As we continue to commemorate February as Black/African American History Month, we should recognize that throughout American history, religion has played a very powerful and important role in the Black community. More recently, the issue of religion among African Americans became prominent news in this past election, evidenced by the controversy regarding Barack Obama’s association with Reverend Jeremiah Wright and how many gay/lesbians expressed resentment and anger toward the Black community for their overwhelming support of Proposition 8 that led to the reversal of same sex marriage in California.

Since these two events seem to be located at different ends of the political spectrum, this should prompt us to understand in more detail the characteristics and complexities of religion among African Americans. Toward that end, the Pew Research Center, Forum on Religion and Public Life, has released a new study entitled, “A Religious Portrait of African Americans.” Some excerpts:

African-Americans are markedly more religious on a variety of measures than the U.S. population as a whole, including level of affiliation with a religion, attendance at religious services, frequency of prayer and religion’s importance in life. . . . [N]early eight-in-ten African-Americans (79%) say religion is very important in their lives, compared with 56% among all U.S. adults. . . .

Compared with other groups, African-Americans express a high degree of comfort with religion’s role in politics. In fact, . . . African-Americans tend to closely resemble white evangelical Protestants on that score, with roughly six-in-ten among both groups saying that churches should express their views on social and political topics, and roughly half saying that there has been too little expression of faith and prayer by political leaders. . . .

According to Pew Research Center surveys conducted in the summer of 2008, nearly two-thirds of African-Americans (64%) say they oppose allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally, a significantly higher level of opposition than among whites (51%). . . .

Regardless of their religious background, African-Americans overwhelmingly support the Democratic Party. . . . Three-quarters of all African-Americans (76%) describe themselves as Democrats or say they lean toward the Democratic Party, while just 10% favor the Republicans. . . . This unity of partisanship among African-Americans carries over into the voting booth, where they have voted overwhelmingly for Democratic presidential candidates in recent elections (95% for Barack Obama in 2008 and 88% for John Kerry in 2004).

So on the surface, these findings about religion among African Americans may seem rather contradictory, at least from a political point of view. Specifically, it is understandable that African Americans tend to be more religious than the general population and as a direct result of that, they overwhelmingly oppose same sex marriage.

But with that in mind, how can it be that African Americans are also consistently and overwhelmingly Democratic in terms of political identification? In other words, how can a group be so strongly opposed to same sex marriage but at the same time, so strongly support the political party that tends to favor same sex marriage?

There is likely a variety of reasons for this apparent paradox, but my purpose here is not to delve into them in great detail, nor to explore the morality of the opinion among many African Americans in opposition to same sex marriage — other academics and commentators have much more expertise than me in that regard.

Instead, I would just point out that this phenomenon shows us that the African American community is not simplistic and unidimensional. Rather, it is quite complex and even at times, contradictory. In this sense, it is much like the White population, the Asian American population, the Latino population, and pretty much all kinds of human social groups.

That is, much of American society can be accurately categorized and predictable but on the other hand, much can also be quite contradictory and confusing at times as well. In either case, studies like this should prompt us to look beyond simple generalizations and instead, to recognize and examine the multiple dimensions of characteristics, experiences, and attitudes among African Americans or any other racial, ethnic, or cultural group in contemporary American society.