Religion and race in America

December 20, 2016

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.




Race, religion, and old-style ecumenism

August 10, 2013

Brandon“Old-style ecumenism” refers to several modes of inter-church activity that dominated Christian unity conversations throughout the twentieth century. The culmination of this approach to overcoming church divisions in the United States was the Consultation on Church Union, a serious effort to unite nine Protestant churches at the center of American culture.

Since 2002, when this forty-year venture came to a close and bequeathed its heritage to a new organization, Churches Uniting in Christ, traditional approaches to Christian unity have languished. I am especially sensitive to this fact since I am in the final stages of writing a book on this subject, with the working title The American Church That Might Have Been: A History of the Consultation on Church Union.

One of the central features of COCU, as this venture is commonly called, was its contribution toward overcoming the history of institutional racism in American culture and in the churches at the center of that culture. Three predominately black Methodist churches were participating members of COCU.

John E. Brandon, a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, served for a time as Associate General Secretary of the Consultation, and a decade later wrote wrote a DMin dissertation at Boston University entitled “Three Black Methodist Churches in the Consultation on Church Union: Problems and Prospects for Union (completed in 1986). Brandon emphasizes the importance of the participation of these churches in COCU when he writes:  “While recognizing the difficulties yet encountered in the union of black churches and white churches, there is no place where the issue of race is faced more squarely than in the Consultation on Church Union.”

In the early 1960s, when COCU was established, the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing. The challenges of racism were increasingly important topics among the churches, including members of the National Council of Churches (NCC), headquartered in New York City. The classic Protestant churches that were developing COCU were also central to the strength of the National Council.

In fact, the NCC assembly in San Francisco that convened in December 1960 was the occasion on which Eugene Carson Black preached the sermon that launched COCU. A notable action of the NCC assembly was that it elected its first lay president: J. Irwin Miller, an industrialist from Columbus, Indiana. Miller and his family in previous generations had been prominent leaders of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), which was one of COCU’s participating churches.

During Miller’s presidency of the NCC, he was instrumental in organizing a conference that helped focus the attention of church people upon racism. It was conducted in Chicago January 14–17, 1963, with 657 delegates. In addition to Miller himself, speakers included Abraham J. Heschel, Albert Cardinal Meyer, Rabbi Julius Mark, R. Sargent Shriver, Dr. Franklin Littlell, Very Rev. MSGR John J. Egan, Dr. Daniel Dodson, Rabbi Morris Adler, and Rev. Martin Luther King.

Their speeches and other conference papers were published later that same year under the title Challenge to Religion: Original Essays and an Appeal to the Conscience from the National Conference on Religion and Race (edited by Mathew Ahmann; Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1963).

While giving his full support to developing legislation and specific programs in church and society to combat racism, Miller was especially interested in the spirit that nourishes racism. Two sentences are especially worthy of note:

“We must take care not to arrive at solutions and programs which leave beneath an apparently healed surface remaining germs of the old evil.”

“As always, the task begins with you and me who are not ourselves free from guilt, nor ever without need of rediscovering God’s truth in our own lives.” (Miller’s statements appear on pp. 135–141 of Challenge to Racism.)

In addition to the speeches and documents that were developed within the Consultation on Church Union, several books are shaping my understanding of religion, race, and old-style ecumenism, especially COCU. In addition to the two volumes mentioned above, the following should also be noted:

Burnley, Lawrence A. Q. The Cost of Unity: African-American Agency and Education and the Christian Church, 1865-1914. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2009.

Murray, Peter C. Methodists and the Crucible of Race. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 224.

Sommerville, Raymond R., Jr. An Ex-Colored Church: Social Activism in the CME Church, 1870–1970. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2004.

Watley, William D. Singing the Lord’s Song in a Strange Land: The African-American Churches and Ecumenism. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1993.