BOOK REVIEW– Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America

Despite stories of secularization in America, congregations still possess power as one of America’s most prolific social organizations as congregations receive the highest proportion of philanthropic donations of any social institution (Hoge, Zech, McNamara, and Donahue 1996), and are the greatest outlet of voluntarism in the United States (Putnam 2001).

As Michael Emerson and Christian Smith assert in “Divided by Faith,” the intentions of evangelicals are often good, which an important fact to preface the book with, because as “Divided By Faith” digs deeper in the racialized society of faith and spirituality, we see that these same well-intentioned people allow their values and institutions to recreate racial divisions and inequalities they openly oppose (Emerson 2000).

Evangelical values, which are also American core values such as— freedom, individualism, independence, equality of opportunity and privacy. Perhaps because protestant values remained the dominant faith for much of the America’s first years, these values remain a cornerstone in not only mainstream protestant values but American values as well. One important factor that differentiates evangelicals from other subgroups of protestant Christians is the ideology called “engaged orthodoxy,” that traditional biblical principals are key to solving political issues and addressing society on a grander level.

Ultimately, Emerson and Smith attempt to study the connection between two of the biggest social issues in American history— the role of religion in societal interactions and racial inequality, specifically between black and white people. The topic of evangelical Christianity and racial segregation has been explored in other texts and have revealed similar connections.

In an essay entitled “Evangelical Protestantism and Segregation,” Sébastien Fath These, a specialist in the study of Evangelical Protestantism, analyzed Emerson and Smith’s “Divided by Faith,” Eddie S. Glaude, Jr.’s “Exodus! Religion, Race, and Nation in Early Nineteenth-Century Black America,” and Mark Newman’s “Getting Right with God, Southern Baptists and Desegregation.”

Glaude’s work is an analysis of the biblical theme of Exodus as it was taken up among the  African-American population of the northern U.S. in the first half of the 19th century (Glaude 2000). Newman’s work looks at the relationship between the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and efforts made toward desegregation in the South, demonstrating that the SBC was not monolithic and that there were Baptists on both sides of the segregation argument (Newman 2009).

These texts demonstrate that Evangelical Protestantism can be marked, contrastly, by both its right-wing conservatism and its reformist, emancipation-oriented efforts (Fath 2002).

tumblr_mwml2fjr8s1qhdct4o1_1280
Photo caption: Statistics show that there is still a significant difference in racial perspective among members of various religious institutions.

In his article “Divided by Age?: Generational Shifts in White Evangelical Christians’ Attitudes Toward Racial Diversity,”Darin Mather examines whether there are generational differences among white evangelicals in their perceptions of race-related issues in the United States. Younger white evangelicals are compared to older white evangelicals and to younger white nonevangelicals. Differences are measured in three broad areas: valuing diversity, racial solidarity, and race-related public policy.

These comparisons indicate that there are clear differences in the post-Baby Boom cohorts of evangelicals on important issues of valuing diversity and of racial solidarity. At the same time, younger white evangelicals share with older evangelicals an opposition to structural approaches for addressing racial problems. Detailed analysis uncovers several factors that contribute to these similarities and differences. Among other things, the younger Evangelicals’ stronger adherence to a contractual view of social solidarity contributes significantly to the generational shifts in attitudes (Mather 2011).

But ultimately, good intentions are not enough to overcome the racial inequalities within the religious community. Emerson and Smith believe that educated, sacrificial, realistic efforts made in faith across racial lines can help us together move toward a more just, equitable, and peaceful society.

“Divided by Faith” manages to paint a refreshingly candid portrait of race issues in the American church without demonizing any of its participants. Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith give an engaging sociological perspective that still retains its readability. “Divided by Faith” is a must-skim for the deeply religious or contentedly agnostic.

 

Citations:

Emerson, Michael and Christian Smith. 2000. Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Fath, Sebastien. 2002. “Evangelical Protestantism and Segregation.” Archives De Sciences Sociales Des Religions 47(118):57-70.

Glaude, Eddie. 2000. Exodus!: Religion, Race and Nation in Early Nineteenth-Century Black America. Chicago, IL: University Of Chicago Press.

Hoge, Dean, Charles Zech, Patrick McNamara, and Michael Donahue. 1996. Money Matters: Personal Giving in American Churches. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press

Mather, Darin M. 2011. “Divided by Age?: Generational Shifts in White Evangelical Christians’ Attitudes Toward Racial Diversity.” Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion 7

Newman, Mark. 2009. Getting Right With God: Southern Baptists and Desegregation. Tuscaloosa AL: University Alabama Press.

Putman, Robert. 2001. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Chicago IL: Touchstone Books by Simon & Schuster.