Divided by Faith

by Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith

Why this book matters

Divided by faith is the most important book written to date on the subject of racial divide in the evangelical/conservative church in America. The authors use reliable survey data and careful sociological analysis to examine what the church says it believes about race and delineates how that often does not line up with actual practice.

By developing terms carefully, such as “racialization” over “racism”, the authors create a dialogue that maintains its audience while delivering painful truths. Using the white community’s own words the authors demonstrate ways in which the church has simultaneously embraced “racial-reconciliation” and moved further down the racial divide.

Overview

The authors initially describe their thesis that “evangelicals desire to end racial division and inequality and attempt to think and act accordingly. But, in the process, they likely do more to perpetuate the racial divide than they do to tear it down” (from the preface).

Initially the authors describe the ways in which the country is “Racialized”. That is the country is separated economically, residentially, and socially (marriage, entertainment, etc..). They then trace this historically showing that the origins of the black church are from within the white church — first being treated unfairly, then being tossed out of the white church. Chapter 3 traces the important leadership of black evangelicals that brings rise to the modern evangelical involvement with racial reconciliation (John Perkins, Tom Skinner, Samuel Hines). The authors show how the message of these leaders is co-opted by white evangelical leaders and (unintentionally or otherwise) neutered in such a way as to foment black distrust.

The authors then explore white notions of the “race problem” through interviews and survey data. Using a sociological approach the authors delineate a set of “Tools” that white Christians use to understand the problems of race in America. White Christians have a colorblindness-as-virtue approach to race and society and operate under a free-will individualist notion of self. All of this puts them at odds with how black American understands race and society (among other things).

The chapter on understanding how one controls one’s own (economic) destiny puts conservative white Christians directly at odds with conservative black Christians. The survey and interviews here explore these various Christian notions of what happens to people in the US economically and why.

Next the authors explore solutions to the race problem offered by evangelicals. Issues discussed include integration of congregations and communities, relationship building and working against structural racism. The authors also consider how white racial isolation impacts this thought-framework.

Finally the authors suggest that structural organization of church and society has direct implications for understanding and addressing the situaion with racialization in America and ask good questions the white evangelical church’s role in this.

Chapter worth the price of the book

I think every chapter in this book is worth the price of the book. For those new to the subject, the short chapter at the beginning of the book that illustrates the stratification of the world we live in will be key. For those who see the difference and “have a black friend” the difference in perspective demonstrated by the authors in Color Blind will begin to see a weakness in this perspective and likely be shocked by the following two chapters that show how the more conservative we are as Christians, the further apart we are in viewing race in America. For those passionate about the subject the historical connections as well as the recent neutering of the African American message of reconciliation should give us great pause.

Quote: “More surprising to us was that when white evangelicals were asked to provide concrete examples (of racism) a substantial number could not. . . .conversely, our nonwhite respondents had not trouble producing specific examples of racism, nor did the relatively racially non-isolated whites, usually both tat the individual and institutional levels. As many race scholars note, not having to know the details or extent of racialization is an advantage afforded to most white Americans.” (p 88).

If you liked this book you may want to consider

United by Faith. The Multi-racial congregation as an Answer to the Problem of Race By Curtis Paul Deyoung, Michael O. Emerson, George Yancey and Karen Chai Kim.

Reconciliation Blues. A Black Evangelical’s View of White Christianity By Edward Gilbreath.

Whitewashing Race. The Myth of a colorblind society by Michael Brown, Martin Carnoy et. al.