White Evangelicalism and Racial Issues in America

One of the best books I read during my time at “New Staff Training” with the CCO is Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America by Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith. Emerson and Smith are Sociology professors (at Rice University and North Carolina, Chapel Hill respectively). The book is a sociological study on the racism that remains to this day in America, and how evangelicalism actually is contributing to the problem.

The big idea that kept rising to the surface for me concerned a truncated version of racial reconciliation that has been in vogue in white evangelical churches for the past 10 years. I’ve been pastoring in white suburban churches during these years, and have witnessed it first-hand.
Emerson and Smith articulate it on page 74 of Divided by Faith:
“For them (many white evangelicals), the race problem is one or more of three main types: (1) prejudiced individuals, resulting in bad relationships and sin, (2) other groups—usually African Americans—trying to make race problems a group issue when there is nothing more than individual problems, and (3) a fabrication of the self-interested—again often African Americans, but also the media, the government, or liberals.”
Yes! Nailed it! And I didn’t realize it until I read this a few weeks ago!

In the evangelical churches I’ve been associated with, all three of these have been the way we have been framing the subject matter. Most white evangelicals would say that they are not themselves prejudiced, that they do not have a personal problem with black people. They would say that they would, in fact, welcome individual relationships with African Americans. They would be the first to say that there is not room in Christianity for anyone to feel superior over another person of another race.

But, and right here’s the rub, they keep it at the individual level. As long as individuals are not themselves prejudiced and acting sinfully toward other individuals, then they feel that the race issue is being solved.

This is a symptom of a grander issue: Generally speaking, white evangelicals have embraced a truncated gospel—a gospel of the individual being reconciled with God and with other individuals. It is not a gospel of community. It is not a gospel that allows for the redemption of social structures because it is a gospel of individuality.

So, there is a general suspicion of social-structure redemption. It is viewed as “liberal,” since it’s assumed that social action is not concerned with what is truly important: the individual human heart. Since a white evangelical does not see racism in his own personal individual heart or in those around him, he assumes that talk of racial problems must be a fabrication of the self-interested. He rejects affirmative action, for it is seen as a self-interest fabrication, since racism is a matter of the individual heart. In general, we white evangelicals have been blinded to systemic racial problems in society because we are limited by our individualistic gospel.

The extent of racial reconciliation in white evangelical churches, then, has been a truncated solution—individual reconciliation. Hug a black person, pledge to never be prejudiced, and that’s about it.

But that’s not enough. Until Christians understand the systemic injustice of racialization, we are not only unable to be a part of the solution, we are a part of the problem.

1 comment:

Scot McKnight said...

Nice to see you back.
I loved that book, and I liked the next one: United by Faith. That one is more "pragmatic" in concern, with plenty of heart-probing suggestions about "how to get it done."