Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America

Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in AmericaSummary: Sociological look at why Evangelicals are still divided racially.

Divided by Faith is not a new book, it is nearly 20 years old at this point and I have been meaning to read it for years. Consistently it is the first book I see recommended to White Evangelicals that are seeking to explore racial issues particularly within the Christian church. Having read it now, I can see why it is recommended and I also strongly commend it, but I also think it is dated and could use with an updated version.

The preface and opening chapter lays out the problem of a racially divided church.

“We have taken it as our charge to tell as honest, accurate, rigorous, and enlightening a tale about our topic as possible. In so doing, we were led to move beyond the old idea that racial problems result from ignorant, prejudiced, mean people (and that evangelicals are such people). This is simply inaccurate, and does not get us far in trying to understand why racial division in the United States persists.”(p. ix)

In Divided by Faith, Emerson and Smith tell the story of the United States as a ‘racialized society’. They use that term as a starting framework. Race is important, not only to discussions of slavery or Jim Crow or the Civil Rights era, but also today. Quoting another author, they note, “we are never unaware of the race of the person with whom we interact.” Categories of race may be socially constructed, as has become common to say, but socially constructed does not mean imaginary.

An important note in their presentation of a racialized society is that Smith and Emerson want to pay attention to the adaptation of racial practices. Racial practices are,

“(1) are increasingly covert, (2) are embedded in normal operations of institutions, (3) avoid direct racial terminology, and (4) are invisible to most Whites.” (p9)

Smith and Emerson want to neither suggest that racial practices are less important than at other points nor that there have not been significant improvements to the daily lives of minorities since earlier eras. Racial practices have changed, but the reality of racial practices has not diminished.

The second chapter of Divided by Faith about the history of history of racialized practices within the US was written before Mark Noll’s books The Civil War as Theological Crisis, In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life from 1492 to 1783, and God and Race in American Politics: A Short History. Emerson and Smith are describing a pretty standard history of some Christians coming to see slavery (or segregation) as an evil, while other Christians used the bible as proof texts in support of slavery (or segregation). (The Museum of the Bible posted on twitter about a ‘Slave bible’ that removed passages devoted to freedom like the book of Exodus.) I think Noll’s work complicates the story that Smith and Emerson are telling. But that does not fundamentally change the larger point, although I do think that it is too easy for Evangelicals to think that they largely were on the ‘right side of history’ with slavery (or segregation) with our traditional method of telling ourselves about Christian abolitionists (or civil rights).

The conclusion of the second chapter, after having traced history until the post civil rights era, Smith and Emerson suggest that as their was a shift away from legal segregation there arose a cultural or private separation. Again I think there is a truth to this, but it seems to be too simple. Not that anything about segregation and the racialized world is ever simple, but it seems too simple to see that change as proof of the deep seated belief by Whites in the separateness (if not supremacy) of Whites from other racial groups.

As the Divided by Faith proceeds, it walks through the increased awareness of racialized society by Evangelicals and the attempts to address that practice. An entire chapter is devoted to the inadequate method of being ‘color blind’. Another chapter addresses the continuing economic inequality between Blacks and Whites. These middle chapters are more commonly understood today than they were in 2000 when Divided by Faith was written. (Although there was a new book published at the end of last year about the weakness of the color blind concept by IVP, so there is not universal agreement about the weakness of the concept.)

The last three chapters of Divided by Faith explores solutions to racial divides within Christianity. The most important part of the solution is racial isolation. Throughout the book, but especially in these last chapters, Emerson and Smith use data from a large study, with lots of example quotes to illustrate what divides Christians racially and what might draw them together. It is more recent, but a PRRI survey in 2016 suggests that most people think that ideally they want their church to be more racially diverse, but do not think that anything needs to change to make it more racially diverse.

