Customer Reviews: Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America
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on February 1, 2004
The book is based on the first author's doctoral dissertation and follows that format... It presents the problem, namely that white evangelical Christians have a long-standing relationship with race in America and that America remains racialized (a term explained in the book). Given the recent trend among white evangelicals to do `something' about the race problem, Emerson and Smith are interested in two things: (1) How do white evangelicals really feel about race and racism in America? (2) What are white evangelicals really doing about it, if anything?

The authors then employ a number of methods to answer this question, including analyzing survey data and conducting extensive interviews with hundreds of white evangelicals. These data are presented in the middle few chapters of the book. The conclusion is best summarized by the authors, "Despite devoting consid­erable time and energy to solving the problem of racial division, white evangelicalism likely does more to perpetuate the racialized society than to reduce it" (p. 170).

Before I offer some criticisms of the book, let me begin by saying that this is an excellent text. It is clearly written and presents a persuasive argument (though the argument isn't without its problems). The authors have done their best to minimize sociological jargon and, when it isn't possible to avoid it, they clearly define the terms they use. The authors also employ a variety of theoretical constructs (the cultural tool kit is probably the clearest), simplified for an educated lay-audience, based in the current literature on the sociology of religion. The result is an easy to read book that clearly illustrates a social problem - white evangelicals talk the talk, but don't really walk the walk that will transform a racialized America into a society where race `doesn't matter'.

A minor criticism to begin with... The authors don't mention that they are evangelical Christians. Given the current trend in the sociology of religion to reveal one's personal religious persuasion so as to inform the reader of any biases that might stem from this, not revealing this fact is an unfortunate oversight. However, I'm inclined to not be concerned about this oversight in this book considering how critical the authors are of their own. This book does not speak highly of the efforts of white evangelicals to reduce the racialization prevalent in America. If the book had been laudatory in light of the evidence, the religious affiliations of the authors would have been suspect.

The other problems I have with the text are a bit bigger in scope, but also would require that the authors delve into issues for which they don't really have adequate data. First, white evangelicals aren't wholly to blame for the racial problems in America today. The authors don't claim they are exclusively to blame for this, but at times one might get that impression. Additional analysis and discussion looking at the roots of racism in America (especially the economic factors involved in slavery) would have helped alleviate this impression.

Second, given the finding that the efforts of white evangelicals to reduce racism are ineffective at best and counter-productive at worst, it would have been nice to see the authors offer some concrete suggestions for what could be done to improve race relations. This criticism rests in the fact that the authors find the individualistic approach of white evangelicals to be ineffective. But when they do offer suggestions as to what should be done, they are generally ambiguous and abstract, "As Stokely Carmichael and others have noted, when problems are at least in part structural, they must be addressed at least in part by structural solu­tions" (p. 130). The only concrete solution they do offer, integrated worship/mixed race churches, they then say would be impossible to accomplish because it weakens churches. At the end of the book you come away feeling like the authors have done a good job illustrating how white evangelicals are failing in their efforts, but you aren't actually any better informed as to what needs to be done to accomplish this aim.

