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Why Racism Might Defeat American Evangelicalism: Part 1

Jarvis Williams

Divided By Faith (2001), the famous book written by Emerson and Smith, carefully documented how white Christians and black Christians generally have different perspectives of race and racism in America.[1] This classic book on race and religion also shows how the evangelical movement in America is a racialized movement that cannot be separated from white supremacy.

The authors conducted 2,000 telephone surveys and 200 face-to-face interviews while preparing the book. They argue evangelicals have a theological view of the world that makes it difficult for them to see systemic injustice, and that instead of being part of the solution to racism, evangelicals often perpetuate the very racism they deny.

Hope in Christ

Though black and brown Christians are increasing in major evangelical denominations, most of those who claim to be evangelical in America are white. And if, as Emerson and Smith demonstrated, the evangelical movement is a racialized movement and if (as the 2016 presidential election showed) the evangelical movement believes Christian identity and rightward leaning political identity are one and the same, then it’s quite possible the American evangelical movement may lose the battle against racism in its churches, institutions, and communities.

My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. The gospel of Jesus Christ has, can, does, and will continue to shatter racial barriers in the evangelical movement and beyond. I believe individual evangelical Christians and certain evangelical churches and institutions have and will intentionally work to pursue gospel unity in their communities. But I no longer remain optimistic the current American evangelical movement will holistically win the battle against racism in this fallen world.

In a two-part series, I want to highlight some reasons why. In part 2, I’ll offer a word of hope.

  1. Prioritization of Whiteness

In mainstream American evangelicalism, whiteness is the privileged majority. By this, I mean those who identify as white evangelicals experience certain privileges by being part of the majority group in white evangelical and American culture.

Most evangelical institutions have mostly white leaders and scholars. Many evangelical professors only require white authors. Many evangelical schools only have white professors. Mainline evangelical presses continue to publish books mainly written for a white audience by white authors. And the majority of denominational leaders are white.

By pointing out the privileges of white evangelicals in a predominately white and complex evangelical movement, I don’t mean to suggest white evangelicals work easier or are undeserving of the privileges and benefits they have received. Yet, one can work hard and still be the recipient of privileges and advantages because of one’s whiteness.

For example, the founders of my denomination worked hard. But if they were black, they would not have been able to serve in denominational leadership in the 1800s. My denomination was birthed in 1845 because of a commitment to slavery and the dehumanization of black (African/African-American) bodies. This is an example of white denominational privilege.

In the American evangelical movement, white evangelicals still benefit from being in the privileged majority. If most of the privileged majority continues to think racism is not an issue in American evangelicalism, then the evangelical movement stands no chance at seeing holistic racial reconciliation within its churches, institutions, and communities.

  1. White Colonization of Black and Brown Cultures

Certain white evangelical denominations have more black and brown members than others. The larger evangelical denominations tend to have more black and brown members than smaller ones. But black and brown evangelicals are still the minority in the American evangelical movement.

I have observed that in some contexts, certain white evangelicals want black and brown faces, but not their cultures or voices. That is, black and brown evangelicals who are members of certain predominate white evangelical denominations might feel the pressure to give in to predominate white cultural colonization.

Cultural colonization happens when members of majority cultures compel minority cultures (in this case, members of black and brown cultures) to conform to acceptable cultural norms of whiteness. This conformity can be seen when minority black and brown cultures identify with cultural whiteness and dissociate from aspects of their black and brown cultures to assimilate within the white, majority, cultural, Christian group.

One obvious example is when black and brown evangelicals begin to talk about race or racism against black and brown people in society or in churches, they (along with the white sisters and brothers who stand in solidarity with them) will often experience sharp resistance or be accused of being liberal, divisive, abandoning the gospel, race baiting, or playing the racial grievance card.

Because of this pressure, black and brown people might conform to the norms of the predominate white culture in these white spaces to gain acceptance. This conformity may lead them to adopt a colorblind view of race to maintain their social privileges in these white evangelical spaces.

Another example of cultural colonization is when those in predominate white cultures don’t accept the black and brown cultural differences as important, valid, or normal (e.g. style of hair, musical tastes, fashion, style of worship, art, poetry, authors, etc.), but instead try to conform the black and brown person into the version of cultural whiteness in those predominate white spaces.

As a result, the black and brown cultures in those predominate white spaces may begin to self-hate or denigrate all things non-white. This includes the denigration of black and brown people in those white spaces who continue to maintain certain aspects of their cultural identities that in NO way contradict the gospel.

  1. Colorblindness

I’ve written elsewhere on the impossibility of colorblindness in a racialized society. Some evangelicals genuinely believe racial categorizations, distinctions, and classifications neither should nor do play a role in one’s decision making. This belief flows from the assumption that humans both should be and have the capacity to look beyond the color of one’s skin. A misquote of Dr. King’s remarks about judging people by the content of their character, instead of the color of their skin might even be given by proponents of colorblindness to support their position.

