Review: Christians and the Color Line
J. Russell Hawkins and Phillip Luke Sinitiere, eds. Christians and the Color Line: Race and Religion after Divided by Faith. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. 278 pp. 978-0-19-932950-2.
It is now well over a decade since sociologists Christian Smith and Michael O. Emerson wrote Divided by Faith (Oxford University Press, 2000), their landmark study of evangelical Christians’ attitudes towards race in the United States. In Christians and the Color Line: Race and Religion after Divided by Faith, historians J. Russell Hawkins and Phillip Luke Sinitiere gather together a series of essays by sociologists, historians and theologians that consider the significance of Smith and Emerson’s work and offer continued research in the area of race and religion in America.
It is worth briefly revisiting Smith and Emerson’s work to understand the value of this volume. In Divided by Faith, the two sociologists concluded that African American and white evangelicals are less likely to have common ground when it comes to understanding the causes and possible solutions to racial inequality than their non-church-going neighbors and, furthermore, that evangelicals are actually increasing the racial divisions within American society, even as they work for “racial reconciliation.” Operating from a position of racial isolation, evangelicals approach questions of race using their particular free will-individualist cultural toolkit. Put simply, evangelicals believe individuals are fully answerable for their personal sins and so they find it hard to see, let alone address, systemic injustice. Solutions will focus on improving relationships between individuals. White evangelicals are unlikely to have their perspective challenged or modified because the more ardent their faith then the more time they spend at their churches, which are usually racially hyper-segregated communities.
The recent findings by sociologists and historians writing in Christians and the Color Line support this thesis. Ryan J. Cobb’s follows up Emerson’s research with more recent polling data and draws the same conclusions. Mark T. Mulder shows, in a fascinating study of worship services, just how racially and socially isolated evangelicals’ worship practices are. Historian Miles S. Mullin II wades through neo-evangelical periodicals from the 1940s and 1950s to better understand the nature of racialized evangelical theology, and Brantley W. Gasaway offers a parallel history of progressive evangelicals since the 1960s.
Like most collections by multiple authors, the essays do not make a single argument, and the editors include the necessary disclaimers in their introduction. However, the pieces do implicitly raise a common question about the role of Christian congregations in contributing to and in addressing systemic injustice. In Divided by Faith, Emerson and Smith suggested that the way forward for evangelicals lay in involvement in interracial networks. Indeed, Emerson’s subsequent work has moved beyond description to the prescription of multiracial/multiethnic congregations as a way of addressing the inequities of America’s racialized society (see Emerson, People of the Dream: Multi Racial Congregations in the United States [Princeton, 2006]). This possibility of a constructive role for congregations implicit in Divided by Faith, combined with its clear analysis and devastating critique of the evangelical church, made this sociological text required reading for any evangelical interested in “urban” ministry, social justice, and racial reconciliation.
Smith and Emerson’s work simultaneously condemned evangelical congregations as part of the problem and held up multiracial evangelical congregations as a possible solution, and this tension runs through Christians and the Color Line. Mullins writes of white evangelicals in 1950, “For them, hope did not lay in the vision of a ‘beloved community,’ but a ‘beloved church’” (31). He could well have been writing about some of the contributors to this book. A number of the chapters in Christians and the Color Line seek to place scholarship in the service of restoring the possibility of the beloved church after the drubbing it received at the hands of Smith and Emerson. In his chapter on the history of Community Mennonite Church in Chicago, Tobin Miller Shearer argues for multiracial congregations and the benefits of interracial relationalism. Three chapters later, Edward J. Blum places a new hope for evangelical congregations in the growing number of multiracial families in America.
This interdisciplinary volume displays the fault-lines between sociology, history, and theology. Exceptional characters and communities draw the attention of theologians and historians. Here we find the good stories of bravery, perseverance against the odds, prophetic action, and the hope of redemption (even for America’s hyper-segregated churches). Karen Joy Johnson, for example, contributes a wonderful study of Friendship House. This story of a radical interracial movement in the Catholic Church in Chicago in the 1930s and 1940s gives us new heroes (Ann Harrington, Ellen Tarry, Catherine de Hueck) and a villain (Archbishop Mundelein).
Sociologists, on the other hand, do not focus on stories of prophetic action. By definition, prophets are statistical outliers. Sociologists tend to be more skeptical of the contribution multiracial congregations make to the dismantling of a racialized and inequitable society. Jerry Z. Park shows how, in many instances, Asian Americans have reinforced racialized attitudes of churchgoers in multiracial congregations. Erica Wong shows how, even in multiracial congregations, interracial friendships must be central to the mission of the congregation; otherwise, members continue to be racially isolated. In the final excellent chapter, Korie Edwards seeks to disabuse the reader of the notion that multiracial congregations are in some way a silver bullet to slay the monster of America’s racialized society. Multiracial congregations are nothing new; they are as old as America’s original sin. Even if an evangelical church is successful in fostering these networks of interracial friendships, Edwards demonstrates how today this relational emphasis often distracts from, rather than leads to, demands for racial justice.
Oddly, given the title, none of the chapters actually considers the influence that Smith and Emerson’s book has had on evangelical churches over the last fourteen years and whether the reception of the book itself has in any way improved on its dismal prognosis.
The contributors to Christians and the Color Line have written in a clear and accessible style for the non-specialist, and the editors should be congratulated. Importantly, while Divided by Faith specifically considered the divide between white and African American evangelicals, this book expands the consideration of race to include Asian American and Hispanic Christians. This solid collection of essays contains some real gems; it is a significant and useful for anyone interested in the history and sociology of race and religion in the United States.