I really do think that every American Christian ought to read Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America by Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith. This book has been one of the most powerful ones I’ve read so far in seminary. The two authors approach race relations in America through a robust sociological survey. They particularly relate this to how evangelical Christians understand race and form political beliefs.
It is imperative for Christians to look into what people like Emerson and Smith have to say because race problems continue in America, despite abolition, the Civil Rights movement, and other political developments. I think this is pretty obvious considering what has been going on in Ferguson, Missouri with Mike Brown’s death. A colleague of mine recently found out that each year, more African American males will obtain a GED in prison than graduate from college degree. People accuse others of inciting “race wars” and may claim that discrimination is just a thing of the past. Whether we like it or not, race (though socially constructed) continues to play a major role in our society.
Through their actual survey Emerson and Smith find unique answers among white evangelicals. Because of an overwhelming emphasis on a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, they find that evangelicals are even more so individualistic than the average American. This leads many evangelicals to assume that racism is solely an internal problem rooted in individual human sin. Instead of addressing systematic oppression created by laws and institutions, evangelicals largely see racism as tied to slurs, off-color jokes, and bigotry (to which blacks are equally if not more prone to than whites). The researchers argue that while evaluating individual behavior is an important part of the picture, this group rarely recognizes institutionalized bias. Several survey respondents even articulated feelings of resentment towards certain aspects of black culture and cited a supposed lack of motivation to do anything about their current situation (dubbed the lazy-butt account–i.e. “We have problems because Blacks are just lazy”). Individuality in evangelicalism largely affirms the optimistic, privatized, and libertarian ethos so prevalent in American culture. A transformation of public attitude about the causes and mechanisms of racial bias is necessary in order to fully address this multifaceted issue. Ultimately, the authors argue that generally speaking, the evangelical population fuels the continual racialization of America. Faith actually leads to more and more division.
In Houston, I can only think of a couple of truly multicultural United Methodist churches. This limited number is tragic because of the diversity found in virtually every part of the city. Likewise, Divided by Faith offers us an important analysis of our situation. While Paul’s radical message of equality in Galatians 3:28 tears down constructed boundaries and unites us all as brothers and sisters, the racial social construct is deeply ingrained in us and how we view other human beings, even without us realizing it.
Even more troubling, in my opinion, is the reality that racism is not limited to ethical action. Denying racist presuppositions usually entails claiming that one has not cast verbal or social judgment upon someone of another race (like using the n-word or telling “racist” jokes). Racism is then supposedly avoided through promoting politically correct discourse. If we were to recognize that racism is largely a systematic problem (that does have indeed personal/ethical effects), then we must address the unpleasant reality that one may affirm oppression without even realizing it.
It is important for the church to recognize that we live in a racialized country. I think that one of the most keen observations on this has been the #IfTheyGunnedMeDown campaign on social media. We continually fall short in sharing God’s love to all peoples. Being transformed about race would not only convict us about the places where we are inadequate, but would likewise allow Christ to renew us and to tear down this cycle of violence.
One does not need to abandon “evangelicalism” altogether. When considering how white evangelical Christians view race, I would say a big dose of humility is in order. Many times we are blind to the sinful structures at place in our world. We are all sinful, wounding and hurting others around us. Such propositions are completely in line with evangelical religion. Perhaps we’ve allowed our individualism to blind us to the oppression faced by black brothers and sisters in Christ.
Martin Luther King Jr. once called Sunday morning 11:00am “the most segregated hour in Christian America.” Are King’s words still true today? In many ways, I would say yes. What can we as a church do to fix this?