But colorblindness fails to take seriously the fact that we live in a racialized society, that we inherit racial and racist constructs knowingly and (sometimes) unknowingly, and that whites generally have benefited from racism in a racialized society in which black and brown people have been marginalized and denigrated. For example, blacks were forced to the margins of society and whites had the legal support to keep them there in the Jim Crow south. This social marginalization and dehumanization existed because of the belief that whites were superior to blacks.

Jim Crow laws are gone, but its racist ideology remains. Colorblindness allows certain white evangelicals (and some black and brown evangelicals) to ignore the disadvantages that non-white people have in society, and deny the advantages that certain white people have in society because of their whiteness. The ability to ignore racism and to deny its pervasiveness in American evangelicalism is a benefit enjoyed only by the privileged and those who benefit from the privileged. But colorblindness won’t lead evangelicals toward gospel unity and racial reconciliation in our churches, institutions, and communities.

  1. The Reduction of Racial Justice to Liberalism

Certain evangelical contexts are traditionally conservative on social issues. In these spaces, the word “liberal” is equivalent to an apostolic “anathema.” To deflect attention from the racism and the racial divide in churches and institutions, certain white (and black and brown!) evangelicals would rather identify such discussions as “liberal” or suggest that race discussions play into the hands of the liberal idea of white guilt.

Evangelicals often reduce those who speak or write about racism or racial injustice as promoting a leftist, liberal agenda that is void of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Simply read the responses to numerous articles about race posted on this website in the past 5 years to see this point. A typical evangelical response to those who speak about racial injustice is slanderous accusations about their character and motives for doing so.

Yes, there are those who use race to advance certain political agendas and to divide people. But conversations about race aren’t ipso facto (inevitably) promoting a certain political agenda. If the majority of evangelicals are successful at convincing other evangelicals that anti-racist work should be denounced as a far left, liberal agenda that has nothing to do with the work of the gospel, then very few evangelicals will be motivated to engage in anti-racist work, because they will never see it as gospel work.

These are four reasons American evangelicalism may lose the battle against racism on this side of eternity. Part 2 will offer more reasons and a word of hope.


[1]Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).

15 thoughts on “Why Racism Might Defeat American Evangelicalism: Part 1

  1. Eliyahu BenYsrael

    Thank you for this response; much appreciated.

  2. Candace Wathen

    Dear Shelly, I very sincerely hope that this answer to your question will not come off as condescending or superior. I am just going to try to answer your question to the best of my ability. Personally, I am white, and I can tell you I am marginalized when I simply try to defend my Brothers and Sisters who are of different races. For one specific example, a deacon in my church recently approached me regarding the quantity of Facebook posts she had noticed on the subject of racism and my defense of Black Lives Matter. This is not just a single person, this is a leader in my very conservative, very majority white congregation. (We allow women deacons, because that is Biblical, but not women elders.) I am considered a “liberal”, which is certainly viewed as a sin by most of the members of my congregation. If you want to learn more about the specifics of the definition of racism and “how” people of color have been marginalized in white evangelical churches of America, continue to read this blog and others like it to familiarize yourself with the life experiences and daily affronts faced by people of color both historically and currently. So very much has been written at this point that you will not find any scarcity of things to read. There is no reason that in a group like this, such a topic needs to be rehashed in every article. It is your responsibility to educate yourself. I commend you for reading this article and having the courage to ask your question, which I assume is sincere. (Note that not everyone would make that assumption, because many people are just worn out by having to constantly defend themselves to white people who “don’t get it” and who refuse to believe that racism is real .) I pray you will continue on in your journey toward racial understanding, as I myself hope to do. Love in Christ, Candy

  3. Shelley

    It would be good if people would specifiy what is meant by racism on behalf of evangelicals. Explain how you have been marginalized by most of the evangelical community you have been involved with or if you have sensed it or if it is just a few in each white majority church you are in. Williams is talking generalities and mentions observing situations, and I would like to know what in particular is going on. Thanks, anybody. Is it just blacks who are being marginalized or does this extend to other races as well because they also are not in the majority?

  4. Bill Cron

    I wish I could say we could share what we do with many others in our church, but we have to gain trust on that front. It is not automatic at this point. I hope that clarifies that comment.

  5. Bill Cron

    Both my wife and I are believers. We outreach to Muslims and to Chinese and other immigrants, who are not terrorists on the college campus. My wife is Chinese and I am white. Even among these people groups we have found among Evangelical circles and churches. To my dismay, and embarrassment, white Christian exceptionalism is not only subtle, it is overt. We are afraid to tell others in the church, a white church, we are sharing the gospel through a Christian organization on the college campus we are sharing the gospel and befriending Iranians, Chinese, and others who are not white. We have faced racism from others in our marriage. We married because we had a mutual burden to expand the Kingdom of God, my wife is finishing seminary, and I have my seminary degree. If I had not married my wife, I would still be so ignorant. I know that to be true. We have faced it. Racism is real. Not all white Christians are that way, but too many are, just like I was. Turning a blind eye is a form of racism. Racism is a form of abortion. It is dehumanizing and strips an individual of their personhood before the Lord. I am pro life, yet the call to strip away the abortion of racism needs to be loud and clear as well, as it is a form of abortion. It does not kill the physical life, but it kills a person’s soul, not only to the racist, but to the person on the receiving end of it.

