Review of Divided By Faith by Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith

Divided By Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America by Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith is a book that my church, as part of its efforts to promote racial reconciliation, recently recommended that we read and discuss. I will begin with a summary of its contents and then present some of my thoughts about it.

There is a tremendous amount of academic literature on race relations in the United States, and a smaller but still significant academic literature on American evangelicalism, but as the authors of Divided By Faith note:

But the connection between the two, especially religion’s role in the racially divided United States, is grossly under-studied. Some historical accounts exist, and tend to argue that religion has done little to overcome the racial divide. These are good works, but we are left with vital questions unanswered. Why does religion have so little impact? Why does it sometimes buck this trend, being a powerful agent of racial change, for example, with the Civil Rights movement? What is religion’s role now? And, more broadly, what can we learn about the American experiment itself from religion and race relations?

Divided By Faith is an attempt to apply the methods of academic sociology to approach these questions. The authors conducted a national telephone survey of more than 2,500 Americans, and personally interviewed nearly 200 (mostly white) evangelicals. In addition, they drew on an annual survey called the General Social Survey. Towards the end of Chapter 1, they state one of their main conclusions. After acknowledging that religion can be a powerful source for change in American race relations, they write:

Nevertheless, we argue that religion, as structured in America, is unable to make a great impact on the racialized society. In fact, far from knocking down racial barriers, religion generally serves to maintain those historical divides, and helps to develop new ones. Although this may seem to contradict the preceding paragraph, it does not. The structure of religion in America is conducive to freeing groups from the direct control of other groups, but not to addressing the fundamental divisions that exist in our current racialized society. In short, religion in the United States can serve as a moral force in freeing people, but not in bringing them together as equals across racial lines. American religion is thus one embodiment of larger American contradictions.

The book begins with a whirlwind history of race and religion in the United States. Much of this account will be familiar, in outline if not in detail, to anyone who has done some reading about the history of slavery and race relations. In the early days, Christians such as Cotton Mather and George Whitefield felt a strong responsibility to convert slaves to Christianity, but they rejected the notion that there was anything in the Christian faith that pointed towards the need to abolish slavery. Later, when abolitionism began to gain ground, the movement had strong religious roots, but as might be expected, it was strongly colored by people’s economic interests, with white southerners arguing that the Bible in fact permitted slavery, and white northerners being reluctant to take any drastic measures that might disturb the status quo too much. After the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, white Christians strongly opposed lynchings and mob violence, but were mostly unopposed to, and indeed supportive of, de facto segregation between black and white. The Civil Rights movement also had strong religious underpinnings, but was almost entirely spearheaded by black Christians. An interesting case study was Billy Graham.

During his early years, similar to his forebears, he wanted very much to avoid the larger questions of race so as not to deter the main task of evangelism. Graham’s southern crusades of the late 1940s and early 1950s were segregated. Constantly pressed on the issue by northern liberals and others, Graham was forced to speak: “In 1951, he tried to play both sides of the issue, announcing that he personally favored improved race relations but that organized reform efforts were likely to do more harm than good, especially since it seemed to him that communists and communist sympathizers were at the root of most such efforts.” He went on to state clearly that the races were equal, that race hatred was wrong, and that the answer to the race problem was Christian conversion and love.

Graham also said, “As far as I have been able to find in my study of the Bible, it has nothing to say about segregation or nonsegregation.” However, after Brown v Board of Education, Graham rejected segregation. Still, the authors say, Graham did not believe in working to change laws, because he believed that laws could not change wicked hearts, and because he had a pre-millennial worldview: “Only when Christ comes again will little white children of Alabama walk hand in hand with little black children.”

The authors devote a separate chapter to what they call a modern evangelical movement devoted to racial reconciliation. Initially spearheaded by black Christians such as John Perkins, Tom Skinner, and Samuel Hines, it grew to include whites as well, such as Curtiss DeYoung and Bill McCartney, founder of Promise Keepers, perhaps the biggest and most well-known evangelical Christian organization to put racial reconciliation front and center on their agenda. Though much of the authors’ account of the racial reconciliation movement might seem encouraging to those who are concerned about racial justice, the authors are careful to point out the limitations.

