cover image Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America

Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America

Michael O. Emerson, Christian Smith. Oxford University Press, USA, $25 (224pp) ISBN 978-0-19-513140-6

Evangelicals, argue sociologists Emerson and Smith, have gotten serious about racial reconciliation. This, they suggest, is a break from tradition--in the 19th century, many white evangelicals supported slavery but then upheld Jim Crow laws through the postwar years. Over the last half century, however, evangelicals have increasingly found racism unpalatable, a transformation culminating, symbolically at least, in the Southern Baptist Convention's 1995 proclamation that it repented for its role in slavery. Today, the Promise Keepers call for reconciliation, while evangelical theologians and publications explore what reconciliation means. But white evangelicals, though well-meaning, often unwittingly contribute to racism, say the authors. Smith and Emerson explain this seeming contradiction by drawing on Smith's earlier work, in which he argued that evangelicals have a piecemeal approach to social justice: they are inclined to fix immediate problems, such as feeding homeless people at a soup kitchen, rather than address systemic crises such as the unequal distribution of wealth. Smith and Emerson recycle the same argument, tweaked ever so slightly, here. The tools evangelicals use to combat racism--socializing more with members of another race, or integrating churches and racially segregated neighborhoods--are well-intentioned but ultimately not adequate to the task of eradicating deeply entrenched racist patterns. This is a valuable critique of evangelical approaches to social change, although those familiar with Smith's previous work will learn little. (June)