Despite these criticisms, this remains one of the clearest and most readable books on the sociology of religion I have ever read. I would highly recommend it for anyone interested in either white evangelicals or the connections between religion and race relations.
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on June 22, 2001
I have to say that being an African-American male with an evangelical upbringing and background, I've found this book to be INCREDIBLY eye-opening. With an almost cold-blooded meticulousness and a vivid eye for detail, Emerson and Smith examine many of the underlying philosophical and theological foundations that shape the attitudes of evangelical White people about race in America.
One of the essential tenets of this book is their concept of "racialization" and how it differs in scope and functionality from what we would typically call "racism." If for no other reason, this book should be read just for that section alone. It would help many many people on both sides of the racial divide understand our collective experiences.
The risk of gross oversimplification prevents me from going much deeper into their arguments, because part of what makes the book so compelling is the methodical manner in which contemporary ideas are broken down. Absent from this book is any of the sentimentalist grandstanding that some social activists resort to when their work cannot speak for itself.
All in all, this book is dope. I'm feelin' it big time.
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on March 13, 2002
Divided by Faith is the best book I've ever read that explains the problem of why White Evangelical Christians have such a difficult time understanding the concerns of African-Americans. As an African-American growing up in the 60's and now a pastor of an inner city church I have spent the past thirty years attempting to understand and communicate the problem of race in America and what the evangelical church should be doing to address this problem. This book has become a tremendous resource for me. Highly recommeded to anyone truly serious about racial reconciliation.
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on October 24, 2000
Emerson and Smith succeed where few sociologists have, in providing a readable and dynamic account of how well-meaning people unwittingly reinforce racial segregation and inequality. The book is compelling, and quickly and consistently helps the reader understand a basic sociological truth - that individual behaviors can have unintended, even ironic, consequences. In their focus on white evangelical Christians, they suggest that something is "lost in translation" when their leaders prescribe (as they have lately, to their credit) racial reconciliation. That "something" is the idea that there is more to repairing race relations than simply forging individual friendships with African-Americans. It is the individualized "cultural tools" of evangelicals, they argue, that cause them to be very suspicious of solutions to social problems that fail to emphasize the one-on-one relationship and individual "change of heart" that accompany how they think about their beliefs and faith in Christ. Changing people's attitudes one at a time is what will work, evangelicals appear to argue. But above and beyond such cultural trappings, the authors argue effectively that the free market of American religion itself not only breeds religious vitality (as compared to Europe), but also suffers the unintended consequence of further segregating the races. This is a very enlightening point - that the religious market in America leads congregations to become focused on marketing themselves to specific "homogenous" niches in order to survive as organizations in a competitive environment where people simply don't attend the church in their neighborhood anymore. But in so doing, people associate more and more with others who look and act like them, and thus black and whites become further segregated. This is a worthwhile book, and there is more to its credit than I have mentioned here. One would hope that many of the people whom Emerson and Smith write about would read this and reflect critically on their "cultural tools," but I remain pessimistic that cultural tools, of evangelicals, and of any other social group for that matter, can be suspended long enough (and by enough people) to recognize the value of important, alternative ways of thinking about social problems.
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on December 31, 2010
I had heard for quite some time that Divided By Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith, was the seminal work on race in the American church. And while I began reading it with high expectations, the authors failed to provide a convincing argument. The book was full of many useful statistics, anecdotes, and themes, but Emerson and Smith failed to tie it all together in a meaningful and persuasive way.

The central thesis of Divided By Faith is twofold: we live in a racialized society, and, despite good intentions, Evangelicals actually make the problem worse, rather than better. By "racialized society," the authors simply mean that we live in a place where race still matters "for life experiences, life opportunities, and social relationships," opting for this term over the more common phrases of prejudice or racism. But even here, we do not get a clear explanation of why it matters that we live in a racialized society, at least not from a biblical perspective. They point to problems such as income disparity, education differences, and de facto segregation--all of which are certainly bad things--as proof of our racialized society. But what they never tie together is the idea that these bad outcomes are the result of racialization.

Secondly, Emerson and Smith say that Evangelicals make the problem worse by having access to a limited "toolbox" from which to draw solutions to this problem. White evangelicals, the authors find, focus on freewill individualism as the chief explanation for the difference in outcomes between whites and blacks, while African Americans point to structural problems, spiritual warfare, and incipient racism as the reason for inequality in America. Additionally, they find that the more time a white Evangelical spends with African Americans, the more likely he or she will cite structural problems as well. Here again, unfortunately, we see Emerson and Smith's inability to tie loose ends together. Both explanations may very well be true, or perhaps only one or the other is correct, but instead of making a convincing case as to why one is right and the other is wrong, the authors just assume that the explanations African Americans give are correct. Let me be clear, I am not saying that that is not the case, I simply wish that Emerson and Smith would have done a better job proving their thesis.

The second half of the author's thesis--that white Evangelicals make the race problem worse--is initially harder to swallow, but interestingly, this is actually the strongest part of their work. The problem is clearly stated in their description that, following the civil war, whites and blacks went from sitting in separate pews in the same church, to attending different churches entirely. This is due to the fact that in a free market such as ours consumers choose the product that fits them the best. In the church world this means that parishioners will attend the church that is the easiest fit for them; the one with the least amount of friction. Since inter-racial relationships carry with them a certain amount of friction, the authors assert, races will tend to congregate together. This then strengthens the bonds that already existed between people of the same race, only furthering the de facto segregation that exists in America. It is from these relationships that better jobs can be acquired, along with a host of other economic and social benefits. Therefore, separate churches only add to the disparity between the races.

