Divided By Faith (Emerson & Smith)


Michael O. Emerson & Christian Smith, Divided By Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America

New York: Oxford University Press, 2001

This post was written by my friend, Jared Poole. Jared is a PhD student studying organizational behavior at the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah. His work focuses on issues related to personal, professional, occupational, and organizational identities in the workplace. He also has an interest in organizational inequality. His goal is for his research and teaching to help us make businesses and non-profits more fulfilling, enjoyable, and equitable.

In a previous post on Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness, Brandon made an observation about controversy that I’ll presently plagiarize: “I consider it a rule that when a controversial belief persists…its controversial status is due to either (or both) 1) it’s not being sufficiently understood; and 2) the challenge it poses to the system that produced it.” He rightly points out that when it comes to race and justice “we do not understand one another.” Christian Smith and Michael Emerson’s book, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, aims to build this understanding that we so desperately lack. Some may find certain of its evidence and conclusions surprising, but open-minded readers will come away with a better understanding of the national debate, as well as the Church’s place in that debate.

The Gist

Emerson and Smith are sociologists at Rice University and Notre Dame, respectively. In Divided by Faith, they set out to document and explain the racial divisions that exist within American evangelical denominations. Their focus is on black-white race relations. They begin by briefly chronicling the history of race relations in evangelical Christianity. Of course, this must begin with the sad history of slavery. Before, during, and after the Civil War, evangelicals were divided on the question of race. By the 1990’s, however, many leaders in the tradition became convinced that reconciliation was part of the Church’s mission. This conviction was often met with skepticism, apathy, or even resistance by a large swath of churchgoers, putting a damper on some of the ambitions these leaders had.

It is these skeptical or antagonistic attitudes of churchgoers that Emerson and Smith are most interested in. They conducted hundreds of interviews and surveys of evangelical Christians to get their thoughts on relationships between race, racial inequality, and religion. They report white and black evangelicals differed markedly from one another. In general, their white interviewees didn’t see racial inequality as a major problem. It may be exaggerated by people in the media out to boost ratings or by leaders in the black community out to make a career off racial animosity. Some white evangelicals expressed disappointment that blacks, unable to put resentment behind them, would cling to old anger and sabotage attempts to be included in white society. Overall, the authors find that the Evangelicals they interviewed tended to explain racism in individualistic, rather than structural, terms. That is, they focused on what a hypothetical individual working-class or impoverished African American might have done to get into (or fail to get out of) that situation. Thus, explanations centered upon “black culture” and lack of motivation, with history, welfare, discrimination, and education also playing a role.

Primary solutions offered by white Evangelicals were to spread Christianity and develop friendships across racial boundaries. In contrast, their research found that black evangelicals were highly concerned with racial inequality, and motivated to find solutions. Black evangelicals also differed from their peers by being more focused on structural remedies to inequality. These solutions entail more holistic racial reconciliation and controlling systemic injustice by reforming social institutions that limit opportunity based on race.

What Stuck

The reason why I am intrigued by this book is the explanation for white evangelicals’ attitudes about racial inequality. Emerson and Smith argue that evangelical theologies are typically characterized by a belief system that they call “accountable freewill individualism.” White Evangelicals tend to endorse the beliefs that (a) equal opportunity exists in the United States, and (b) individuals are equally created by God, endowed with the ability to make choices that they are then responsible for. With these beliefs in place, evangelicals feel inclined to center explanations for economic and social misfortunes on the mistaken choices that individual human beings have made. We live in a free, prosperous country that gives us the liberty to choose. We’re responsible for the outcome of those choices, for better or for worse.

Emerson and Smith offer another explanation for the racial division in evangelical Churches. This explanation centers on an economic interpretation of religion in the United States. Essentially, there’s a religious “market” in the United States. People can go about and “select” the religion that matches their “preferences.” This differs from the way religion is practiced in other parts of the world (and for centuries before the present), where religion is practically inherited like DNA, and individuals don’t have much choice over how they worship. But in religious markets, churches, temples, mosques, and synagogues must “compete” for believers. This means giving the people what they want.

