Book Review: Divided by Faith, by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith

Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America is a historical and sociological study of white evangelical attitudes toward white-black relations.  I found it fascinating.  I should also try to read some reviews by trained sociologists who may be able to offer some insight into their research methods.

Emerson and Smith state that America is a racialized society in which “race matters profoundly for differences in life experiences, life opportunities, and social relationships” (7, emphasis in original).  They define racism sociologically, in that it does not have to be intentional; instead, it is an inequality in power that disadvantages one group or another.  One interesting example of this is that more educated whites tend to have fewer prejudices against black people, but at the same time tend to take actions that increase racialization because they are able to pursue higher-quality schools and neighborhoods that tend to be predominantly white.  Thus they are actually more segregated from African Americans.  They also quote another study that argues that racializing practices are becoming more hidden and institutionalized rather than direct and expressed in the language of race (9).

Before discussing their research on evangelical attitudes, the authors give an overview of race relations and attempts at racial reconciliation.  They write that the first generation of advocates for black and white Christian reconciliation adopted four main steps: formation of relationships across racial lines, cooperation in resisting injustice, white repentance for “personal, historical, and social sins,” and black forgiveness (55).  They also tell the story of Promise Keepers’ commitment to racial reconciliation.  It seems like this initiative produced disappointing results because it focused solely on individual relationships rather than injustice (which turned off black Christians) and because it became hard for PK’s leadership to get whites excited about it.

Probably the most informative section came when Emerson and Smith discussed the “cultural tools” that white evangelicals, like anyone else who belongs to a culture, use to make sense of the world.  These were the cultural tools that they discussed:

  • Accountable freewill individualism: Individuals ultimately are free to choose, regardless of their surrounding social structures.  They are accountable to God and others, though, for their actions.  The authors contrast this with the liberal theological view that people are basically good but are corrupted by evil social structures.
  • Relationalism: Proper relationships, with the relationship to Christ being most important, are considered critical.  In this view, racism is solved not by a concern with a just society but by repaired relationships, which are made possible when people become Christians.
  • Anti-structuralism: The individualistic frame of reference tends to obscure structural explanations for inequality, even those that appear in Scripture.

In my view, there are some significant strengths to these cultural tools.  They clearly grow out of Western ideas that both value the individual and hold him or her responsible for his actions.  Lived consistently, these are values that resist totalitarianism and demand equal justice for all.  These values give many evangelicals moral clarity in thinking about abortion.  On the other hand, as Emerson and Smith write, these cultural tools lead many evangelicals to conclude that racism is largely an individual problem and that we should trace white-black inequality to lack of black motivation or “black culture” rather than unjust social structures.  The authors cite the work of sociologist William Julius Wilson and liberal theologian Cornel West, both African Americans, who both contend that black people often accept the same work ethic that whites urge, only to meet the frustration of continued poverty.  This is something that I would like to learn more about, but it seems like a good warning against condemning people from afar.

The most surprising section was Emerson and Smith’s discussion of racial segregation in churches.  They contend that segregated churches propagate racialization, even though they don’t believe that prejudice causes people to worship in racially homogeneous churches.  Segregated churches, they argue, perpetuates the lack of integration between blacks and whites and also may lead people to form better attitudes about their own racial groups.  Religious segregation also limits the networks that people can take advantage of to improve their situations.  I had not considered these harmful effects of religious segregation.

According to Emerson and Smith, these factors mean that despite their good intentions to advance race relations, white evangelicals may actually increase racialization because they aren’t able to see the race problem with a holistic view that includes the structural realities.  Rather than advocating specific solutions, they suggest a different frame of mind.  Quoting both Mark Noll and N.K. Clifford, they argue that evangelicals tend to crusade against a problem before entering into a deep consideration of the problem.  Therefore, evangelicals ought to begin with “more serious reflection on race-relations issues, in dialogue with educated others,” defining the problem, examining solutions already tried, looking at perspectives from different racial groups, and looking at the effects of factors like social change, class, and social inequality.  Having a fuller sense of the factors at work in the race relations, evangelicals will be better equipped to apply Christian teaching to this vexing issue.

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in race relations, especially the idea of racial reconciliation among Christians.  In my opinion, that should be a major priority for us as believers, no matter what our beliefs about the best way to achieve justice in the larger society.  At least in my experience, it’s amazing how black and white Christians don’t seem to be on each other’s radars very much.  I hope that we can be more united and reform the church together.  It’s hard to know how big of an impact we can have in the larger society, but we know that Christ’s body ought to be one.  In working for unity among Christians of all races, we should also be able to learn from each other and work for a just society more effectively.

You can find a decent Religion and Ethics Newsweekly report on multiracial churches here.  It features Michael Emerson, one of the book’s co-authors.  He says that only 7% percent of American churches are racially integrated, and this happens because of the choices of both black and white Christians.  The report talks about Christian integration beyond black and white too, which is good.



  1. I’m going to have Christian’s sister in law staying at my home next week! She is one of our best friends, so I follow Christian’s works with interest.

  2. That’s great. I just read and posted about an interview with Christian in Christianity Today. How did you get to know his sister in law?

  3. We went to church with them in Idaho for several years. Rick H. would know her too, though she doesn’t go to his church and he probably doesn’t know who Christian is.

    Christian’s wife is one of my F-book friends.

  4. Scott wrote: “They define racism sociologically, in that it does not have to be intentional; instead, it is an inequality in power that disadvantages one group or another.

    Fascinating. So, every disparity that correlates with race is attributed to racism? How did they define racial “inequality in power”? It seems like they would have to somehow calculate the morally correct ratio of races in any given subset.

    Sociological racism would also have significantly different moral implications than racism as defined by the dictionary. This probably explains a lot about modern discussions on racism: people are using different definitions for the same word and conflating their morality.

    The two definitions also imply different and even opposing solutions to racism. i.e. race blindness vs. explicit reorganization based upon race to acheive the “right” proportions. It also seems that race/color blindness does not necessarily lead to the right proportions, and, conversely, forcing the right racial proportions does not necessarily reduce racist intention. Of course, forced integration of schools hopefully did facilitate a reduction of racism, but it’s interesting that they are, at some level, divergent goals.

    I can see how the respective definitions match the individualist vs. collectivist perspectives that you note as well. Do the authors discuss what immoral social structures are prevalent today?

    • Glad that you liked it. It’s a good book that is still relevant. I think I’ll check to see what the authors have worked on since. I’m sure they’d have a lot to say. Christian Smith has “swum the Tiber” since this book came out.

    • Not sure if you’ve heard the term “moralistic therapeutic deism” to describe the prevailing religious culture of millennials, but that was coined by Smith based on his research on young Christians.

      • Ah, I didn’t know he coined it. Yes: we’ve all heard it. 😀

        As for the Tiber, I think if we’re all honest, we can see that there are genuine benefits in each communion, given that each leans into one or another thing, and that, because of what is basically branding, the strengths of the other communions can’t easily be incorporated, and that we are all, inevitably, pathetically, lopsided, more or less.

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