Review of “Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America.”

When you hear the word “racism” what comes to mind?

When you hear the word “racist” how do you feel?


Michael Emerson and sociologist Christian Smith teamed up to write the book Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America published by Oxford University press in 2000. Their aim in writing this book is to “assess the influence of white evangelicalism on black-white relations in the United states,” (pg 169) arguing that “evangelicals desire to end racial division and inequality, and attempt to think and act accordingly. But, in the process, they likely do more to perpetuate the racial divide than they do to tear it down” (preface pg 1).

Emerson and Smith begin by arguing that America is a “racialized” society. By this they mean that “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, (4) and are invisible to most Whites” (pg 9). They follow this by giving a chapter on the history of “evangelical racial thought and practice” from 1700-1964 showing how “evangelicals” have perpetuated the problem of racialization in America.

After the history was explained, the authors spent time surveying those who call themselves evangelical to see what they see as the “race issue” and how to fix the problem. Through this survey they found that the tendency of evangelicals is to “(1) minimize and individualize the race problem, (2) assign blame to blacks themselves for racial inequality, (3) obscure inequality as part of racial division, and (4) suggest unidimensional solutions to the race problem” (pg 170).

This was followed by an examination of why congregations in the US tend toward segregation (“internal similarity”). They rely on C. Peter Wagner’s assessment of homogenous congregations. His argument is fourfold. He says that although people lament the fact that their congregation may be segregated they should not because (1) ethnic and racial groups are amoral, (2) people prefer to worship based on their culture, (3) congregations often use the “homogenous units principle,” which means that volunteer organizations work best when “composed of just one cultural group” (pg 150), and (4) because the mission of the church is evangelism and because growth happens within homogenous groups it makes it ok. Emerson and Smith do not assess whether or not they think that Wagner’s argument is valid they simply use it to show the reality of racially homogenous congregations.

The authors conclude that their “analysis has not led to specific solutions for ending racialization” (pg 171). I believe this is the biggest negative aspect of the book. It leaves the analysis of the information up to the reader for personal application. While this is ok for some readers, it makes it harder for others, which is why I list this as a moderate readability. However, the lack of specific solutions does to keep them from giving a few helpful considerations for the reader. They argue that the current evangelical tendency is to “quick-minded activism” rather than taking the time to “integrate their faith with knowledge of race relations” (pg 171). The first step, they argue, to overcoming this is to (1) engage in more serious reflection on race-relations issues dialoguing with educated others, (2) then, once the individual has educated themselves on these issues they should bring their knowledge together with their “Christian understanding of freedom, love, universalism, justice, unity, and community,” and (3) “educated, sacrificial, realistic efforts made in faith across racial lines can help us together move toward a more just, equitable, and peaceful society. And that is a purpose well worth striving toward.”

While this book is not helpful in applying their research towards application, it does play an extremely helpful part in assisting us as we strive to educate ourselves on the reality of the race problem. We cannot ignore this issue any longer for “Christ is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph 2:14). In chapter 7 when they speak about the homogenous congregations showing how people like to worship in their own ways according to their preferences what was not spoken of is what we have in common, regardless of our race or economic status. We are ONE in Jesus Christ and it is that alone that can unite us together. When Adam and Eve sinned, not only their relationship with God was fractured, their relationship to each other was fractured. If we are outside of Christ then disunity makes sense, but if we have been reconciled to Christ and united with him then we ARE reconciled to each other and united with each other. To live any other way is to live in unreality!

May God give us the power to continue to work toward reconciliation and unity as we manifest Jesus Christ on this earth!

Readability: Moderate

Quality rating: 4 stars

Price:$15.24 (Amazon)

Pages: 224

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