As it turns out, we tend to want to be around people who are similar to us—people who look, talk, dress, and act like us. This also means being around people who belong to the same racial or ethnic group as we do. Of course, we tend to become more like the people we spend time with, which contributes to the differences between black and white evangelical attitudes that they document. I think there are some problems with this interpretation (for instance, I wish they had given more attention to the unique historical context of religion in the US). And I must confess I’m generally not a fan of imposing economic models on every part of our lives. Nonetheless, the argument is fascinating and it certainly stimulates my thinking. I was particularly persuaded to reconsider some consumerist tendencies I’ve allowed to creep into my own faith journey.

Representative Quote(s)

Although some individuals may be prejudiced, [white Evangelicals] think, America is not racialized. We have tried to show why they hold these beliefs. In the process, we moved beyond the simplistic explanation that white evangelicals, to protect their advantages, simply lie or distort the truth…Instead, we have argued, the cultural tools and intergroup isolation of evangelicals lead them to construct reality so as to individualize and minimize the problem. They do so honestly and with good intentions, if somewhat one-sidedly. (p. 88-89).

Two factors are most striking about evangelical solutions to racial problems. First, they are profoundly individualistic and interpersonal: become a Christian, love your individual neighbors, establish a cross-race friendship, give individuals the right to pursue jobs and individual justice without discrimination by other individuals, and ask forgiveness of individuals one has wronged. Second, although several evangelicals discuss the personal sacrifice necessary to form friendships across race, their solutions do not require financial or cultural sacrifice. (p. 130).


I’d like to give away the ending to a famous psychology experiment. It’s a parable, really.

Imagine a researcher wheels a TV into a room you’ve been waiting in.

She begins, “I’m about to show you a video in which two groups of people identified by red and blue jerseys, respectively, are passing two basketballs with each other. Red to red. Blue to blue. I’d like you to count the number of times both basketballs get passed. I must warn you, it’s harder than it sounds. They will be moving quickly, weaving among each other, shoveling and bouncing the ball here and there. But I know you can do well, even get them all, if you try your best!”

The lights lower, and the TV flickers to life. Sure enough, you see these teams in action, and you get to work. Within short order, the people themselves fade into vague crimson and navy swatches shuffling here and there as you’re laser-focused on the two basketballs. After thirty seconds, the TV cuts to black. The lights come up. You feel confident.

“Okay,” the researcher begins, “how many passes did you count?”

You give some number in the range of twenty to thirty.

“Very good! You hit the nail on the head!” You smile. “Now could you tell me about the gorilla?”

You frown. You’re dumbfounded. You might inquire, “Gorilla?”

“Yes, the gorilla. Did you see him come onto the screen? What was he up to?”

If you’re like most of the participants who were unfortunate enough to be selected for this study, you would be at a loss as to how to respond. That’s because most people never noticed that a person dressed in a gorilla costume wandered onto the basketball court approximately 15 seconds into the video, ambled about, did something typical of gorillas such as scratch his side in a cartoonish way, and then scurry off the opposite side of the court, out of view of the camera.

The point of the study is to show how narrow our attention can be when we’re focused on what’s “in front of us.” When we have a task that requires effort but that we feel relatively confident about and shouldn’t surprise us too much, our horizon shrinks. Our vision becomes limited to what we’ve already taken for granted and seems important. For all we know, a gorilla can come and go, and we’d be none the wiser.

I submit that churches face a similar situation when it comes to race relations. We’re all staring at the same screen. We’ve got the same “information.” We read the same Bible; we have access to the same crime reports, police shooting data, and employment figures; we watch the same press briefings; we read similar newspapers and watch similar news programs (although this is becoming less the case than it used to be); we’re friends with each other on Facebook. But we’re seeing different things. A gorilla has ambled across our field of vision, but not everyone caught a glimpse of it. If the body of social science research is accurate, the United States has a problem with racial inequality, and this is the gorilla that many Evangelical Christians have missed.

This story is also instructive because it implies a way forward. The answer probably isn’t to accuse one another of being “racists” or “race baiters.” If the problem we have is akin to a problem of perception, then that strategy of accusatory name calling makes no sense. If someone in your church seems a little too “woke” on issues of race, it’s more likely that they just caught a glimpse of something that you haven’t yet than that they’ve been indoctrinated by their choice of news media. And it seems odd to berate a sister or brother for not cooperating in a game that they didn’t know existed, just as one doesn’t blame the participant in a psychology experiment for not acting in accordance with instructions they were never privy to. This is a thought-provoking book, not a license to anger or arrogance. If you let it into your life, I know it will spark some great discussion and helpful self-evaluation.

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