Emerson, Michael O. & Smith, Christian. 2000. Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
The recently documented slow and steady exodus of African Americans from Protestant evangelical churches in America raises a pointed question not many are willing to engage: why is the majority of the black population in America uncomfortable in majority white churches? Better still, why is there even a racial divide within American churches? The Apostle Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 2:11–22 paints a radical picture of the most divided people coming together as one new humanity in Christ. Contra Paul’s teaching, the evangelical landscape resembles a reality less than satisfying, falling far short from the supposed unity we have in Christ.
Written almost twenty years ago, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America is Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith’s attempt to unearth evangelicalism and its relationship to race relations in America.
Michael O. Emerson is author of Religion Matters: What Sociology Teaches Us About Religion in Our World and serves as provost of North Park University in Chicago. In this title, Emerson is joined by leading American theorist of the philosophy of critical realism and the social theory of personalism, Christian Smith. Currently serving as the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame, Smith is the also author of American Evangelicalism and Christian America? What Evangelicals Really Want.
In this present work Emerson and Smith examine the role of white evangelicalism in black-white relations (ix). Divided by Faith combines history with the authors’ own socio-theological research in which over two thousand interviews were conducted with contemporary evangelicals and other Americans in the late 1990’s.
Emerson and Smith’s thesis is this: in spite of evangelicals attempting to end racial division and inequality their cultural and epistemological tools as well as the very structure of Protestant religion is more likely to perpetuate the racial division. The reader in challenged by the authors’ attempts to go beyond the “old idea that racial problems result from ignorant, prejudiced, mean people.”
Instead, effects of culture, values, norms, and the very structure of evangelical religion in America are explored and shown to “paradoxically have negative effects on race relations.” (ix) Divided by Faith speaks directly to the recent exodus of African Americans from white churches, the latter serving as a fulfillment of the concerns espoused by Emerson and Smith some twenty years ago.
The introduction of Divided by Faith delineates key terms in their study, particularly the identity of evangelicals, which the authors apply broadly: holding to the authority of Scripture, believe Christ died for the salvation of all, and teaching the necessity of “being born again,” with evangelism being a central tenet. (3) I think that a broad application of ‘evangelical’ aided their research as it brought more variety into their field of questioning.
Chapter one sees Emerson and Smith further defining the scope of their study. More specifically, they get to the heart of the book’s fundamental concern: a “racialized society” (7). This is no doubt the most essential concept in the book’s intended aims. Without understanding this concept, not much of what follows will make sense. A racialized society is one wherein “race matters profoundly for differences in life experiences, life opportunities, and social relationships.” (7) But this concept has particular specificity in mind: economic, political, social, and even psychological discrepancies that are evidenced along racial lines.
Another important aspect of the racialized society is that it is a dynamic phenomenon, adapting and existing in a state of fluidity. Racism, then, is not merely individual, overt prejudice, but the “collective misuse of power that results in diminished life opportunities for some racial groups.” (9) Racism, then, is perpetually changing, continually in motion, whilst simultaneously, and paradoxically so, remaining immutable in its application and justification of the racialized societal system. (9)
To prove the reality of the racialized society, the authors engage and utilize several areas of disparity between white and black Americans: from marriage (11), to economic inequality (12–14), to health, life and even death (14). The statistics appear to be used fairly and represent clear lines of disparity. The more than 2, 500 phone calls and almost 200 face-to-face interviews over twenty-three states (18–19), more clearly reveal the theology and sociological underpinning that produce such statistics.
In chapter two the authors further support their thesis with a brief but concise examination of evangelical thought and practice from the beginning of the 18th century up until 1964. This chapter primarily seeks to understand how evangelicals have thought of race in the past and “what sorts of actions they have taken to address racial issues.” (19)
Evangelicalism has historically been driven by evangelism and discipleship, whilst challenging institutions and social structures has not been a major concern (21). From Cotton Mather (23), to Billy Graham (46), racialization has remained intact, though, no doubt, it “changed in form” (48). In fact, from Mather to Graham, the white-black race divide has ironically regressed from separate pews to separate churches. The historical survey is compelling and reveals a sad state of affairs in which changing wider and larger structures has been something white Protestants have offered resistance to, perhaps in favor for the economic and political power it presented.
The authors additionally looked at the Promise Keeper organization, which aimed at bringing about reconciliation between blacks and whites. They were, however, one of many organizations that represented the contemporary involvement after the Civil-Rights movement. The authors look at this involvement, surveying publications such as Christianity Today and the experiences of Curtiss DeYoung to demonstrate that even contemporary models and initiatives have been unable to repair the past.
Why is this case? How can significant moves toward racial reconciliation on the part of white evangelicals further exasperate the problem? Chapter four attempts to unearth the substratum that lies, for the most part, hidden in the minds of white evangelicals. Here, the authors begin to showcase some of the data from their interviews. The question is there a race problem in America? consistently reveals a stark divide between white and black conceptions of race relations in America. (68)
To try to understand why this is, Emerson and Smith discuss the “religio-cultural toolkit” that white evangelicals use to make sense of reality (76). Included in this toolkit are three elements: “accountable freewill individualism,” “relationalism,” and “antistructuralism.” (76) Added to these elements is the relative isolation from racial pluralism that is typical of white evangelicals (80–82). The net result is that white evangelicals miss the “racialized patterns that transcend and encompass individuals,” (90) rendering a “color-blind” society (91).
