(Editor’s Note: This article contains references to race-based slavery and racism, which could be distressing to some readers.)
Living in Mississippi has provided a unique opportunity for me to dive into the issue of race in America, because you really can’t live in Mississippi and not face the reality of a racialized society! Though much of my learning occurred through following a diverse group of people on social media, I kept hearing people reference a non-social-media medium (a book!) for learning about this topic—and specifically a book called Divided by Faith by sociologists Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith. And so this month, I finally decided to give it a read. Spoiler alert: I loved it, I was challenged by it, and I quickly knew I wanted to share my findings with whomever would care to read them. And thus this article came to be. In it, I attempt to summarize the book, share some personal reflections, suggest ways for white evangelicals to respond, and pass along some additional resources.
Emerson and Smith begin with a brief definition of terms such as “evangelical” and “racialization” and then make a case—using a myriad of statistics—that race is the defining societal divide in America. “Evangelicals” are defined as those who believe the Bible to be God’s Word, urge personal salvation through Jesus Christ, and self-identify as evangelicals. They define a racialized society as “a society wherein race matters profoundly for differences in life experiences, life opportunities, and social relationships.” (page 7) And more specifically, “[i]n the post-Civil Rights United States, the racialized society is one in which intermarriage rates are low, residential separation and socioeconomic inequality are the norm, our definitions of personal identity and our choices of intimate associations reveal racial distinctiveness” and in which we are always aware of the race of people with whom we interact. (page 7) They then spend several chapters recounting the story of race and Evangelicalism throughout American history, starting with the 1700s and going through the present day (or rather the 90s, since the book was published in 2000). I’ll share some of the highlights.
In the 1700s as Europeans colonized what would later become the United States, people from West Africa were kidnapped, enslaved, and brought over to work the land. At first, there was no particular concern for the religious beliefs of the slaves. But partway through the 1700’s, attempts to “Christianize” enslaved people began. At first there was some confusion about whether converting to Christianity necessitated temporal freedom from slavery, but religious leaders quickly allayed those fears. For example:
Cotton Mather forcefully argued that the Bible did not give Christian slaves the right to liberty. Just as forcefully, he argued that neither the canons of the church nor the English Constitution made a connection between christianization and temporal freedom. (page 23)
In fact, Evangelical leaders argued that enslavement was good for Africans because it gave them the opportunity to convert to Christianity. (Some Christians hold this view to this day, and it is repugnant!) The social stratification of masters and slaves was understood to be God’s design for a peaceful society. These ideas were diligently catechized to the enslaved Africans, with Frederick Douglass later explaining, “I have met many religious colored people … who are under the delusion that God requires them to submit to slavery and to wear chains with meekness and humility.”
The American Revolution brought a fresh look at race-based slavery. People wondered if the principles behind the fight for freedom from England applied also to enslaved peoples. Thus began the rise of the anti-slavery movement among evangelicals. They were largely moderates and “gradualists,” believing that slavery would slowly be put to rest overtime as both masters and slaves were converted to Christianity. As Emerson and Smith point out, “Evangelicals of this time … held that by changing individuals, social problems would eventually dissipate.” (page 29) This movement had minimal results and petered out in the early 1800s.
The 1830s saw a rise in Evangelical “immediatists,” who demanded direct and immediate action to end what they saw as the great injustice of slavery. One such evangelical was Pastor Charles Finney. He connected his faith with abolitionism, going so far as to deny communion to parishioners who were slaveholders, believing that it was impossible simultaneously to own slaves and to be a Christian. (Personally, I think what he did was awesome!) However, as the movement gathered steam and begin to emphasize amalgamation of the races, Finney distanced himself. He saw slavery as a separate issue from race, and did not support amalgamation or integration. (This line of thinking paved the way for Jim Crow laws.) Emerson and Smith see Finney as representative of the views of many Evangelical abolitionists of the time.
If the well-educated and progressive Finney willingly spoke out against slavery, but not racial prejudice and segregation, it is reasonable to suppose the grassroots evangelicals, though perhaps viewing slavery as wrong, were often prejudiced, continued to view African Americans as inferior, and were generally opposed to the integration of the races. Although calling for people to be freed, they did not call for an end to racialization. (page 33)
Not all evangelicals took exception to slavery. In the mid-1800s, a robust defense of slavery was developed using so-called biblical, evangelistic, social, and political support. Enslaved Africans were also frequently reminded of the supposed rightness of slavery. For example, when slaves attended church with their masters, preachers would share an additional sermon reminding them of their “Christian duty” to submit to their masters.
