4. Racism and the Evangelical Vote

If there is a single lesson to come out of the 2016 election, it is the apparent and ongoing racism fundamental to American society. In the midst of police killings of unarmed young black men and the #blacklivesmatter movement, it would seem that the Christian religious voice failed to speak with any meaningful power. Indeed, the trends seems more that the white religious voice found some theological affinity with bigotry expressed in anti-minority, anti-migrant, and anti-muslim sentiments. Nor is this an especially revealing factor, with a number of works on the matter issuing also from Evangelical publishers. The revealing element lies in its overtness and immediateness, and this has prompted a number of people to reject their ties to evangelicalism and to defend evangelicalism.

In an effort to understand this, we turn first to the work of Michael Emerson, and Christian Smith. One key argument holds that “white conservative Protestants are more individualistic and less structuralist than other white Americans in their explanations of inequality” (p. 399), and that this approach is based in a theological understanding of sin and salvation (p. 401). This individualism sits in tension with a theological commitment to justice, because “[I]f only blacks would ‘catch the vision’, change their habits, stop trying to shift blame, and apply themselves responsibly – in short, act more Christian, as they define it – racial inequality would be but a memory” (p. 410).

  • Emerson, Michael O., Christian Smith, and David Sikkink. “Equal in Christ, But Not in the World: White Conservative Protestants and Explanations of Black-White Inequality.” Social Problems 46, no. 3 (1999): 398–417.

Elsewhere Emerson and Smith comment on “racially homogenous” social worlds of white evangelicals, using the language of “being sheltered, unexposed to racial diversity, insulated, in their own small world” (p. 38). This is important to note given the type of rural/urban divide evident in the voting picture across the individual States. As an example of the concern, according to Wheaton College’s diversity statistics, only 2.9% of the 2016 enrolments are recorded as African American.

  • Emerson, Michael O. and Christian Smith. “Color-Blinded.” Christianity Today 44 (2000): 36–38.

See also the full-length treatment in:

  • Emerson, Michael O. and Christian Smith. Divided By Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. Oxford University Press, 2001.

In reaction to Emerson and Smith, Eric Tranby and Douglas Hartmann accept the basic framework of their argument, but extend the argument in two directions. First, they argue, though Lawrence Bobo’s concept of “laissez-faire racism,” that “principled conservative ideas” include “anti-black stereotypes that justify or legitimate political inaction.” Second, drawing on critical race theory and witness studies, they reject the policitial neutrality of individualistic ideals, arguing that “individualism not only blinds white evangelicals to structural inequalities involving race…but it also provides a discourse and way of thinking that allows its adherents to justify, rationalise, and legitimate the racial status quo” (p. 342).

  • Tranby, Eric and Douglas Hartmann. “Critical Whiteness Theories and the Evangelical “race Problem”: Extending Emerson and Smith’s ‘Divided By Faith’.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 47, no. 3 (2008): 341–59.

This sociological analysis indicates the importance in experience with diversity  for development in theological formulation. But it also makes two obvious points regarding theological commitments. First, the commitment to the widow, orphan, and the stranger, is a commitment under specific conditions, notably those related to power and control. The second looks to the material shape of the theology itself.  For both of these issues, we will read two articles where James Cone is at his incisive best.

  • Cone, James H. “Theology’s Great Sin: Silence in the Face of White Supremacy.” Black Theology 2, no. 2 (2004): 139–52.
  • Cone, James H. “Strange Fruit: The Cross and the Lynching Tree.” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 148 (2014): 7–17.

For the full-length treatment, see:

  • Cone, James H. The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2013.

Further Reading:

  • Carter, J. Kameron. Race: A Theological Account. Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Hollinger, David A. “After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Ecumenical Protestantism and the Modern American Encounter With Diversity.” Journal of American History 98, no. 1 (2011): 21–48.