Overall Divided By Faith was certainly an interesting read, and while they failed to convince on many points, the book was thought provoking enough to make it worth the time. No one can deny that, while things have certainly improved, the race problem in America is still an issue that needs to be dealt with, especially for the Evangelical church. Let us all pray that as we continue to grow in Christ, we would grow closer to racial reconciliation in the Church.
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on July 21, 2006
First off, I am a white evangelical in a moderately sized city to give you some idea of the perspective I bring to reading this.

The statistics in the book (the median net worth of blacks is $3,700 compared to $43,800 for whites, P.13...the subtle racism in depiction of the 'evils' of heavy metal music which is usually consumed by Caucasians and rap music which is more favored by urban blacks, p.15...the 1998 National Congregations Study showing 90% of U.S. congregations are formed at least 90% by one race, P.136) reveal that the Church has a long way to go to demonstrate that "Red and yellow, black and white they are precious in His sight".

The personal anecdotes of average evangelical laypeople, both black and white, help put a human face on the views of those on each side of 'the divide'. It helps to remind us that the answers may not lie in 'one size fits all' political solutions.

Chapter 7, as another reviewer mentioned, does a good job of explaining why it is difficult to maintain a mixed-race congregation. "Birds of a feather flock together" and over time, congregations tend to bleed toward one hue or another even despite the pastor's attempts and the founding members best intentions. (The story of 'First Church' 147-150 is illustrative) Also, the tendency of churches to 'market' themselves toward specific groups cause this too...most churches that feature hymns do not also feature contemporary rock-tinged praise and worship music..those who feature 'black' gospel chorals don't tend to feature country infused "Southern gospel".

The book seems to be very dismissive towards free will determination and individual effort, even as it states these are evangelicals' bedrock values. Since the authors themselves are evangelicals, it seems self-flagellating that they more or less paint two crucial elements of the evangelical belief system as endemic to preventing racial harmony.

It also does seem to embrace a government oriented method of "fixing things": i.e. whites and blacks would get along better if they rubbed shoulders as neighbors, therefore laws must artificially mandate that this happen. The problem with this is the authors seem to not try and understand WHY the inner city areas, which tend to have a higher percentage of black population, don't have as much racial diversity as they would like to see. Is it all simply "white flight"...or is it possible that people desiring the best they can manage for their families choose not to live in neighborhoods they perceive as crime-ridden and unsafe? The same reason why middle and upper income blacks would choose to leave the same areas...they're doing the best they can to provide safe haven for their children as that's what good parents do (or at least try to do).

The argument can be posited I suppose that what Jesus would do is to go where the 'trouble' is and I can see the wisdom in that perspective, but I'm more willing to take more risks with my own PERSONAL safety in the attempt to minister to others than I am willing to do with my FAMILY'S safety. My wife and child are more vulnerable to criminals and because of that I do my best (nothing's 100 percent mind you..even in our 'better' neighborhood we've seen break-ins) to minimize danger and try to make them feel sheltered.

I second the comments another reviewer made in that the problem seems to be 'fixable' in the authors' view primarily through human efforts. Little to no mention is made of individual believers, both black and white (and other races for that matter), who strongly desire to see Christian racial unity as the beginning of the larger healing of the country by actively PRAYING for it on a repeated basis. For an evangelical, the belief that God ANSWERS prayer is foundational and should be a cornerstone of any push to bind society's wounds.

