Divided by Faith

In the book, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, Michael O. Emerson (and Christian Smith) look at the contributing factors to the continued racial divide between blacks and whites and how the divide is exacerbated by evangelicalism. Sociologists, Emerson and Smith conducted a massive study, including over 2,500 phone interviews and 200 face-to-face interviews, thus cross referencing both quantitative and qualitative analysis.

First off, they claim that while the U.S. is not necessarily “racist,” it is unquestionably “racialized”: “characterized by by low intermarriage rates, de facto segregation, socioeconomic inequality, and personal identities and social networks that are racially distinctive”(154). That Black Americans are at the bottom of this racialized divide, they offer some devastating statistics:

Median net worth of Whites: $43,800

Median net worth of Blacks: $3,700

Median net financial assets of Whites: $7,000

Median net financial assets of Blacks: $0 (that’s right, $0!)

Median net worth of college-educated Whites: $74,922

Median net worth of college-educated Blacks: $17,437

When they surveyed white evangelicals, however, many refused to admit that there was a problem — in fact, many were downright offended to be asked. While it may have been an issue 50 years ago, many maintained that those racial problems of the U.S. had been solved. When pushed further, most suggested that the solution to any lingering racialization is(drumroll, please) conversion!!! That’s right, the evangelical theology of personal transformation trumps all. By far the most common response that the researchers received was basically, “If all these racist whites and downtrodden blacks would just accept Jesus as Lord, then they’d see that we’re all God’s children and we all need to be treated equally.” There was virtually no acknowledgement that there is any systemic problem with race in America. There was also a lot of “if they’d just get off their lazy butts” kind of talk.

What Emerson and Smith go onto to suggest is that churches and denominations, by their very structure and by what has been proved by sociologists and social psychologists, tend toward homogeneity: “Religion contributed to this consolidation along racial lines — and the stronger the religion, the more it contributes — and therefore increases racial categorization. Again, its individual participants and organizations do not intend this result, but it is a latent by-product of establishing meaning, belonging, and group strength”(157). So even though multi-racial congregations may be the answer, people naturally choose the easier option, and worshipping with people who look and sing like you is easier.

What the authors cannot say directly (because they are sociologists) but clearly allude to is that this is a theological problem. The over-emphasis on the hermeneutic of personal transformation in Evangelical theology, to the virtual exclusion of biblical passages that speak to systemic sin, is the problem.

  • jay v.

    Excellent post. Now what do we do about it?

  • Anonymous

    Sorry about the anonymous post- couldn’t get my username to work for some reason. I read Divided by Faith not too long ago as well and as shocked by some of the same statistics Tony quoted. I agree with Tony that it is mainly a theological problem- one I wish the authors (or someone) would address in more detail. I realize that for many, talking of social or structural causes for issues such as racism/racialization is a topic met with disbelief. Most feel, as the book pointed out, that the problems are personal and are solved by personal change and transformation. While I agree personal change and transformation is an essential part of addressing and dealing with such problems, we cannot ignore the larger issues as well. Jesus, when confronting the money changers in the temple, confronted not only individual cheaters, but a corrupt system that was taking advantage of people. “What do we do now?” First, I personally feel the need to listen more to those affected by racism and racialization. I wonder if I have much to learn and rethink about my own views, including how I view some of the structures and systems that actually contribute to the problem of racialization. Second, (while not exclusively connected with the problem of racism/racialization), I feel the need to focus more on the kingdom of God and my/our role in being used by God to see it become a reality. I too have been guilty of stressing the individual aspect of following Christ (“personal relationship”) to the detrement of our responsibilities as members of the kingdom of God. I’m wondering if I need to re-evaluate some of the language I use, emphases I make, and ways in which I live my own life. As a youth minister, I perhaps also need to re-evaluate how I talk about what it means to follow Christ with the students with which I work and serve.I also would like to do some more reading on dealing with structures and systems and their role in issues such as racism, etc. Anyone have any recommendations on further reading that could help out my reflections and actions?-Chris Cash

  • Myles

    wow, with those numbers, i feel so not white. it seems to be a systemic problem, not just of race, but of any other kind of prejudice you can name. you can divide the lines across education, geography, et al, and the numbers come out about the same. race, however, is the most prominent problem because it involves the greatest number of factors. i hesitate to say that evanglical theology is the problem of racism, seeing as racism preceded evanglicalism by several thousand years. E theology, however, does tend to appeal to a more medianally educated, white audience. there’s an excellent book by Barbara Ehrenreich called Fear of Falling that describes a lot of what it sounds like these authors found.

  • Jeff

    I just read “Divided by Faith and it is very prophetically convicting. Evangelicals have (by-and-large) focused way too much on piritual transformation at the expense of racial reconciliation, socio-economic and gender equality. You’re right, Tony. It is a theological problem. I wrote about evangelical theological traditions that harm people of color and low-income at jeffgauss.blogspot.com (under “Evangelicalism and the city” – sorry I can’t figure out how to hyperlink in comment mode).The emerging church has much in place ideologically and theologically, but has yet to really make an impact in this area theologically. I’ve also written specifically on this topic. If anyone is interested I can e-mail a copy.

  • Andrew Zirschky

    Wait a second, college-educated people, black or white, are supposed to have a net worth? Cuz all I have at this point is debt. Man, how do I rate?!

  • Brian

    Do the authors slice the data more finely than just black/white? I’d be interested to know the median net worth of those under 40 of both races, for example. Or under 30. Or over 50. If the gap between black and white narrows as you look at younger populations, that would indicate we’re at least making progress. If the gap narrows from the Greatest to the Boomers but hasn’t narrowed further from Boomers to GenX maybe that indicates the progress has stagnated. We clearly must admit there is a significant problem, and I think seeing the data in finer detail might help significantly with the What do we do now? question.

  • Anonymous

    Hey Tony,I ran across your blog while doing some research on Rob Bell. I don’t know if you remember me. We met at a conference at Princeton Sem. I was a representative from Wesley Seminary. One problem with Divided By Faith… Black evangelicals (which most black Christians are by theology, though not by name) share the same theology as white evangelicals. The difference is social location. Consider this, white evangelicals believe in changing systems when it concerns an issue that concerns them- like their belief in the goodness and Christian heritage of America. How do white evangelicals try to end abortion? same sex marriage? etc… They vote. They elect officials. They organize against systems. Most African-American Christians emphasize conversion and a pretty conservative view of the Bible. They would say that you change society by changing hearts. However, when certain issues hit close-to-home, like poverty and racism they talk about the system aka “the man.”The way I see it, we have a race difference, not a theological one. I am one of those “black people” that is interested in talking about race with emergent and any other christian group interested. So let me know what you think.Peace,David Evans


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X