A Short Review of Smith and Emerson’s Divided By Faith

Smith and Emerson’s Divided by Faith is a sociological study of the relationship between evangelical Christianity and race relations in the U.S. The authors conclude that despite evangelicals’ aversion to prejudice and ostensible commitment to racial reconciliation, divided-by-faithevangelicalism tends to perpetuate or even exacerbate racialization instead of reducing it, where ‘racialization’ is defined as “a society wherein race matters profoundly for differences in life experiences, life opportunities, and social relationships” (p. 6)

– This is a very important book. Even though it was published in 2000, before events of tremendous significance to race relations such as 9/11 and the elections of presidents Obama and Trump, I think that much of its analysis is still very relevant.

– Discussions of the degree of racial homogeneity in most of the U.S. reminded me of how much of a bubble I inhabit. Having lived exclusively in racially diverse cities, I took it for granted that evangelical Christians were surrounded by, and attending church with, friends of different races. That is simply incorrect.

– I cringed repeatedly at some of the interviews with ‘white evangelicals’ (Chapter 4). While the authors took a very charitable approach towards interpreting their subjects’ attitudes and believed that they were all well-intentioned, some of their statements betrayed -at best- a naive and insensitive approach to race.

– The authors recognize the validity of evangelicals’ emphasis on individual repentance and relationship building. They agree that this is a necessary part of racial reconciliation, without which structural changes will be inadequate

– Very nice quantitative analysis of N=2000 survey respondents to support their results

– The authors offered two main accounts of how evangelicalism tends to sustain racialization: first, white evangelicals’ fundamental view of reality is shaped by ‘accountable free will individualism.’ That is, we are all free moral agents who control our individual destinies, but who are ultimately accountable to God. Consequently, white evangelicals have difficulty recognizing or understanding structural problems or how they can limit our choices.

– Second, American religion is consumer-based, meaning that churches must compete for members. Because all people tend to gravitate towards similarity, churches will naturally self-segregate. In a racialized society, churches will reflect and strengthen racialization.

– Noticeably absent from this book was any theological or philosophical reflection. For example, the authors contrast how ‘white evangelicals’ view sin and guilt with how ‘black evangelicals’ view these subjects, without any reflection on which view is more accurate. This descriptive neutrality makes sense from a sociological perspective. But Christians have to push farther. We have to ask: what is the biblical perspective on sin and guilt? Unlike sociologists, we can’t assume that every view is equally correct. Both may be valid. Both may be invalid. But we must evaluate both in the light of Scripture.

– The same lack of theological reflection is apparent in the authors’ mention of “social sin” or “collective guilt.” While the authors don’t define or defend this term, it is mentioned as a concept that “white evangelicals” have difficulty recognizing and which could further racial healing. But this seems like impermissibly pragmatic reasoning. Before we ask whether it would be beneficial for whites to confess their “social sin,” we need to ask whether “social sin” is a biblical concept. Does God hold people morally accountable for their membership in a socially constructed group like “race” or “class”? I’m skeptical. It seems to me that those who embrace this idea have difficulty applying it consistently. For example, are all men guilty before God for historic (and modern-day) sexism? Do all Japanese people bear the sin of 20th century Japanese imperialism? Do all Arabs bear the sin of the Arab slave trade? This is an important theological question.

– The book’s interviews focused almost entirely on white evangelicals. I would have liked to hear more from black evangelicals. Throughout the book, it was suggested that white evangelicals’ theology limited their understanding of race. Yet the data suggest that there were both differences and similarities between white and black evangelicals. I’d like to hear how “black evangelicals” both affirm and deny the ideas of “white evangelicals” when it comes to racial issues.

– Related to the last point, groups aren’t monolithic. Sociology attempts to see general patterns and trends, which is wholly legitimate. However, we shouldn’t allow this birds-eye view to obscure that fact that individuals are individuals. There is not one monolithic “black experience” any more than there is one monolithic “white experience” or “male experience.” It’s here that I think the “white evangelical” approach to race fares the best, because it insists that we meet as individuals and brothers, not as avatars of our respective groups. We don’t write people off as “bigots” or “race-baiters”. We ask questions. We listen to their answers. We try to understand their perspective.

– Finally, there were zero policy suggestions, and this is always a point of frustration for me. The authors repeatedly and, in my opinion, legitimately critiqued the “unidimensional solutions to complex social problems” offered by white evangelicals (p. 170) and repeatedly insisted that “structural changes” need to be made. But they were completely silent on what those structural changes might be. Do we need more welfare spending? More affirmative action? Full communism now (see my review of Race, Class, and Gender)? The authors offer no guidance, which is disappointing.

This work is an important read for Christians who long for the church to lead the way on racial reconciliation. It’s fairly short. It contains a good balance of qualitative and quantitative data and analysis. Its main shortcomings are a lack of theological reflection and no clear path forward.  Nonetheless, it’s an important contribution to our understanding of why Sunday morning is “the most segregated hour of the week.”

While I have few answers to the question of racial reconciliation as a whole, I will offer a suggestion which addresses one of the deep problems this book highlights: evangelicals’ low view of the church.  There is no way to reconcile a biblical view of the church (that is, the local community of Christians) as Christ’s body, as God’s people, as God’s family, as a holy nation, as a royal priesthood, etc… with our modern consumer mindset towards religion.  Christians should treat fellow believers as our brothers and sisters held together by spiritual bonds more intimate and enduring than even the bonds of our biological families.  And we must to jettison the idea that the church exists to meet our needs.  Instead, we exist to serve God’s kingdom through the church.  This radical reorientation will not end racial disharmony within the church, but it will break the back of the consumerist attitude that Smith and Emerson document among evangelicals.

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