The very nature of Evangelicalism seems to make racial isolation worse. Evangelicals are more likely to be involved in Church than other Christians and non-Christians. And they are more likely to have family and friend groups that are rooted in the same church. Combined with data that suggests a diverse workforce is not enough to change racially isolated attitudes on their own and that Whites continue to live and worship and educate their children in racially isolated spaces, the prospects of breaking down racial isolation of White Evangelicals is not promising.

Smith and Emerson nearly 20 years ago describe a problem that has not changed much, Christians can want to be racially integrated and reconciled across racial lines, but historical, cultural, economic, class and other factors contribute to the continued isolation both in society and inside Christian institutions.

The section that explores the attempts at racial reconciliation that became popular in Evangelicalism in the 1990s is part of what makes Divided by Faith dated. There is some hopefulness to some of the descriptions that when looked at nearly 20 years later is less hopeful. In 1995 I was newly out of college and working with predominately African American pastors for the next 10 years. I read many of the racial reconciliation books of the era and knew some of the authors. The associations of churches I worked for (in Chicago) was one of just three predominately minority local associations in the country. In 2000, in an ultimately flawed strategy, the SBC focussed on Chicago. The very types of problems described in Divided by Faith were rampant.

Most important in my mind was the lack of commitment by White Christians to racial reconciliation efforts. I heard from a number of minority pastors that had White churches or pastors that wanted to sample Black (or other minority) culture, but did not want to be committed to real relationship. Eventually, most of those pastors and their churches gave up. They were worn down by the needs of explaining the racialized world to oblivious Whites, who disappeared after discomfort.

And I think I did much the same thing as many other Whites. For roughly a decade I was not unaware of racial issues, but I stopped closely exploring them because of my observations of the weaknesses of the racial reconciliation model presented in the 1990s. There is a new generation of Christians that are attempting to address the racial isolation of Christians today. And for the weaknesses and dated data of Divided by Faith, it is still one of the more helpful books I have read diagnosing the problem of a racialized society.

Part of what I think is different today is changes in communication. Social media, podcasts, and other communications tools do allow White Christians to hear the voices of a variety of minorities. But some of those same tools are also what has increased public presence of openly racists segments of society as well. I am more circumspect today, but no less committed to helping the church to see how its weaknesses around racial issues harm its presentation of the gospel.

If you don’t read the book, this is as good of a summary as any:

“The last three chapters revealed two important findings: (1) The cultural tools of white evangelicals led them to minimize the race problem and racial inequality, and thus propose limited solutions. All these help reproduce racialization. (2) But in each chapter we found exceptions. Under the condition of extensive cross-race networks, white evangelicals modified the use of their cultural tools and their racial understandings, so much so that their understandings began to resemble those of African Americans. This suggests an important possibility. If white evangelicals were less racially isolated, they might assess race problems differently and, working in unison with others, apply their evangelical vigor to broader-based solutions. But it is of course no accident that the vast majority of white evangelicals—and other whites as well—are racially isolated. As long as the white American population is larger than the black American population, by mathematical law, whites will be more isolated from blacks than vice versa. And unfortunately, housing and other forms of segregation by race and class are institutionalized features of the American landscape. But one form of segregation carries particular importance in isolating evangelicals by race: congregational segregation. According to our survey, evangelicals are more likely to attend church overall, attend more frequently, and spend more time in congregational activities than are people in any other major American Christian tradition. Thus, for example, we examined the percentage of survey respondents by tradition who participate in church activities in addition to Sunday worship services, once a week or more. This high level of activity characterized a full 60 percent of evangelicals, compared to 38 percent of mainline Protestants, 28 percent of liberal Protestants, and 19 percent of Catholics. Evangelicals are also more likely to have close friends from the same denomination than are people in other traditions. Thus, the congregations that evangelicals attend not only shape their theological views, but are where they spend a great deal of time, compared to people in other major Christian traditions. Racially segregated congregations therefore have important implications for the racial isolation of evangelicals. (p132)”

Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audible.com Audiobook

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