  6. David

    I appreciate Dr. Williams’ thoughts, but I wonder how the “browning of America” will change the “evangelical” landscape.

  7. Mark Mollenkof

    I can’t wait for the second installment of this series. I think most white evangelicals would have a problem with many of your premises. I also think this article should be required reading for the leaders of my predominate white evangelical denomination. Sadly I don’t see many being remotely interested. I have to disagree with Ingrid. Many of my friends believe that rightward leaning politics is Biblical and leftward leaning is antithetical to the Gospel. Dr. Williams, please keep on battling to help us understand these issues and hopefully, by God’s grace, the Church will one day value all humanity and all cultures as part of God’s creation.

  8. Adrian

    Amen, Tina…. My thoughts and experiences sound eerily similar to your own as my parents are in their 80’s and 70’s and were ADULTS in the Jim Crow South (Louisiana) with my three older siblings (I myself was born in the early 70s) who can still remember not being able to use the ‘indoor bathroom’ while at the city park, and were, instead, relegated to the ‘out houses’ that (to this day) still dot the grounds (although as emptied out husks).

    I, too, have struggled when I’m among Christian (particularly older) brothers and sisters who are filled with nostalgic fondness for the ‘good ole days’ of the 40s, 50s, and 60’s when America somehow was more ‘Christian’. We all tend to look fondly on bygone days as being simpler and more innocent, but as a black man in America–a Christian black man in America–I am always conflicted by the characterization of this country (any country really) having ever been a place that has embraced and prioritized Christian ethics or ‘values’…. My thoughts are always drawn to the history of my people here. And then I wonder in exactly WHICH time were the ‘good ole days’ actually good for black people. Perhaps in the 50s and 60s when my parents–my college educated parents–were failing literacy tests in order to vote, being hosed down in the streets, sitting at backs of buses, etc; or, was it better when we were 3/5 of a person and taken from homelands and brought here to be beaten and raped and separated from family?…. These realities are as much a part of the fabric of our country, society and, yes, sadly our christian heritage in this country, and we should not feel ashamed to ‘pull back the veil’ on that truth an address these things in truth and love….

    This is an important discussion that we all need to be open to as Christian brothers and sisters, without the anger and defensiveness that all too often accompanies it…. Your post struck me as a thoughtful, well-articulated one. I just felt I needed to recognize and applaud your candor and honesty

  9. tina

    as a person of color who grew up in a southern baptist church, i can say that this is very true. let me tell you that my parents grew up in a jim crow south and had every right to tell me that white people can be very, very evil and somehow praise God on Sunday after lynching somebody on a saturday. but they didn’t; they told me to love others even when it’s hard. i started to experience racism for myself in middle school. my character, my blackness, and my intelligence was questioned; it’s hard to be the only black face in a white place. to feel out of place is enough, but to also be reminded of it is something else. my old pastor preached about how times were better in the 50s when you could eat at Woolworth’s without any trouble; if you don’t know, black college students protested at Woolworth’s by sitting at the counter “illegally.” with the new pastor for the past four years, i told him that racism is a subtle evil and how it affects not just black people’s lives and spirits, but how it causes white people to act less human, and he dismissed me. to tell the truth is not divisive; perhaps that’s why the pharisees killed Jesus; Jesus told them, in much paraphrasing, to do better, but they were comfortable in their iniquity. truly, when you are saved by God, you are transformed, but can you be transformed and still have hate for your neighbor? if so, God is a liar, and truth does not exist.

  10. Ingrid Crozier

    ” the evangelical movement believes Christian identity and rightward leaning political identity are one and the same,” I don’t think this is true. There are some folks who actually think that the right leaning party will “save” us from what ever. Of course lots of issues that have to do with Biblical principles tend to be decided by how they line up with what the bible says about them but I haven’t met too many Christians that equate the “right wing” with the church. There are many conservative” unregenerates” (as this election has shown) and many Christian “liberals” out there.

  11. David Behar

    Insightful points, not sure about the title and conclusion. In 40 years “other” will be a large racial demographic, and attitudes will be different. For now, inviting people to ethnically diverse churches holds more promise than changing cultural norms at established white or black congregations.

  12. Joe Allyn

    Thank you for this assessment. I am pastor of a small, majority white congregation in Wichita. I am realizing more and more my own ignorance and blindness to issues that my black and brown brothers and sisters face. I pray that the power of the gospel of reconciliation would be evident more and more in Christ’s Church in these lands.

  13. Doug Chu

    This kind of serious reflection is crucially needed. I am an Asian-American that leads worship at a multiracial evangelical church (CRC). I have wondered if I am simply in an oasis in the evangelical movement that will never reach critical mass among white churches. Thank you.

  14. Sara Collins

    Thanks Jarvis! Waiting for you next post and adding this book to my reading stack.

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