The Limited Evangelical Religio-Cultural Toolset

Michael Emerson and Christian Smith in Divided By Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America have a provocative thesis: Well-intentioned evangelicals want to solve the “race problem” in America, but are both failing to solve it and, in some ways, are exacerbating the problem. How do they come to this startling conclusion?

In my last post, I talked about how white and black evangelicals think about race and racialization in vastly different ways. In this post, I want to introduce you to a central theme of Divided by Faith which explains this division: the limited evangelical religio-cultural toolset.

As a sociology book Divided by Faith relies heavily on surveys and personal interviews. These personal interviews reveal prototypical ways in which white and non-white Christians view the “race problem” differently.

Consider Debbie, a born again white evangelical. When asked if America has a race problem she said we did, but only because we make it one: “People are gonna have arguments with people. I feel like once in a while when an argument happens, say between a black guy and a white guy, instead of saying, ‘Hey, there’s two guys having an argument,’ we say it’s a race issue” (70). By contrast, consider Otis, an African-American evangelical. He readily admitted the race problem. He described it as follows: “[t]he community is divided in many ways. It’s divided by race. It’s divided by income. And then you have the people who like to scratch each other’s backs. And they kind of form this net, and in this area, they call it the good ol’ boy system. They dominate like a monopoly. But is that really a Christian principle? And yet all of them go to church.” Otis saw the system (good ol’ boys) as exacerbating racial division.

Smith and Emerson try to explain these different perspectives through the concept of a religio-cultural toolset. This “toolset” is a way of looking at the world. Through it, we identify what is broken and recommend how to make repairs. What did they discover about the white evangelical toolset?

Religio-cultural toolset

According to Emerson, “The racially important cultural tools in the white evangelical toolset are ‘accountable freewill individualism,’ ‘relationalism’ (attaching central importance to interpersonal relationships), and antistructuralism (inability to perceive or unwillingness to accept social structural influences)” (76).

Individualism: Americans are individualistic in general, but evangelicals add to the baseline cultural individualism theological beliefs about the world. “Accountable freewill individualism” arises from the belief that only free individuals, who are independent of structures and institutions, can be truly held accountable for the moral decisions they make before God. Racial problems (like all others) must arise from the individual heart, from personal bigotry or bias.

Relationalism: Evangelicals place a strong emphasis on interpersonal relationships. Again, this arises from the theological understanding that Christians have a personal relationship with Jesus. This foundational relationship extends to our relationships with others. As we are reconciled with God, so we are reconciled interpersonally. The Christian experience moves from love of God to love of neighbor. As this pertains to race, racial problems occur when we fail to love one another in one-on-one relationships (for example, acts of discrimination) because of individual sin.

Antistructuralism: Anti-structuralism (resistance to seeing structural issues or considering structural solutions) arises as a corollary to individualism and relationalism. In interviews, white evangelicals saw systemic/structural thinking as a way of denying personal responsibility in a way that undermined individualism.

For that reason, evangelicals tended to view systemic or structural solutions with skepticism. They saw them as either missing the point because they failed to identify the root of the problem (sin within the individual heart) or as counterproductive (because they short-circuited individualistic solutions). 

Two things are worth noting on this last point: First, the equation “individualism + relationalism = antistructuralism” isn’t inevitable. The non-white and white-but-not-isolated interviewees affirmed personal salvation and the importance of interpersonal relationships but did not deny structural causes. Second, white evangelicals were selective in seeing structural causes for racial division. For instance, one responded to the interview as follows: “I think you can blame our government for some of [the race problem]. A lot of politicians have used the welfare system to make a dependent class of people. The politicians abuse that class so they can stay in office” (80).

Connection to the miracle motif

If Emerson and Smith found that white evangelicals saw racial problems to be individual/relational (and not structural), then we would expect the solutions to follow that same pattern. This is exactly what they found. The solution most offered by white evangelicals was the “miracle motif.”

“The miracle motif is the theologically rooted idea that as more individuals become Christians, social and personal problems will be solved automatically.” (117)

Interviewees consistently pointed to individual conversion as the solution to the race problem. If society is the aggregation of individuals, then if you change the individuals, you change the society. Individual change starts with conversion. “When people become Christians, they are overwhelmed by the love, respect, and dignity given to them by God. And this overflows such that Christians inevitably impart that to others” (117). Racism is first solved in the heart and is then solved through a series of interpersonal relationships. Broad societal changes – if needed – happen automatically thereafter.  

There are several problems with the miracle motif. First, theologically, it short-circuits the need for discipleship. It imagines that people “automatically” change at conversion. Second, practically, it just hasn’t worked. American history is littered with well-intentioned Christians who held to a conversionist theology and completely missed the horrors of slavery and segregation. Third, while it contains an important kernel of truth, it presents an incomplete picture of the gospel and its effects. 

Not faulty, but limited

Smith and Emerson go on to argue that this cultural toolset fails to address racism in a meaningful way, not because it is faulty, but because it is insufficient. Many evangelical versions of individualism and relationalism exclude structural and systemic responses. Consider again, for instance, institutional division in Jim Crow. Southern white Christians believed that the race problem was largely solved: They did not (at least on their assessment) feel any personal malice towards African Americans. And, from their perspective, whites and blacks seemed to get along fine interpersonally. They failed to see the injustice of segregation because it didn’t register as part of their religio-cultural toolset.

A personal note and further reading

I want to strongly affirm aspects of this toolset and the “miracle motif.” I believe that we are individually accountable before God, that Christians have a personal relationship with Jesus, that interpersonal love for neighbor and relationship building are essential, and that transformation happens through both a moment and a process of conversion through the Holy Spirit.

However, while I have not abandoned individualism or relationalism as defined above, I have become less antistructural. I want to offer a small list of references to explain a little better why:

  • Emergent systems: This is the idea that some systems are more than the sum of their parts. Society is not just a sum of individuals and therefore some change needs to occur at the systemic level, not just the personal. In this post, I apply the idea of emergent systems to the Church.
  • John Piper’s influential article on how racism becomes institutionalized. Piper starts with pride (individualism) and moves to systems in his explanation of structured sin.
  • A growing understanding of the cosmic components of salvation. This post shows how personal, communal, and social aspects of salvation are intertwined and, I hope, corrects some overly individualized notions of salvation.
  • Along the same lines, I’ll share this reflection on whether the gospel is sufficient to deal with systemic racism. My answer: Yes, but only insofar as we adopt the full gospel and don’t settle for a truncated version of it.

2 thoughts on “The Limited Evangelical Religio-Cultural Toolset

  1. Pingback: Vaccines, Jesus and John Wayne, and our Racialized Society | The Slasher Pastor

  2. Pingback: Michael Emerson, Thaddeus Williams, and Racial Disparities | Reading in Babylon

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