Down through the ages, scholars and theologians have highlighted the social basis of religion. For example, the well-known Protestant theologian, Friedrich Schleiermacher (1799/1994
:148), argued that, “If there is any religion at all, it must be social, for that is the nature of man, and it is quite particularly the nature of religion.” Although there certainly is a strong social element in religious practices and beliefs, there may also be important variations in the extent to which this social influence is manifest. The data from the current study indicate that compared to older Americans of European descent and older Mexican Americans, older African Americans appear to have more well-developed social relationships with fellow church members as well as members of the clergy. Less consistent findings emerged when older whites were compared with older Mexican Americans. However, when differences emerged from the data, the findings suggest that older whites scored higher on the social support measures than older Mexican Americans.
The analyses in this study were based on the premise that both older African Americans and older Mexican Americans would have more well-developed social ties in the church than older whites because of the unfortunate history of race relations in this county. However, the data suggest that this is only true for older African Americans. A vitally important task involves identifying the reason why the church-based social relationships of older Mexican Americans are not on a par with those of older African Americans. Four issues come to mind.
First, as discussed above, the historical experiences of African Americans were far more pernicious than those of Mexican Americans. So if the developing close ties in the church is a valid way of compensating for problems with discrimination, one would expect to find the social ties formed by African Americas would be close than those of Mexican Americans.
A second possibility may be found in the qualitative study’ by Krause and Bastida (2009)
discussed earlier. The older Mexican Americans in these in-depth interviews reported that the notion of suffering is deeply embedded in the ethos of Mexican American culture. Although this sense of suffering may be manifest in different ways, one expression is especially relevant for the current study. Krause and Bastida (2009)
report that some study participants believe it is best to suffer in silence. The importance of suffering in silence was captured succinctly by one older woman: “I don’t think it’s necessary to let people know you are suffering. They would only be burdened unnecessarily” (Krause and Bastida 2009
:120). Perhaps the proclivity to suffer in silence tends to offset the opportunities for developing the close social relationships that Elizondo (2000)
and others maintain are present in the Mexican American church.
The third explanation for the relatively low levels of church-based support among older Mexican Americans has to do with differences in the historical role of the church in the African American and Mexican American communities. Recall that Nelsen and Nelsen (1975)
point out that the church occupied a central role in the African American community because it was the first institution to be wholly owned and operated by African Americans. But the same was not true for Mexican Americans. Dolan and Hinojosa (1994)
wrote a detailed history of Mexican American Catholicism from 1900 through 1965. As these investigators report, the Catholic Church was initially run by priests who were not Mexican American and as a result, they did not speak Spanish. Moreover, the clergy did not understand Mexican American culture and many of the unique Mexican American customs, such as making mandas4
, were viewed as superstitions. Consequently, many Mexican Americans viewed the church with suspicion. As Fernandez (2007
:51) reports, “… the lingering feeling of Mexican Americans toward the official Church is that it is an Anglo institution.” If this observation is valid, then it would not be surprising to find that older Mexican Americans might be less willing to develop close social relationships within the church.
Fourth, consistent with a number of other studies, the findings from the current study reveal that the wide majority of older Mexican Americans are Catholics. This is important because a recent study by Krause (2010)
reveals that older Catholics, who are either white or African American, tend to get less church-based emotional support than older Protestants. However, the findings in the current study emerged after affiliation with the Catholic faith was included as a covariate. This suggests that the differences in church-based support between older Mexican Americans and older African Americans must be due some factor other than affiliation with the Catholic Church.
Regardless of the underlying mechanism that may be at work, great care must be taken in interpreting the differences in the church-based social relationships that are maintained by older Mexican Americans and older African Americans. The data do not indicate that social relationships in Mexican American churches are therefore inadequate in any way. Instead, a better interpretation would be, for example, that older Mexican Americans do, indeed, get emotional support from their fellow church members, it is just that older African Americans get more of it. Put in a more general way, care should be taken not to confuse the absolute level of emotional support that older Mexican Americans receive at church with the difference in church-based emotional support between older Mexican Americans and older African Americans.
As this discussion reveals, there is a good deal that researchers do not know about race differences in the social relationships that older people maintain in the places where they worship. There are at least five ways to move this literature forward. First, researchers should explore other dimensions of church-based social ties that were not examined in the current study. For example, a study by Krause and Cairney (2009)
reveals that some older people have an especially close companion friend in their congregation. Research is needed to see if there are race differences in the proclivity to form this type of especially close relationship. Second, researchers need to expand the scope of inquiry by assessing church-based social relationships in other racial groups, such as Asian Americans, as well as the relationships that older Jews form in the places where they worship. Third, more research is needed to see how social relationships form over time. Fourth, there is some evidence that social relationships in the church vary by both gender and race. However, this research has only involved older African Americans and older whites (Krause 2006b
). Similar studies are needed to see if differences in church-based social ties vary by gender in the Mexican American community. Fifth, the findings in the current study provide some evidence that social relationships in the church vary by race, but no empirical evidence was presented to show why this may be so. Sweeping historical forces were evoked to explain these race differences, but as the findings with older Mexican Americans reveal, this explanation was not sufficient. In addition to describing race differences, it is time to explain why they arise.
Demographic projections predict that by the year 2050, only 61 percent of older Americans will be non-Hispanic whites (Federal Interagency Forum on Aging Related Statistics 2008
). Although American society is rapidly becoming more racially diverse, research on religion has not always kept up with these developments. It is hoped that the findings from the current study will encourage further work along these lines. Gathering data on older minority group members is expensive and time consuming, but the rich insights that are afforded by this work are well worth the effort.