaven and Health” around issues of health and how black Christians perceive issues of conflict there. In that study, we found that people really esteem the pastoral authority role in black congregations. As pastors begin to navigate medical science and talk to their congregants about it, people tend to be more open to it. But we also found that doctors didn’t have the last say. God really has the final answer for folks there. Yeah, there’s a real push toward health care, but at the same time, there’s another perspective of heaven. There’s something other than what the doctors may prescribe. Where the conflict may come is in science or doctor’s prognosis versus the faith tradition.

Article continues below

There has been research on African Americans and other people of color distrusting doctors’ recommendations and wanting the most aggressive treatments, because they’ve historically been underserved. What are your thoughts on this?

I take this up in my larger research. There’s issues of inequality and inequity, which relates to wealth and class. Africans Americans feel like they have to work twice as hard to make sure they have adequate health care. There is research on the mortality rates of black mothers. There’s this long history as it relates to black women.

Inequality plays into African Americans’ mistrust when it comes to health care, but does religion also play a role?

Could be. We would need to isolate the ways that faith interacts with this issue of care. We actually found in one of our studies that folks who have more conservative theological views might be averse to more aggressive or advanced medical care. In their minds, there is a supernatural agency at work. They may not need to go there.

There is other research finding that when it actually comes to people at the end of life, those with higher religious support get more aggressive treatment. That seems to contradict your findings.

What that points to is this need for us to always have nuance in our analysis. Just like the content of religious faith and belief itself, there is no one pole. There are those who would say, “Because of my religious faith, it’s not my job to extend my life any further than God has intended.” There’s also those who, because of their religious faith, say, “Well, God would want me to struggle as much as I can, to fight as much as I can.” These different findings account for the variety of perspectives even within these faith traditions.

Article continues below

How is mistrust of scientists or perceived conflict between science and religion affecting health outcomes in black communities?

It requires more wide-scale research and a longer term of sitting with certain congregations. But the statistics are out there. The longevity of black life in this country is down, and that affects our congregations as well.

That was something quite obvious to me in our study. When I visited white mainline churches, the older members of the congregation were much more vital, getting around. But in a lot of our African American congregations, you see much more of those who are sick, on the prayer list. This lack of access can affect long-term health.

What is the relationship between the representation of minority groups in the field of science and their views of science and medical research?

The more representations of a community in these professions, the more access for congregants. For example, one of our high socioeconomic status congregations had regular medical functions, where doctors from their community came in and had seminars, explaining certain things. By and large their views of science were very positive. Because of their access to more representation, they were able to see themselves in this space.

Whereas, in our low socioeconomic status congregations, most of the scientists they knew were non-black folk. There was more suspicion there because of lack of access. Being represented within the scientific community would increase their sense that this community is reliable: “Hey, I see that these are black doctors that I think are really concerned about my own well-being and care. So, I’m more apt to give my trust to these persons as experts than, say, a non-black scientist I don’t know who is representative of a cultural authority that has not served me well in the past.”

How did black Protestant views of science compare to those of white Protestants?

The major difference came to issues of trust with the scientific community. We also found differences in interaction with the scientific community—more existed in white congregations than in black congregations. Overall there was more of a knowledge base around some of the advances in science. You are unable to disentangle that from issues of class.

Article continues below

Would you say that class differences are more significant than racial differences when it comes to Protestant views of science?

The question is not easily answerable. In our findings, yes. But I’m unable to disentangle the two. Whenever you’re measuring or trying to do studies on the basis of ethnicity and race, you almost naturally run into class distinctions. So, it’s hard to find a black evangelical congregation that’s middle or upper class. You can find some. Our study was between two low-income congregations versus a high-socioeconomic-[status] black congregation. And we found some differences as it relates to knowledge there. So class did matter. But also, when we compare high socioeconomic black congregations to high socioeconomic white, Korean, or Latino congregations, we found differences there as well. Definitely, class is a factor. But it’s impossible to disentangle those two.

Can you give any examples of ways that academic or medical institutions have collaborated well with communities that distrust medical research in general?

Sadly to say, I can’t really name any really good examples in my experience. There’s great opportunity. I’ve seen it with white congregations. Dr. Ecklund, who was the principal investigator for this research project, often engages with her congregation around issues in her research and tries to bring in practitioners and science. If we were also to have academics and practitioners who were in scientific fields come do these symposiums and forums at African American churches, that would be great.

An African American church here in Houston regularly had these symposiums with doctors. But there wasn’t an intentional drive to talk about what it means for these two communities to collaborate more, and how could that affect the long-term health of these populations.

So, it’s not just a matter about having health workshops. What’s the additional step beyond providing health care information?

Beyond health care information, there needs to be a kind of social gathering where we’re talking about the implications of scientific and faith ideas and how they can collaborate. That’s what I’m talking about—the deeper imaginative, intellectual, theological work around science and faith collaboration. This involves collaboration between pastors, scientists, and scientific African Americans in the communities. A larger conversation needs to be had to be more generative around issues of trust and suspicion and how we deal with issues of inequity for specific communities. A larger intentional effort that engages not just the practicality but also how these two domains that have tended to be separate can come together and have more robust conversations.

Liuan Huska is a writer living in the Chicago area. Her forthcoming book on chronic illness is publishing with InterVarsity Press.