And this is the complaint that many black evangelicals had of white evangelicals during this period. Some of the white elite evangelicals attempted reconciliation, but incompletely. The problem with whites’ conception of reconciliation, many claimed, was that they did not seek true justice—that is, justice both individually and collectively. Without this component, reconciliation was cheap, artificial, and mere words. It was rather like a big brother shoving his little brother to the ground, apologizing, and then shoving him to the ground again.

The chapter concludes with a rather downbeat quote from Bill McCartney, who lamented that racial reconciliation was a “hard teaching for many” and was a major factor in the decline of Promise Keepers from 1996 to 1997.

The next few chapters form the heart of the book, where the authors present the findings of their empirical research. In many ways, their findings are not particularly new or surprising because they simply confirm what other researchers have already demonstrated about white Americans’ attitudes towards race. For example, there is a general lack of recognition that blacks and whites are not on a level playing field, and many whites live in such racially homogeneous environments that they cannot even cite a concrete example of racism. However, their research also reveals some facts about evangelicalism in particular. One survey that I found particularly interesting asked respondents to explain why, on average, blacks have worse jobs, income and housing than white people. Four explanations were offered:

1. Because most blacks have less inborn ability to learn?

2. Because most blacks just don’t have the motivation or will-power to pull themselves up out of poverty?

3. Because most blacks don’t have the chance for education that it takes to rise out of poverty?

4. Mainly due to discrimination?

They found, perhaps not surprisingly, that very few respondents picked 1, while whites tended to favor 2 (an “individualistic” explanation) and blacks tended to favor 3 and 4 (“structural” explanations). But the most interesting finding, from my perspective, was that white (theologically) conservative Protestants were even more likely than an average white to support an individualistic explanation, while black (theologically) conservative Protestants were even more likely than an average black to support a structural explanation.

When respondents were allowed to answer freely, instead of picking from a list of four options, white evangelicals typically explained the gap by saying that black Americans lack hope and vision, and suffer from relational dysfunction and a lack of responsibility. Another explanation (cited by one in five) was welfare.

Welfare is clearly seen as violating the Protestant work ethic, either causing people to lack individual motivation and responsibility, or catering to the human tendency to look for the easy road. … The theological understanding of social structure as co-opting freewill individualism (antistructuralism) clearly plays a role here. Because systems and programs are viewed as obviating personal responsibility and not changing the hearts of individuals, they are ultimately destructive.

Another of the authors’ questions asked about possible solutions to racism, offering four alternatives.

1. Try to get to know people of another race

2. Work against discrimination in the job market and legal system

3. Work to racially integrate congregations

4. Work to racially integrate residential neighborhoods

Both white and black evangelicals strongly supported options 1 and 2. Predictably, knowing people of another race has a strong impact on one’s views of the race problem, as the authors amply document. More interesting from my perspective is the white/black divide that emerged with questions 3 and 4, with black evangelicals much more strongly favoring integration than white evangelicals, and with the gap among evangelicals being more pronounced than among non-evangelicals. When those opposing integration were asked for their reasons, the most common explanation was that neighborhood integration implied force against people’s will. This was consistent with an overall emphasis among evangelicals that individual conversion to the Christian faith was the key, and not government intervention.

What we did hear from many was what others have called the “miracle motif.” The miracle motif is the theologically rooted idea that as more individuals become Christians, social and personal problems will be solved automatically. What is the solution to violent crime? Convert people to Christianity, because Christians do not commit violent crimes. What is the solution to divorce? Convert people to Christianity, because Christians are less likely to get divorced. What is the solution to the problems of race? … And this Church of Christ member from the Midwest responded, “If everybody was a Christian, there wouldn’t be a race problem. We’d all be the same.”

In Chapter 7 and 8 of the book, the authors turn to group dynamics, pointing out that the array of churches in America function as a de facto “religious marketplace” with a wide variety of options catering to individual needs. This marketplace mentality, the authors argue, drives congregations towards racial homogeneity. They cite a congregation that they pseudonymously call First Church, which was founded by an African-American evangelical pastor with the explicit goal of being interracial. Initially, the congregation and the music team were split 50/50 black and white. However, over time, the congregation became almost entirely black. The white congregants who left began by expressing concerns that their spiritual needs were not being met.