Asks a lot of the right questions and for that it's worth reading. Just don't expect to find the answers for the "race problem" here.
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on April 14, 2014
I am completely convinced that I am not a racist; however, after reading this book, I have a belief system that contributes to the role of a racialized society. This book has opened my eyes to the ways that I continue to reinforce segregation within my church. My only complaint with the book is that it does not outline practical steps to overcome racialization. This is an excellent book to read!
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on June 21, 2003
Michael Emerson and Christian Smith argue in their book Divided By Faith that the values and beliefs that are central to evangelical religion - freewill individualism, relationalism, and antistructuralism - actually help to increase the racial divide in America, even though they are the biggest supporters of racial reconciliation. The book is based a deep probing of evangelical Americans' feelings of race issues through an extensive nationwide survey of over 2000 people. The authors give rock-solid proof for their argument which is presented in a very concise and logical manner. The effective use of statistics and quotes from interviews help solidify the argument. In addition, they describe how the structure of American religious organizations is continually pushed towards internal similarity, leading to racially separate congregations. After reading the book, one will find it difficult to respect the views of evangelicals and their attitudes on race issues.
The book begins with a close look at just how racialized our society really is, citing mostly examples of economic disparity between whites and blacks. The problem also exists in the lack of interracial marriages, segregated communities, and in religious affiliation choices. Next the authors give a historical overview of how Christians, particularly evangelicals, have thought of race in the past, and what sorts of actions they have taken to address racial issues.
Racial reconciliation was started by blacks in the 1960s as a theology for reconciling the division between races. Its primary tenet is that individuals of different races must develop primary relationships with each other and recognizing social structures of inequality. Evangelicals have since popularized the idea and made it one of their top priorities for bringing and end to racial division. The original message was lost in the translation however, for evangelicals stress individual reconciliation as opposed to challenging social systems of injustice and inequality.
Evangelicals see the race problem of one of three types: prejudiced individuals, other groups trying to make race problems a group issue when it is only individual problems, and a fabrication of the self-interested. Emerson and Smith use the idea of a cultural tool kit - ideas and practices that shape one's perception of reality - to explain these views. They explain how accountable freewill individualism, relationalism, and antistructuralism are the racially important cultural tools for white evangelicals and how most do not think America is racialized because of their tools; in addition, most are racially isolated. White evangelicals see no race problem other than bad interpersonal relationships. These tools lead them to "minimize the race problem and racial inequality, and thus propose limited solutions." This strong evidence supports the claim that evangelicals perpetuate a racialized society without any intention to do so.
The authors asked people in the survey for their explanations on the reasons for blacks having worse jobs, income, and housing than whites. White evangelicals were significantly more likely to cite individual reasons than structural reasons; most felt that it was due to lack of motivation or will-power on the part of blacks. However, when black evangelicals were asked for their explanations, they overwhelmingly cited less individualistic and more structural reasons; most felt that it was due to discrimination. This shows that evangelical religion "intensifies the different values and experiences of each racial group, sharpening and increasing the divide between black and white Americans." Emerson and Smith also give anecdotal evidence that by not seeing how societal structures impact individual initiative, the racialization problem will continue.
The survey also asked people about how to solve the race problem. The results again show that evangelicals overwhelmingly felt that people should "try to get to know people of another race" and that almost none felt that racially integrated residential neighborhoods could solve the problem. What's more, white evangelicals were much more likely to respond this way than non-evangelical whites, further evidence of the cultural tool kit explanation.
The authors also give an in-depth examination of the structure of American religious organizations and the view that America has become a "religious marketplace." They explain why congregations are internally similar with the idea that "internally homogeneous congregations more often provide what draws people to religious groups for a lower cost than do internally diverse congregations" in addition to social psychological reasons. The book concludes with a look at how these internally similar congregations produce and maintain racialization.
This book is rock-solid evidence for the idea that evangelical religious teachings - although candidly supportive of racial reconciliation - actually do more to perpetuate a racialized society than they do to terminate it. Although the authors provide almost no suggestions for exactly how to end this racialized society, they definitely present a shocking argument along with rigorous proof of the contradiction that exists in American evangelical religion.
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on January 23, 2014
This book does a good job explaining why churches are segregated in America. At the end of the day it still comes back to a lack of a real relationship with Christ with both races. If Jesus is truly in you heart you cannot dislike someone because of their race. There needs to be some serious self examination on both sides. This is not happening in today's churches where the Bible is barely read at all. Years ago most people could not read. They could possibly use ignorance as an excuse. (It still wouldn't fly.) There is no such excuse today. People are intellectually lazy and content to go along with the status quo. I recommend Christians that are serious about their walk with Christ read this book, remember Jesus last two commandments, and examine themselves. REPENT if necessary and do better.
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on January 27, 2004
This is one of the best books in the sociology of religion to be published in a long time. It is theoretically sophisticated, methodologically sound, and on top of it all -- fun and easy to read and digest.
The conclusions are often repeated too much -- the 69th time I read that white evangelicals prefer individualistic solutions to racial problems rather than structursal, I got mildly irritated. But that's the only critique I have of this amazing book. Oh, well, one more: they didn't really draw from Du Bois's work on race and religion, which already covered a lot of these ideas decades ago...(see Zuckerman's DU BOIS ON RELIGION for starters)....
Each chapter is well presented, the findings are clear, and the mix of qualitative and quantitative data is beautiful. This should serve as a "model" study/book -- would that all sociology of religion books be like this one.
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