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.