They expressed less than complete comfort with the type of music, the length of the service, the style of preaching, the types of programs, and the way that people related to each other. But more than this, some of the white members began feeling like outsiders, as if their voices did not carry as much influence as the voices of the black congregants. Some even questioned the church’s commitment to having a mixed-race membership. …

As we interviewed those white who had left First Church, all spoke of feeling as if their needs, and their family’s needs, were not being met at the church. It felt, they said, as if the church was going in a different direction than was needed by their family. All were adamant that their leaving had nothing to do with race, but rather that the church was simply not meeting their needs. And all said that although they were now part of nearly all-white congregations, they did not choose their new churches based on race, but fit, comfort, and felt need.

Once a homogeneous group forms, it begins to act like a “selfish” entity that acts to protect itself. If groups splinter along racial lines, then the groups will act to perpetuate racial inequality. As the authors note, this phenomenon was already penetratingly analyzed by Reinhold Niebuhr in his book Moral Man and Immoral Society. The authors argue that racially homogeneous congregations “contribute to the racial fragmentation of American society, generate and sustain group biases, direct altruistic religious impulses to express themselves primarily within racially separate groups, segregate social networks and identities, contribute to the maintenance of socioeconomic inequality, and generally fragment and drown out religious prophetic voices calling for an end to racialization.”

In the short concluding chapter of the book, the authors offer no concrete policy recommendations, but simply urge evangelicals to first reflect on the problem and gain more understanding of it.

Evangelicals might then bring together this knowledge with Christian understanding of freedom, love, universalism, justice, unity, and community. This could be done with the recognition that a Christian solution ought adequately to account for the complex of factors that generate and perpetuate the problems, and then faithfully, humbly, carefully, and cooperatively work against them. To do this will require attention to multiple factors—from historical forces to subcultural tools to the very organization of American religion. As we show elsewhere, addressing racialization must involve replacing structural barriers—such as segregation, inequality, and group competition—with structural supports—such as equality and cooperation and mutual interdependence.

Now for some of my thoughts about the book.

Let me begin by saying that for those evangelicals, particularly white evangelicals, who do not believe that there is a serious race problem in the United States, and/or who do not understand those who talk about “institutionalized racism” or “structural racism” as distinct from personal prejudice and racist beliefs, Divided By Faith is an excellent book to read. It presents plenty of facts; it takes care to explain what the authors mean when they say that Americans can be complicit in a “racialized society” even if they do not harbor personal racial prejudice; and it allows evangelicals to express their point of view in their own words. The authors give vivid illustrations of their points, including a parable of a couple who go to a weight-loss camp but are separated into very different environments and consequently experience very different levels of success in losing weight. At minimum, the reader cannot help but come away better informed about attitudes towards race among American evangelicals and the various beliefs and mechanisms that reinforce those attitudes.

At the same time, I found the book to be exasperating in some ways. Take for instance the sentence that I quoted earlier, where the authors say that “religion is unable to make a great impact on the racialized society.” Note first that this is a sweeping statement about religion, but as the contents of the book make clear, their dataset focuses narrowly on evangelicalism, with a strong emphasis on white evangelicalism. Secondly, note that they state that religion is unable to make a great impact—not that it has not made a great impact, but that it is unable. This statement illustrates a feature that pervades the book: On the surface, it appears to be an academic study, conducted with as much objectivity as is possible in the social sciences. In reality, however, the book is polemical, making claims that go well beyond what can be directly supported by their data, and is a latent critique of white evangelicalism. Because they do not admit outright that their agenda is to argue against the viewpoints of some of the people that they quote, they do not forthrightly engage the quoted arguments, but treat the quotations simply as “data.” The result is that they create the impression of having made their case in a scholarly fashion, without ever addressing many of the counter-arguments that they cite.

