Do the religious views and lifestyle of white evangelical Christians likely do more to perpetuate a racialized society in the United States than to reduce it?
Yes, according to Divided by Faith, a book I read recently for class at Wake Divinity. The authors, Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, professors at Rice University and the University of North Carolina, conducted a national survey, engaged in over 200 face-to-face interviews, and performed extensive research and analysis to assess the views of white evangelical Christians—most Baptists, Church of Christ members, etc.—on race and the practical impact of those views.
Divided by Faith‘s surveys and interviews revealed that white evangelicals generally believe that racial problems are attributable solely to factors like
(i) prejudiced individuals,
(ii) African-Americans trying to make race problems an issue attributable to a group or system (rather than to an individual racist), and
(iii) a fabrication asserted by African-Americans, the media, the government, or liberals.
The book explains, though, that sociological research and analysis consistently finds that the race problem in the United States is primarily rooted in institutionalization of race-based practices, social systems, and social structures such as inequality, segregation, and stratification.
The main thesis of the book is that white evangelicals unintentionally perpetuate a racialized United States because the religious views of most white evangelicals cause them to fail to think about racial problems as attributable to systems, social structures, groups, and institutions.
The book asserts that, in many instances, white evangelicals have difficulty naming a single example of a system that contributes to racialization, while black evangelicals can immediately name many.
First: Why do white evangelicals have such views that are contrary to social science?
Two main reasons, per Divided by Faith:
(1) The religious views of white evangelicals emphasize (a) individualism and (b) interpersonal relationships, and white evangelicals apply those views not just to religious matters, but to racial matters, too.
White evangelicalism emphasizes man “‘as a free actor…, free to choose and thus free to effect his own salvation.’ … [W]hite American evangelicalism is perhaps the strongest carrier of this freewill-individualist tradition.” “[T]he close connection between faith and freewill individualism … renders white evangelicals even more individualistic than other white Americans.” For example, “[n]early two-thirds of white conservative Protestants say that blacks are poor because they lack sufficient motivation, compared to half of other white Americans.”
Also, white evangelicalism has long emphasized personal relationships, such as a “‘personal relationship with Christ.’ … Transposing the importance of this relationship, white evangelicals place strong emphasis on family relationships, … church relationships, and other … interpersonal connections.” White evangelicals “often view social problems as rooted in poor relationships or the negative influence of significant others” and reject institutional causes.
(2) White evangelicals are generally racially isolated.
“Other than an occasional acquaintance, they had few interracial contacts. With a few notable exceptions, none [of the 200 interviewed by the authors] lived in worlds that were not at least 90 percent white in their daily experience.” Approximately 42% of white conservative protestants work in all-white places of employment, while only 27% of other whites do.
Since “the vast majority of white evangelicals do not directly witness individual-level prejudice (with the exception of some relatives who use the “N” word occasionally),” their view is that “the race problem simply cannot be as large an issue as some make it to be. Granted it was as problem in the past, and a residue may remain today because original sin remains, but the race problem is not severe.”
This view on severity matters. Only 4% of white Protestants named racism as one of the top issues with which Christians should be concerned while 33% of African-American Protestants named racism as one of the top issues, with 25% naming it as the most important issue for Christians to address.
“A common theme [among white evangelicals] was that the media exaggerated the race problem …. Another explanation, quite common, was that people in other groups [(e.g., the black community)] are the source of the problem.”
Second: Why do white evangelicals apply individualism from their religious views to racial issues? Why can’t white evangelicals see social, systemic, or institutional causes of the race problem?
To interpret the problem at anything but the individual level “would challenge the very basis of their world, both their faith and the American way of life. They accept individualism [and] relationalism …. Suggesting social causes of the race problem challenges the cultural elements with which they construct their lives.”
“This is the radical limitation of the white evangelical tool kit” when dealing with racial matters. “This is why anyone, any group, or any program that challenges their accountable freewill individualist perspective comes itself to be seen as a cause of the race problem.”
CONCLUSION OF PART 1
In part 2, we’ll look at more questions about white evangelicals and race discussed in Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (Oxford University Press 2000)—
What are examples of “systems, social structures, groups, and institutions” that contribute to the race problem?
What is the result of white evangelicals assessing race issues with the individualism and relational construct from their religion?
What should evangelicals do about their application of individualism and other views from their religion onto race issues?
— and how the book challenged me.
(Picture: The top picture is a picture I took of the cover of my copy of Divided by Faith.)
The blog posts highlight only some of the points made in Divided by Faith. The book is rich in observations, and I encourage you to read it.
Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith. Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. Oxford University Press. 2000.
Excellent post! Thanks. I recommend The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson, about the migration of American blacks north and the reasons for it.
Hi John! Thanks! I will check out the Wilkerson book. I’m still repeating your recommendation of Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne to others. It was an impactful read.