The Race Problem of Churches in the United States

The issue of racial integration in the American church has been examined by several researchers (see here for one example), but is mostly ignored by devotees within churches. Is this due to the almost absolute failure of Protestant churches (whether Mainline or Evangelical) to diversify their congregations? In a certain sense, many of the Mainline churches have taken note of their predominantly white congregations and at least collectively agreed to attempt diversity. (But attempt is the extent to which most have succeeded.)

I recently started reading Christian Smith and Michael Emerson’s Divided Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. I’m barely through the book, and two of the authors’ ideas have already garnered my attention.

First, the authors suggest that the United States is a racialized nation which they define as:

racial practices that reproduce racial division in the contemporary United states “(1) are increasingly covert, (2) are embedded in normal operations of institutions, (3) avoid direct racial terminology and (4) are invisible by most whites (Smith & Emerson, 9).

Indeed, this would be a shocking and surprising statement to most church goers who envision themselves as warm, welcoming, and loving, but not part of the problem. Yet as their work demonstrates, there is a racial divide religiously in the United States no matter how nice and kind church members think they are. Additionally, the “invisibility” serves to reify racism in the United States by creating a sense of a nonexistent issue.

Second, although Smith & Emerson think “religion can provide the moral force for people to determine that something about their world so excessively violates their moral standards that they must act to correct it,” they also propose:

Nevertheless, we argue that religion, as structured in America, is unable to make a great impact on the racialized society. In fact, far from knocking down racial barriers, religion generally serves to maintain these historical divides, and helps to develop new ones. (Smith & Emerson, 18).

The current chapter that I’m reading provides a brief historiography, paying particular attention to the socioeconomic conditions of the United States, detailing the attitudes of early American Christians vis-a-vis slavery. The influence of society on church theology is often ignored or refuted by church members who suggest that their theologies are static.

I am excited to continue through this work (published in 2000) because I think it still maintains its relevance for today.

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