On Evangelicals, Race, and Fixing Faulty Buildings image

On Evangelicals, Race, and Fixing Faulty Buildings

Two factors are most striking about evangelical solutions to racial problems. First, they are profoundly individualistic and interpersonal: become a Christian, love your individual neighbours, establish a cross-race friendship, give individuals the right to pursue jobs and individual justice without discrimination by other individuals, and ask forgiveness of individuals one has wronged. Second, although several evangelicals discuss the personal sacrifice necessary to form friendships across race, their solutions do not require financial or cultural sacrifice. They do not advocate or support changes that might cause extensive discomfort or change their economic and cultural lives. In short, they maintain what is for them the noncostly status quo.

We thus have a common problem. White evangelicals want to see an end to race problems because both their Christian faith and their faith in the American creed call for it. But they are constrained by at least two forces. First, their cultural tools point them only to one dimension of the problem ... If a building is on the verge of collapse due to an inadequate design, improving the quality of the bricks without improving the design is not a solution. Evangelicals, for all their recent energy directed at dealing with race problems, are attempting to improve the bricks, even having bricks better cemented to other bricks, but they are not doing anything about the faulty structural design. If their focus continues to be only on making better bricks, their expenditure of energy will largely be in vain.

Second, some white evangelicals appear to avoid changing the design not only because they lack the cultural tools, but also because changing the design would be costly.When people are comfortable with their lives, even in the face of design flaws, it seems reasonable that they would prefer improving the quality of bricks as the solution over rearranging the bricks, for this risks their own comfortable positions. Like many other white Americans, at least some white evangelicals do not want and are not willing to substantially rearrange their lives to reduce the race problem. Although their faith directs them in many powerful ways, white American evangelicals, unless burdened by an individual “calling”, assume that faith does not ask them to change the material aspects of their lives for this cause. Given their aversion to discomfort (a universal human trait) and cultural tools, they offer “Christian” solutions such as asking forgiveness, converting people to Christ, and forming cross-race friendships.

The problem with these solutions is that, by themselves, they do not work.

- Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided By Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, p.130.

[Yes, this was written in 1999, and things may be different now; yes, it was based on a sociological study in the US, and things may well be different in the UK; yes, Christian Smith has a bugbear about evangelical individualism; yes, there is an ironically self-referential ingroup/outgroup tone to much of the study. But this is nevertheless an extremely challenging section of an extremely challenging book.]

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