Religion of Whiteness, Part IV

What’s next, and who will lead?

(See also Part I: The Religion of Whiteness: What survey data says about White Christians’ attitudes about race and privilege, Part II: Religion of Whiteness: What is it? and Part III: Stories and reflections from Christians of Color.)

New research data shows that 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. And 70 percent agree with the statement: “racial minorities use racism as an excuse for economic inequalities.”

Jim Bear Jacobs, the Minnesota Council of Church’s (MCC’s) Co-Director for Racial Justice, said one of the research’s stunning revelations was that these opinions were uniformly held between Conservative Christians, Mainline Protestants, and Catholics.

“That was an eye opener,” he said.

Jacobs has wavered between hope and despair about the church’s ability to move to a racially justice future, he said. Based on the research, he didn’t think White leadership could get us there anymore. “Racism and White Supremacy is so entrenched in Christian thought.”

“Maybe for the White church, it’s time that we stop sitting hospice and attend the funeral,” he said, citing Soong-Chan Rah. “Rather than trying to do all the work to reform, do we let it die and believe in resurrection?”

Repudiating the Religion of Whiteness

Rev. Jim Bear Jacobs

Jacobs comments were based on research findings Prof. Dr. Michael O. Emerson presented at last month’s MCC event White Church Truths. (Video here of the morning session. Video here of the afternoon session.)

Emerson heads the Sociology Department at the University of Illinois-Chicago and has published widely in the areas of race, religion, and urban sociology. Along with his colleague, he’s collected three years of survey data on the views of White Christians, Christians of Color, and non Christians on race and privilege.

Emerson estimates that two-thirds of White Christians actually belong to what he calls the Religion of Whiteness, which believes in the moral and cultural superiority of White people. It disguises itself as Christian but isn’t, he said.

It’s “done tremendous damage,” Emerson said. “It has been used to keep this nation down,” and hurt other people around the world.

Emerson offered four priorities for White Christians to repudiate the Religion of Whiteness and chart a new course.

No. 1: We have to make the destination clear. What is the Christian life? “How do we live together, as described by Jesus, in community?” Emerson asked.

No. 2: We are going to have to address “betrayal trauma.” Betrayal trauma happens when people or institutions that people depend on and trust violate that trust, he said. “We have stories of people leaving the faith entirely because they have been destroyed” by what they’ve seen and experienced.

No. 3: We need to map a new path. And Christians of Color need to lead, with the goal of rooting out the Religion of Whiteness. “It can’t be allowed to be within Christendom,” he said

No. 4: We need to coordinate ministry. This work needs to happen across denominations, race and ethnicity, and other affinity groups, he said. “The mission is too large to try to do it separately.”

During a Q&A, an audience member asked: “Why can’t Christians in this room who are white, why can’t we help lead?”

Emerson responded that part of being White has been an expectation the White people always lead. “So we need to show that we are willing for real change by saying we will be led,” he said. “We will contribute. We will do whatever it takes.”

The Way Jesus Christ Christian Church, New Orleans. Image: Bernard Spragg.

Emerson and colleague have surveyed multi-racial Christian churches. (They defined “multi-racial” as a church where no single racial group is more than 80 percent of the congregation.) They started in 1998, and have repeated the survey every six years. At the start, six percent of congregations were multi-racial. It’s grown to 16 percent.

While encouraging on the surface, there are problems. For one, people they interviewed were experiencing betrayal trauma.

“Churches that were predominantly White became more diverse, but stayed White culturally,” Emerson said. The message they sent to people of color was: ‘You are all welcome, but you have to adopt our way. … This is how Christianity is done.’”

How can you sing songs of liberation if your hands have never been in chains?

Rev. Jim Bear Jacobs

The research data showed the “multicultural change” went in one direction. White Christians weren’t going to churches where members were predominantly Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC). Christians of Color were “making the sacrifice of going to churches that are all White,” Emerson said.

“In my heart of hearts, I don’t believe you can reform the White Church in America,” he said. “I think it’s too far entrenched and dug in. I think the only answer …. is, ‘OK, I am going to a church where people of color are leading. And that is going to be my church.’ Until we have a mass wave of that, we will keep having what we have.”

After the event, Jacobs agreed. He didn’t trust that White people could understand the Gospel message. “It’s a story of people under oppression finding their voice, a voice White Christians can’t claim,” he said. “How can you sing songs of liberation if your hands have never been in chains?”

“Their only hope for having a full understanding [of the Gospel] is to come as learners to Churches of Color.”


The White Church Truths event was part of MCC’s 10-year commitment to Truth Telling, Education and Repair with BIPOC.

MCC’s 2023 plans include events in Duluth and Rochester, Jacobs said. They plan to reconvene the Council’s Reparations Task Force after the New Year, and hope to have something in place by summer.

“We would like to get a little experimental with our truth telling,” he said. Possibilities include an event “that would feature visual and performative arts that would probably center younger voices. We’re still in the idea stage.”

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