In my above summary of the contents of the book, one thing I did not really discuss was the authors’ explanations for why certain discrepancies in white and black attitudes are even more pronounced among evangelicals. One of the authors’ favorite go-to explanatory concepts is the white evangelical “cultural toolkit,” a phrase popularized by Ann Swidler and that I first became aware of when reading Lisa Sharon Harper’s book Evangelical Does Not Equal Republican…or Democrat. As used by the authors, the toolkit metaphor has the effect of almost medicalizing the viewpoints of white evangelicals. It is as if the authors do not want to say that the views are wrong so much as that the people in question suffer from Toolkit Deficiency Syndrome, a well-studied condition for which professional help is available, paid for by your tax dollars, provided you are willing to admit that you have a problem. Similarly, their use of the term “miracle motif” carries an almost mocking undertone, raising an incredulous eyebrow at the idea that mere conversion to the Christian faith could have any larger social consequences in the absence of a formal social agenda. Now, some of the sufferers of Toolkit Deficiency Syndrome may indeed have mistaken views, and the miracle motif may indeed be theologically incorrect, but if so, why not refute those views instead of snickering silently?

More generally, if the authors wish to go beyond a merely descriptive sociological study, and want to critique evangelicals and offer advice, then I think they should be more upfront about where they stand theologically. Do they believe that evangelicals are fundamentally mistaken that personal acceptance of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord is Priority #1, ahead of all other seemingly good and important things, including race relations? If they do, then they should say so plainly. On the other hand, if they believe that this basic evangelical belief is more consistent with the authors’ beliefs about the race problem than with evangelicals’ own beliefs about the race problem, then they should make this case explicitly. As it stands now, the authors do not even consider the possibility that what they attribute to cultural toolkit deficiencies are actually logical consequences of basic theological doctrines.

Another serious criticism that I have—and again, this is a criticism not of the empirical sociological research that is their core academic contribution, but of the overall argument that they are making—is that the authors do not come to grips with the fundamental fact that when there is social inequality, virtually all social structures will tend to perpetuate it, and so it does not follow that a social structure that perpetuates inequality is automatically bad, or that it can be replaced with some other social structure that does not perpetuate inequality. Though they cite Niebuhr, they do not seem to recognize how far-reaching Niebuhr’s critique is. As a simple example, consider democracy. Suppose that in a group of people, the majority are doing well at the expense of the minority. Should anything be done to address this seeming injustice? Well, how about if we take a vote on it? Surprise, surprise, when the votes are tallied, the will of the people says that nothing should be done. Democracy perpetuates inequality, it seems. So should we get rid of democracy? Or how about this: Parents tend to lavish more attention on their own children than on other children. Since the race of the children is correlated with the race of the parents, parental love perpetuates racial inequality. So should we work towards eliminating parental love?

This is not just a matter of taking a principle to a ridiculous extreme. There are many practical situations where it is not at all clear what the “right” thing to do is. In the past few years, our own church has been involved with planting a new inner-city church. Our church is predominantly white, and the new church is predominantly black. In fact, many of our black congregants left to join the new church plant. The result was, of course, greater racial homogeneity and greater racial segregation. So was the church plant a mistake? Should we have bent over backwards to ensure that both the old and the new churches had at least the same amount of racial balance as we had before the church plant? Most likely, given the location of the church plant and its mission to reach the surrounding neighborhood, it would have suffered the same fate as First Church, with blacks soon outnumbering whites, regardless of the initial mix. In an ideal world, perhaps we could simultaneously achieve the goals of bringing more people to Christ and decreasing racial homogeneity, but what if we do not live in an ideal world? Which, as Christians, do we prioritize?

I give the authors credit for recognizing that addressing racial issues is not easy, and for refraining from giving simplistic policy recommendations in their closing chapter. What I am suggesting is that the problems are even knottier than they seem to think, with the solutions being difficult not only in practice but in theory. Having said that, I do agree with the authors that the first step is for evangelical Christians to recognize the problems, and also examine their own belief systems for potential blind spots, so that we can start to find solutions. Divided By Faith does an admirable job of laying out the problems and the blind spots. The next step is up to us.

Posted September 2018

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