After the Civil War and during Reconstruction, with slavery officially outlawed, white northern evangelicals sent money, teachers, and missionaries to the South to “raise up the Negro.” Condescending? Yes. But still a generally positive endeavor. Overall, Reconstruction was a time of social and political success for freed slaves. However, Southerners soon began to fear for their way of life, wanting to get back to what they saw as “Christian America,” and therefore imposed laws to restrict and oppress black people. This was the start of Jim Crow laws and institutionalized segregation. Northern evangelical interest declined, and most of them left Southerners to deal with “race problems” on their own.
In response to legislated segregation, African American people started their own churches while white Christians largely denied that there even was a race problem. In other words, even while Jim Crow laws actively worked against equality for African Americans, white Americans believed that equality already existed!
In the twenties and thirties, evangelicals were generally critical of violence between the races, though not of segregation. In 1919, the Commission on Interracial Cooperation began.
The goal during this period was to provide a better racial environment. … It advocated an end to lynching, portraying African Americans in a more positive light, and better facilities, such as school buildings for African Americans, though still within the context of segregation. Indeed, the commission never attacked segregation itself, but simply strove to improve race relations and the lives of black Americans within the institutional context of segregation. (page 42-43)
The Civil Rights Movement highlighted the extent of differences between black Christians and white evangelicals. Most evangelicals were critical of the Civil Rights Movement while most black Christians supported it. Those white Christians who did support it tended to be non-evangelicals such as mainstream Protestants.
Billy Graham is an interesting case study of the Evangelical mindset of the time. He was for improved race relations, but believed that organized efforts were harmful, especially because he perceived them as being connected to Communism. (Sound familiar? I guess this argument has been around for decades.) On the one hand, Graham removed the segregating rope between blacks and whites at one of his southern Evangelistic Crusades. But in another instance, he stated that he tried to work within the social framework of each city he visited. He invited Martin Luther King Jr. to pray at one of his Crusades, yet declined to join King’s March on Washington, believing King’s methods to be flawed. In response to the “I Have a Dream” speech, Graham remarked that black children and white children would hold hands in harmony only when Jesus returned.
To understand this, we must account for the premillennial view that had come to dominate the American evangelical worldview and played a role in limiting evangelical action on race issues. According to this view, the present world is evil and will inevitably suffer moral decline until Christ comes again. Thus, to devote oneself to social reform is futile. (page 47)
Graham, like most white evangelicals of the time, opposed racism generally, but viewed organized social reform as fruitless, unnecessary, and perhaps even dangerous.
The 80s and 90s brought a new wave of racial reconciliation efforts by evangelicals through organizations like Promise Keepers and people like Curtiss DeYoung and Tony Evans. Most whites who spoke against prejudice, urged personal repentance and reconciled relationships between individuals, while African American Christians generally focused on changing what they saw as oppressive structures, and unjust laws. The difference in approach is highlighted in the words of Pastor Cecil “Chip” Murray:
White evangelicals need an at-risk gospel. … Calling sinners to repentance means also calling societies and structures to repentance—economic, social, educational, corporate, political, religious structures…. The gospel at once works with individual and the individual’s society: to change one, we of necessity must change the other.
I’ll close this historical overview with a quote, which, though challenging, highlights Emerson’s and Smith’s overall analysis of evangelicalism and race relations throughout American history.
Because evangelicals view their primary task as evangelism and discipleship, they tend to avoid issues that hinder these activities. Thus, they are generally not countercultural. With some significant exceptions, they avoid “rocking the boat,” and live within the confines of the larger culture. At times they have been able to call for and realize social change, but most typically their influence has been limited to alteration at the margins. So, despite having the subcultural tools to call for radical changes in race relations, they most consistently call for changes in persons that leave the dominant social structures, institutions, and culture intact. This avoidance of boat-rocking unwittingly leads to granting power to larger economic and social forces. It also means that evangelicals’ views to a considerable extent conform to the socioeconomic conditions of their time. Evangelicals usually fail to challenge the system not just out of concern for evangelism, but also because they support the American system and enjoy its fruits. They share the Protestant work ethic, support laissez-faire economics, and sometimes fail to evaluate whether the social system is consistent with their Christianity. (pages 21-22)
Evangelicals’ Thoughts on Race Today
Emerson and Smith conducted an extensive telephone survey of 2,000 people to determine present-day thoughts of evangelicals on racial issues. They then conducted 200 in-person interviews. The results were enlightning. Smith and Emerson asked people to describe the race problem in America. Many people admitted there was a race problem, describing it as a problem of discrimination or violence between individuals. Other evangelicals denied the race problem altogether, instead suggesting that those who talk about race are the problem. Very few referenced structures, laws, or societal values that contribute to racialization.
When asked about the reasons behind economic inequality between blacks and whites, the two most common explanations given were 1) lack of motivation and 2) flawed cultural values among blacks. Fewer evangelicals ascribed economic disparity to 3) lack of access to quality education and/or 4) discrimination. In other words, evangelicals tended to blame economic hardship on African Americans themselves as opposed to historical, structural, or systemic problems. Most black Christians, on the other hand, pointed to structural issues or discrimination as the main problem.
