Book Review: Divided by Faith

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

By Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith (reviewed by Peter DeHaan)

Divided by Faith investigates race relations between whites and blacks in the United States. Although white evangelicals have a well-intentioned desire to end racial inequality, their efforts can – and have – unwittingly serve to do more harm than good, “actually recreating racial divisions and inequalities,” (p 1). A key issue is that the actuality of racial issues is largely invisible to – and therefore misunderstood by – most white people. Compounding this is the reality that 90% or more attend a church that is predominately comprised of people of their same race, producing congregational segregation. This racial isolation exacerbates the tension.

Emerson and Smith give a detailed historical perspective of this issue as it relates to U.S. churches and church activities, specifically from evangelicals. They then look at the present situation, sharing numerous detailed accounts from the people they interviewed in the course of their research. The differences in perceptions and understandings of race issues among most whites and blacks are stark and in sharp contrast. Succinctly, most white people lack the ability to comprehend the reality of struggles and obstacles that most black people face on a daily basis. For white people, “race is not a focal point in their day-to-day lived experience,” (p 71). To illustrate the point, Emerson and Smith share a profoundly effective parable that explains this disconnect in a poignant and most enlightening manner (p 110).

A reoccurring discussion in the book is exploring the source of the black/white socioeconomic gap. Is the gap individual in nature (ability and motivation) or structural (education and discrimination)? Answering this question would provide much needed guidance in dealing with and overcoming the socioeconomic gap, but the answers are both complex and evasive.

In addition to the book’s many recorded and enlightening personal interviews are numerous facts and statistics produced through research. As such, much of the book has a formal and academic nature that may unwittingly obscure clear solutions to racial issues in American society, in general, and the evangelical church, specifically. What is clear is that “good intentions are not enough. But educated, sacrificial, realistic efforts made in faith across racial lines can help…” (p 172). And that is a good place to start.

[Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, by Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith. Published by Oxford University Press, 2000, ISDN: 978-0-19-514707-0, 212 pages.]

Read more book reviews by Peter DeHaan.