Divided by Faith

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

by Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith

Reviewed by Terry Akers

As a new century emerges in black-white relations in America, sociologists Michael O. Emerson of Rice University and Christian Smith of the University of North Carolina have written a book examining evangelicalism’s role in this 300-year-old American dilemma.

bookDivided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, published by Oxford University Press in 2000, is not a theological book, but it seeks to expose certain theological weaknesses in American evangelicalism.

The purpose of this study is to educate American evangelicals toward a deeper thinking regarding race relations — beyond the cultural tools and what they view as simplistic solutions that have shaped a mostly one-dimensional worldview over the last several centuries.

Emerson and Smith discuss how evangelical preconceptions cause them to miss the fuller picture in the multifaceted and complex nature of this sociological condition that exists despite government’s and religion’s best intentions and efforts to heal it. Their analysis argues that certain weaknesses in evangelical thought actually cause, to some extent, the perpetuation of the very racial divisions they minister against and oppose.

As stated in the front flap, "despite their good intentions, evangelicals may actually be preserving America’s racial chasm." It goes on to say that "most white evangelicals see no systematic discrimination against blacks; indeed, they deny the existence of any ongoing racial problem in the United States."

Evangelicals blame such things as the liberal media, the black culture, unethical black leaders and the inability of African Americans to get over the past. The authors argue, however, that these attitudes are the natural outgrowth of their theological worldview rooted in individualism, free will, personal relationships, anti-structuralism and premillennial eschatology — the belief that world conditions will only worsen until Christ returns — so there is no need to bother with social issues.

This, along with the isolation experienced in their mostly segregated churches and neighborhoods, makes it difficult for white evangelicals to see the pervasive and systematic injustice that perpetuates inequality, going on every day in the real world of Black America.

Since the great civil rights legislation of the 1960s, the authors contend that there has been little improvement in black-white relations in America. They seek, through education, to engage the evangelical community sociologically, in the issue of race in America, so they will become a more dynamic force toward an eventual real solution. They point out, on the one hand, the ineffectiveness of the structural remedies of government-administered programs, but also the incomplete spiritual resolutions offered by evangelicals.

This, they claim, is the result of their honest but simplistic, one-dimensional thinking. The professors suggest that evangelicals incorporate the sociological dimension into their spiritual faith, and begin challenging the social systems that promote discrimination and racialization.

The authors recognize the importance of racial reconciliation (repentance and forgiveness) as a critical first step to improving race relations in America. They go on to demonstrate that the real healing and peace that occur beyond initial reconciliation can come only through the internal healing that is provided in the gospel of grace.

For evangelicals, this means moving beyond a mere identification of the gospel to its internalization. For secular society, it means realizing that all human-based efforts will fail and the pain of racialization can only be relieved through the cross of Christ. After conversion, the old ways no longer work — true racial healing comes only through God’s redemptive work in new creation.

Copyright © 2005

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