The Religion of Whiteness, Part 1

What survey data says about White Christians’ attitudes about race and privilege

White Christians are twice as likely as other groups to agree that it’s acceptable for White people to have more wealth than other people.

Seventy percent of While Christians agree with the statement: “racial minorities use racism as an excuse for economic inequalities.” (The majority of those who aren’t White Christians disagree.)

White Christians are twice as likely as other White people to say they often feel the need to defend their racial group. They also are twice as likely as other White people to say being White is extremely important to how they think about themselves

These are among the findings Prof. Dr. Michael O. Emerson presented at the “White Church Truths” event sponsored by the Minnesota Council of Churches (MCC) Nov. 5 at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis.

Why are White Christians different from even other White people?, Emerson asked. “We think there is a different religion operating, the Religion of Whiteness,” he said. “It disguises itself as being Christian. … It’s not.”

The Minnesota Council of Churches has made a 10-year commitment to address racism and White Supremacy in the church and to seek repair with Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC). Emerson’s talk was part of the Council’s ongoing work. (Video here.) (Healing Minnesota Stories is a Council initiative.)

Emerson heads the University of Illinois-Chicago’s Sociology Department. He has published widely in the areas of race, religion, and urban sociology.

He and colleagues conducted annual, on-line surveys (2019-2021) to understand White Christians’ attitudes around race and privilege. Each survey sample included 3,000 adults from across the country. Part I of this four-part series looks at some of those findings.

Prof. Dr. Michael O. Emerson speaking at Westminster Presbyterian Church. Screen grab from video.

For their analysis, they studied what they termed “White Practicing Christians,” which they defined as those who are white and: 1) self-identify as Christian; 2) say their faith is important to them; and, 3) attend church services at least once a month.

Researchers had planned to analyze survey responses to understand attitude differences about race and privilege between more conservative Evangelical Christians, mainline Protestant Christians, and Catholics.

What they found was that there wasn’t a significant difference among the three groups.


Slightly more than half of the survey respondents said they believed the Bible should be used to determine right from wrong. Researchers posed a series of statements to this group, citing Bible passages. The survey asked them whether they agreed with the statement or not.

For example:

Statement 1: “In the system of laws that God gave the Israelites to follow, there were laws that protect foreigners from being treated unjustly. It follows that it’s good to have laws that protect foreigners from being treated unjustly.”

(See  Deut: 24:14: “Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether … a fellow Israelite or a foreigner residing in one of your towns.”)

The majority of African Americans and Hispanic Christians who said they believe the Bible is a moral compass strongly agreed that it’s good to have laws protecting foreigners. “But only one-third of White Practicing Christians strongly agreed,” Emerson said.

Image: Doodle through the Bible.

Statement 2: “In the Bible, the prophet Nehemiah confessed sins committed by himself, his nation, and his ancestors. It follows that it’s good to confess sins committed by me, my nation, and my ancestors.”

(See Nehemiah 1:6: “… I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s family, have committed against you.”)

The survey results were the same as Statement 1: Only one-third of White Practicing Christians agreed, compared to the majority of Christians of color.

Statement 3: “The first Christians listened to the complaints of an ethnic minority group that was being treated unjustly and empowered leaders within that minority community group to correct the injustice. Therefore, it is good to listen to the complaints of ethnic minority groups and empower leaders within those minority groups to correct injustice.”

(See Acts 6:1-7. The ethnic minority in this passage was Greek-speaking Jews who were followers of Jesus. They said their community’s widows weren’t getting their fair share of food. The Disciples told members of that community to appoint seven men to take on the food distribution responsibilities.)

Again, the survey found only one-third of the White Practicing Christians agreed that it was important to empower leaders in minority groups to correct injustice.

“This is for those who say the Bible should be used to determine right from wrong,” Emerson said.


The hope for change from within the Christian church seems slim, survey results suggest.

“Only one Christian group does not believe that race relations can be improved by teaching about race in church: White Practicing Christians,” Emerson said. “Only one Christian group believes that the best way to improve race relations is by converting people to Christianity: White Practicing Christians.”

Lastly, here’s how people responded to the survey question: Does the United States have a race problem?

2017 ‘Unite the Right’ Rally, Charlottesville, Va. Image:
Anthony Crider (cropped by Beyond My Ken
.)

In 2019, 78 percent of Black Christians agreed that the United States has a race problem, compared to 38 percent of White Practicing Christians, a 40 percentage-point gap.

In 2020 — after George Floyd’s murder and the national uprising that followed – the gap grew: 87 percent of Black Christians agreed the United States had a race problem, compared to 30 percent of White Practicing Christians, a 57 percentage-point gap.

Emerson said about two thirds of White Practicing Christians subscribe to what he calls the Religion of Whiteness.

Next: Part II: Defining the Religion of Whiteness


6 thoughts on “The Religion of Whiteness, Part 1

  1. Michael Emerson is one of the best authorities on this subject. I used Divided by Faith by Emerson and Christian Smith for many years in my seminary teaching. I’m sure this was a very worthwhile presentation!
    Gaylan Mathiesen

    Like

  2. This piece is a wonderful digest of the conference materials. I appreciate your work here. I can see using this in a discussion with my local (primarily-white Christian congregation) just as you have laid it out. I hope that I get a chance to meet you one day to thank you in person!

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s