The Religion of Whiteness: How Racism Distorts Christian Faith by Michael Emerson and Glenn Bracey

The religion of whiteness cover imageSummary: An exploration of how Whiteness (the belief in white racial superiority) functions as a type of religion in the Durkheimian sense. 

I have been waiting to read this book for about four years now, ever since I heard that Michael Emerson was working on follow-up research to his Divided by Faith book. I read the Beyond Diversity report by Barna about some of the early research. And I have widely recommended this video where Michael Emerson introduces his Religion of Whiteness concept. And while it is now dated, I still very much recommend his book, co-authored with Christian Smith, Divided by Faith, because its use of the White Evangelical toolkit as a model to describe the cultural tools of handling race as White Evangelicals has been so influential to how many have spoken about Evangelicals and Race in the 25 years since the research for that book was done.

To understand the book, you need to understand both what is meant by Whiteness and what is meant by Religion. This is a good summary of what they mean by Whiteness:

“That is, whiteness is the imagined right that those designated as racially white are the norm, the standard by which all others are measured and evaluated. It is the imagined right to be superior in most every way—theologically, morally, legally, economically, and culturally. It is that power, now centuries upon centuries old, that is worshipped, felt, protected, and defended. As the legendary scholar W. E. B. Du Bois wrote in 1920: “ ‘But what on earth is whiteness that one should so desire it?’ Then, always, somehow, someway, silently but clearly, I am given to understand that whiteness is ownership of the earth forever and ever. Amen!” (p42)

And for religion, Emerson and Bracey are using Emile Durkheim’s understanding of religion. They quote Durkheim’s definition of religion:

“…a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things… beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called the Church, all those who adhere to them.” Note that he defines religion by what it is and what it does, its function. And what is its function? To bring its followers into a single moral community…”

So they say that Whiteness (the cultural belief in white racial superiority) functions as a religion in the Durkheimian sense. In their conception, it isn’t an incidental overlap of some White Christians following a Religion of Whiteness, but that religious nature of Whiteness becomes a feature of their understanding of Christianity.

This is primarily a sociology book and deals with their data and why they think their descriptive model works. Many people who read (or judge without reading) The Religion of Whiteness will not limit their evaluation to Emerson and Bracey’s definitions of either Whiteness or Religion. It will be very common for some to misread this as a condemnation of all people who are commonly labeled white instead of the much more narrow idea of Whiteness. And secondly, I think many others will not understand Durkheim’s view of religion. Andrew Whitehead’s book American Idolatry does not explicitly use Durkheim’s understanding of religion. Still, he does suggest that Christian Nationalists (his focus and one that overlaps but is not the same as Bracey and Emerson’s topic) are following a false idol but are not necessarily completely rejecting Christianity.

I would honestly like a much more cut-and-dried separation between the Religion of Whiteness or Christian Nationalism and “true Christianity.” But I think Whitehead, Bracey and Emerson are trying to keep our reality complicated. It is not simple to separate these things, and I think we need to pay attention to Jesus’ parable of the wheat and tares. It would be easier if it was simple to say, “You are a Christian Nationalist and therefore not a Christian,” or “You are a follower of the Religion of Whiteness and therefore not a follower of Christ.” There is a point where people have moved from Christianity, but that exact point where the line is crossed is not easy to discern.

One of the aspects of The Religion of Whiteness that I like is that it uses Betrayal Trauma as a descriptive model of the harm done to those who do not follow the Religion of Whiteness. The Betrayal Trauma model was developed out of research into marriage/partner domestic violence. And then, it migrated into the area of spiritual abuse and harm. I first came across the concept in this podcast, and while I am not an expert on it, what I understand of the model makes a lot of sense for it to be used here.

The main weakness of the book is a lack of clarity on White Christians who do not follow the Religion of Whiteness (ROW). I think they make the case that there is a difference between White Christians who are and are not followers of the ROW. They show through surveys that White Christians who do not follow ROW have a belief structure more similar to Christians who are Black or other racial minorities rather than other White Christians who do follow ROW. However, I was not convinced they had a clear handle on why the difference exists. I am convinced there is a difference, but it is unclear what makes people resist ROW.

In one section, they interview White Christians who were pushed out of jobs/churches for resisting Whiteness. In all of those cases, the people interviewed became aware of racial realities and then tried to work to help others become aware. But they had grown up in congregations where others did not become aware. As I read, there is no clear separation theologically, demographically, geographically, or behaviorally to fully explain the resistance by White Christians to the Religion of Whiteness. There is a slight tendency toward being in urban spaces, but that isn’t very explanatory.

I think the book does have a bit of a chicken-or-egg problem with Christian Nationalism. Are Christian Nationalists more likely to follow a Religion of Whiteness because they are Christian Nationalists, or do people become Christian Nationalists because they follow a religion of Whiteness? It is more likely that these things overlap and confirm one another, but again, I would like more definition and separation than it is possible to give.

In the past two years, when I saw interviews, talks, or articles with Emerson, I thought there would be more disagreement between Emerson/Bracey and Perry/Whitehead, but after reading The Religion of Whiteness, I think the difference is in approach more than anything else.

I am not a bystander to this discussion. While I have not lost a job, I did leave a church because I became convinced that the church leadership, while speaking out against Christian Nationalism and extremism, was unwilling to go far enough to speak out against Whiteness. I didn’t need the leadership to use the words whiteness, but there was a clear pattern of limiting its understanding of the problems of racism to explicit white supremacy as if to be racist meant that you were a member of a Neo-nazi group or the KKK. The church hosted discussions on race in 2018 and used sermon time to condemn racism. However, the clear pattern was to aim for moderation as the goal, not justice. It still took me a couple of months to admit it, but the final straw was the senior pastor speaking to a group of legislators, calling on them to work across political divides. He explicitly cited Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail as justification for being a moderate. I realized that with this understanding there could be no real movement toward difficult issues in this topic because there was not a clear understanding of the problem. At that point, I had been a member for about 15 years. I had explicitly been talking to the church leadership and was involved in discussions and small groups around race for about ten years. I was not pushed out as the people cited in the book were. Instead, I became disillusioned that there could be change, which is a real difference.

The Religion of Whiteness, I think, rightly focuses on the problem of race as a significant contributing factor in the breakup of the Evangelical Church. But it is more than just the evangelical church. Mainline and Catholic Christians also have a significant problem with the Religion of Whiteness. The Religion of Whiteness is also not confined to politically conservative portions of the church. As has frequently been said, many in the deconstruction community also have not rejected the Religion of Whiteness in their rejection of some of the cultural components of Evangelicalism.

I have about 50 highlights and a couple of notes that you can publicly read. I want to reread this again because I do not want to miss important nuances. The Religion of Whiteness is a short book. It only has about 150 pages of main content, and I read it in a single day.

It is also worth noting that the release was staggered, which is odd. The Kindle edition was released on April 23, and the audiobook was released on April 30th. The Hardcover says it will be released on May 21st, but you can buy it at Amazon and presumably other vendors now, although Amazon says it won’t ship until May 9th.

The Religion of Whiteness: How Racism Distorts Christian Faith by Michael Emerson and Glenn Bracey Purchase Links: Hardcover, Kindle Edition, Audiobook

Leave a Comment