As discussed briefly in chapter one, Emerson and Smith return to the issue of economic inequality in chapter five. Here, findings from national surveys reveal the explanations given for racial inequality among white and black evangelicals. The staggering consequence is the apparent divide between black and white evangelicals, with conservative religion actually intensifying and increasing the division. (97) The concept of “equal opportunity,” as an American phenomenon (98), and intergroup isolation (106), severely handicap white evangelicals from making sense of the black experience.
Chapter six sees Emerson and Smith exploring solutions to the problem of race in America. On a spectrum ranging from interracial relationships to racially integrated residential neighborhoods, the authors show how their interactions with evangelicals yet again display a variance on just how race-relations ought to be improved. Typically white evangelicals favor solutions involving personal relationships with a view to changing individuals, whilst simultaneously avoiding any change that would effect “institutions, laws or programs” (119), such as integrating neighborhoods.
Is there more to this racialized society than the religio-cultural tools applied by the respective groups? In chapter seven Emerson and Smith are so bold as to claim that the very fabric of American religion, specifically evangelical Protestant Christianity, is structured in such a way so as to harden and secure the divide between white and black evangelicals. Religious pluralism “powerfully drives religious groups toward internal similarity,” (136) fuelling the “homogenous unit principle” (150). The need for boundaries, social solidarity (142), as well as the rampant religious marketplace (137), renders evangelicalism as resembling internally similar congregations.
Chapter eight continues the examination of the organization of religion in America, specifically two structural arrangements, that of racially homogenous religious ingroups and the segmented religious market (154). The authors examine how these two sociological concepts work to “contribute to segregated social networks,” as well as “perpetuate socioeconomic inequality by race.” (168).
In concluding the study, Emerson and Smith summarize their efforts as well as offer an exhortation to the reader to consider the complexities of the subject at hand. Any change to America’s racialized society will at once require “multiple factors—from historical forces to subcultural tools to the very organization of American religion.” (172)
Does Divided by Faith adequately discern the complexities of black-white race relations in American evangelicalism? On reading Divided by Faith, one has to admit the gravity of the study presented: it is a masterful and careful exhibition of historical, religio-cultural, and sociological enquiry.
As reality would have it, such a work cannot remain in the realm of the abstract: does the study line up with reality? In many ways, I am of the opinion that the answer is an emphatic yes. The book’s thesis that “evangelicals desire to end racial division and inequality but more likely do more to perpetuate the radical divide” is sadly, yet wonderfully exhibited in the authors’ findings. What is simply remarkable is how the many responses recorded in their interviews reflect many conversations I myself have had in another country with its own racialized society. The fact that their findings appear to resemble a conceptually universal integrity is a strong argument for their validity.
In many ways, Divided by Faith has also served as metaphor for my own journey in the world of race-relations. The painful truth is that I myself have mirrored the as-to-be-expected responses of white evangelicals, stressing interpersonal relationships, failing to discern the structures and wider political and economic context that is largely determinative for the lives of people of color. I am a living testament of the reality that racial pluralism and interracial contact are also powerfully determinative for ones response to solutions to eradicating a racialized society.
Additionally, I am of the opinion that another strength of this book is its critique of evangelicalism and the unwarranted inflation of certain theological ideas and concepts. The trio of “accountable freewill individualism,” “relationalism,” and “antistructuralism,” (76) are realities inherent in orthodox Protestant theology. However, to stress these without the dimension of corporate aspects of our being called as the people of God is to truncate the Gospel message. Christ not only saved us as individuals, he also destroyed the larger works of Satan that held us captive. Along with the authors, I am in agreement that until white evangelicals are ready to discern a broader perspective and examine their own biases, some of which are sadly more cultural than biblical, racial reconciliation will be a slow, and dreary road ahead.
Of course, one notable weakness is the lack of solutions provided by the authors. Nevertheless, the authors never intended to go that far and it would be unfair to insist that they present such a conclusion. Theirs was a survey and analyses seeking to unearth the paradigms that shape the evangelical mind and render it as, ironically, incapable in effecting change in race-relations, which I believe they accomplished.
The question left with the reader is this: will we pursue the radically, transformed life that Christ calls us to? Emerson and Smith have labored to bring to the surface many challenging and convincing religio-cultural and historical realities that readers have to wrestle with. Will the reader be content to rest with the status quo, or will the steady exodus of African-Americans from white evangelical churches be something that does not arrest us, does not set off alarm bells that something is wrong with the very structure of evangelicalism? Will evangelicals, those who stand on the ‘evangel,’ be ready to cling to Christ and his word, and cut off the cancerous cultural norms and values that undermine the very ‘evangel’ we stand on? Only then can the one new humanity be realized.
This review was first posted on Mild-Yoke and is used with permission