Religion and race in America

Blacks and Whites in Christian America: How Racial Discrimination Shapes Religious Convictions, by Jason E. Shelton and Michael O. Emerson (New York University Press, 2012).

shelton-emersonThe oft-repeated statement that 11:00 o’clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America can be understood in at least three ways: people, both black and white, like to go to church with people like themselves; white racism has forced black Christians to establish their own churches; and other theological and historical factors continue to shape belief and practice of African American Christians.

Blacks and Whites in Christian America gives support for all three explanation. As a white Christian, I’m interested in this study because I need to understand and overcome my own prejudice and privilege and change my ways of life.

Another reason for my interest is my work through the years on behalf of Christian unity. During a forty-year period ending in 2002, the major unity effort in the United States was the Consultation on Church Union. Three predominantly African-American churches were full participants alongside six predominantly white denominations.

The Consultation defined racism as a theological problem and made serious efforts to overcome the denominational separations that kept the participating churches distinct. When the Consultation concluded its work, these denominations continued as separate bodies, perhaps closer to one another than they had been, but with none of the causes of division, including race, significantly overcome.

Shelton and Emerson are sociologists rather than historians or theologians and therefore used empirical studies of religious practices and ideas, giving major attention to black and white church goers. They interviewed selected groups of church goers and studied published treatments of their topic, featuring James H. Cone (both his writings and interviews).

Early in the book the authors narrow the focus of attention: “… for our most specific comparisons, we restrict our analyses to black Protestants and white evangelicals—whose common heritages derive from the Great Awakening of previous centuries of American life” (p. 12). Throughout the book, however, they appear to use white protestant and white evangelical interchangeably, which can lead to confusion about their analyses.

A major feature of this book is the identification of five “building blocks of black Protestant faith.” These they identify as (1) Experiential building block, (2) Survival building block, (3) Mystery building block, (4) Miraculous building block, and (5) Justice building block (pp. 8–9).

Four features of their exposition stand out for me: First, the role of black churches as places where American blacks experience themselves and relate to one another in their full humanity despite slavery and segregation; second, the continuation of characteristics from African religion, in a way analogous to how Native American religion was embraced in Spanish Catholicism in the Southwest and Mexico; third, struggles to understand and obey the Bible as literal truth despite what seem to be contrasting understandings derived from science and history; and fourth, substantial agreement of black Protestants and white Evangelicals on the central beliefs of the Christian faith as articulated in the Apostles’ Creed.

I have to believe that the authors are correct in their assertions that systems of white privilege and prejudice are still in place, thus continuing to disadvantage black people. Shelton and Emerson help us understand a second difference that exists between most black Americans and most white Americans (but especially among white Evangelicals), which is that black Christians support the necessity of structural changes, including legislation, that have to continue so that American society will tear down the systems and structures that continue to impede black people in American life, whereas white evangelicals are strongly opposed to these measures.

One more conclusion, which the authors state tentatively, is that blacks and whites may be “drifting toward a consensus … about the causes of racial equality.” There is a growing tendency among black and white Americans to “attribute racial inequality to motivational individualism” rather than to the inheritance of segregation (p. 206).

Rightly, Shelton and Emerson remind us of Dr. King’s admonition that since structures of evil do not crumble on their own we must continue the hard work of breaking them down and building a new unity. Although the authors don’t say so, it should be clear that the burden of responsibility rests upon white Americans.

The findings and insights reported in this book are going to help me as I continue my efforts to further the unity of black and white Christians. The line of argument sometimes seemed to waver, but persistent readers will be able to find their way as the exposition unfolds. Shelton teaches at the University of Texas at Arlington and Emerson at Rice University.

 

 

 

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