Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Book Reviews: Divided by Faith.

The old saw goes that America is no more racially segregated than at 11:00 a.m. on Sunday mornings.

Springboarding from this sentiment, Divided By Faith by sociologists Michael Emerson and Christian Smith attempts to lay the blame for this on white evangelicals and evangelicalism.

Two fundamental flaws permeate the book. First, it is a political polemic masquerading as a sociological study.

The authors reveal their agenda most starkly in chapters three and four of their book. For example, they write: “White evangelicals are more willing to pursue a white conservative political agenda than to be reconciled with their African-American brothers and sisters.” (p. 66; emphasis added.) They continue: “[D]eclaring that we are equal without repairing the wrongs of the past is cheap reconciliation.” (p. 67.) As such, they diagnose the problem as a “political” one, which may only be remedied by political solutions “dealing with the systems and structures” (p. 67) with racial groups inevitably competing against each other. In other words, Emerson and Smith seem to argue that a change of politics is a prescription to the maladies they identify.

The obvious implication is that their political agenda would do more to reconcile the races. Emerson and Smith continue in this vein in chapter four, where they insist that racism, including within the Church, must be rectified on a societal and governmental basis—read: “affirmative action.” (p. 79.) They criticize unnamed opponents of this racially discriminatory practice “because they [affirmative action programs] go against evangelical understanding of accountable freewill individualism”. (p. 79.) This accusation is unsupported by any footnote, endnote or authority, and represents a species of lazy “straw man” argumentation that is really beneath these academics. There are many reasons to oppose "affirmative action", including moral, biblical, constitutional, and logical, that are not rooted in a mere “freewill” theology or ideology, as the authors accuse.

Second, Emerson and Smith precariously build their whole study on the basis of a poorly defined and unworkable definition of “evangelicals”. “Evangelicals as we employ the term here, are also those who call themselves such.” (p. 3.) There is a word for such a formulation: tautology. It is utterly unhelpful to the reader, and ultimately irresponsible, as explained below.

Emerson and Smith hint at further focusing their definition when they state that “evangelicals believe that Christ died for the salvation of all, and that anyone who accepts Christ as the one way to eternal life will be saved.” (p.3.) It is difficult to ascertain with certainty whether Emerson and Smith include into their definition “mainline” Protestant denominations or Roman Catholics, who would generally agree with these salvation propositions, as well as others. They do suggest, however, that these religious traditions are included into their definition of “evangelical.” (p. 3.) As a result, Emerson and Smith over-include almost any Christian into their definition and thereby dissipate their definition into near insignificance. After all, if just about everyone fits the definition, it is not really an “evangelical” problem, but a much broader one for which true evangelicals are being scapegoated.

George Barna has defined “evangelicals” much more narrowly than Emerson and Smith. He posits that about 7-8 percent of the United States are “evangelicals”. Thus, if one were to understand the term as Barna and many others who agree with his definition encompassing only 7-8 percent of the population, then it inexorably follows that Emerson and Smith’s indictment is misdirected and erroneous. With only 7-8 of the population and a concomitant lack of real political power, they cannot be responsible for the systemic racialization that these writers lay at their feet. To the contrary, evangelicals, as I understand the term, are very much opposed to racism and actively seek to eradicate it in their own lives and otherwise.