As sociologists, Emerson and Smith explain that the cultural tools a person or group has affects the way they identify problems and solutions. They point out three cultural tools evangelicals use that heavily influence their views of race, which are: 1) accountable freewill individualism—“individual initiative conquers all;” 2) relationalism—“attaching central importance to interpersonal relationships;” and 3) antistructuralism—“inability to perceive or unwillingness to accept social structural influences.” Applied to racial issues, this cultural framework necessitates holding African Americans accountable for their struggles (accountable freewill individualism) and focusing almost exclusively on personal reconciliation (relationalism and antistructuralism). To begin to explore societal and structural components of a racialized society, white evangelicals would have to reexamine these core beliefs.
Emerson and Smith end the book by discussing various sociological principles that describe ingroup dynamics and contribute to de facto segregation today. They close by calling for an honest look at comprehensive solutions to the issue of racialization.
I think that Divided by Faith is remarkably well-written and well-organized. I found it easy to follow, and I appreciated the variety of information—historical, sociological, personal interviews, etc. In other words, I was never bored. I appreciated that this work was neither a puff piece nor a hit piece, instead seeking balance and honesty, focusing on facts over value judgments.
I learned a lot about various historical movements and historical figures. I was particularly interested in learning about the great Evangelist Billy Graham as I’ve seen a lot of diverse perspectives on his relationship with Civil Rights; this book seems to carefully lay out both the positives and negatives. I was also fascinated by Emerson’s and Smith’s exploration of how the white evangelical worldview affects the way evangelicals understand and address racial issues. Their sociological insights into group dynamics that prop up prejudice and racialization were also helpful.
In general, this book helped me honestly examine the past—my past, if you will, since I am both an American and a white evangelical. I’ve always known some of the positive ways that evangelicals have fought for human rights and civil rights for African Americans, but this book helped me honestly face the negative actions evangelicals have taken as well as the discriminatory societal structures that evangelicals have helped to maintain. And so I feel both thankful and grieved. I now acknowledge that taken as a whole, white evangelicalism has done more to hurt race relations than help. This is a sobering realization to come to. But sometimes truth leads to lament, and sometimes lament is the first step to change. (Side note: this increases my empathy for those individuals, particularly African Americans, who have chosen to distance themselves from the term “Evangelical,” even while maintaining theologically-conservative Protestant beliefs.)
On a personal level, as I read some of the quotes by modern-day evangelicals, I was humbled to realize that just a few years ago I might have said some of the same things—things like “the breakdown of family structures is the main cause of problems in African American communities” or “playing the race card is as big a problem as racism.” I’m embarrassed even to type those sentences, and my heart is rightly grieved. And I am truly sorry. For me it’s been a process, starting 3 years ago, of seeking to comprehensively understand racial issues in America.
I am profoundly thankful to have read this book! I highly recommend it to any American—especially to white evangelicals—or to anyone who wants to understand why race continues to be a defining aspect of the American story.
What is a White Evangelical to Do?
Maybe this information is new, and you’re feeling like a deer in headlights. Or maybe you’re familiar with these perspectives, but you’re not sure what practical actions to take. Either way, here are a few suggestions. First, accept uncomfortable emotions; don’t reject new ideas just because they feel scary. Second, know that lament and anger are appropriate responses to sin and injustice, and can be impetus for change. As Benjamin Franklin said, “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.” Third, get educated; read a book like Divided by Faith (purchase on Amazon or read the first 30 pages for free on Google Books here). Fourth, sit under the teaching of minority voices: on social media, by listening to sermons, and by engaging in conversations (with a focus on listening to learn). And fifth, financially support minority-led organizations.
Here some of the people and organizations that have been particularly helpful for me as I’ve learned about racial issues in recent years.
Two of my favorite African American pastors are:
- Elbert McGowan at Redeemer Church in Jackson, MS. Listen to his sermons here.
- Dr. Mika Edmondson at New City Fellowship in Grand Rapids, MI. Listen to his sermons here.
The following are some theologically-conservative people and organizations I recommend financially supporting as a practical way to support African Americans and racial reconciliation.
- The Witness: A Black Christian Collective is an organization that puts out articles and podcasts on all things related to race and faith. Donate here.
- Reformed Theological Seminary offers the African American Leadership Scholarship, a 50% tuition break for qualifying African American students who are training to be pastors, professional counselors, and leaders. Donate here with a note that your donation is for the AALS fund.
- Kyle J. Howard is a Christian Counselor who works with and creates resources for those affected by racial trauma. Donate here.
- Peace Preparatory Academy serves children and families in the heart of urban Atlanta. Donate here.
As always, thanks for reading!
Check out some of of my other articles: