Given the common association between Christianity and conservatism, especially in these political times, it seems intuitive to expect white evangelicals to hold more racist views and beliefs than unbelievers.
Never content to rest on intuitive assumptions about the religious, Robert P. Jones has done the research to confirm it, and it’s true: White Christians are more likely to be racist, he announced in an article on NBC News’ opinion platform, Think.
Jones is the CEO and founder of Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). Himself a practicing Christian, he has spent more than two decades studying the relationship between one’s religious affiliation and their beliefs, perceptions, and values. He says the pattern has been emerging for years.
As an example, he cites a 2018 PRRI survey: In it, seven in ten white evangelicals denied the role of structural racism in police killings of Black men, dismissing the events as isolated incidents. A smaller majority also argued that systemic barriers had nothing to do with higher rates of poverty in racialized communities — those people just needed to try harder.
He turned observations like these into a fifteen-question survey he dubbed the “Racism Index,” which measured participants’ perceptions of race and racism, including their positions on today’s controversial questions, ranging all the way from law enforcement to Confederate statues. He says his results were stark and easy to see:
Even at a glance, the Racism Index reveals a clear distinction. Compared to nonreligious whites, white Christians register higher median scores on the Racism Index, and the differences among white Christian subgroups are largely differences of degree rather than kind… This disparity in attitudes about systemic racism between white Christians and whites who claim no religious affiliation is important evidence that the common — and catalyzing — denominator here is religious identity.
Correlation is not causation, but his research turned up a further link: White Christians who are more involved with their churches, who spend more time on religion and embrace it as a central part of their identity, are more racist than the casual churchgoers in their midst. Similar research publicized by Professor Ryan P. Burge shows that racial resentment measures highest for Christians who attend church events more than once per week.
I can confirm this finding with racial resentment in the CCES.
— Ryan Burge � (@ryanburge) July 28, 2020
In fact, Jones goes so far as to argue that racism and racial inequality is baked into the structure and history of American Christianity in a way that colors modern attitudes:
In these seedbeds of American Christianity, an a priori commitment to white supremacy shaped what could be practiced (a slave master could not share a common cup of Christian fellowship with his slaves) and preached (white dominance and Black subservience were expressions of God’s ideal for the organization of human societies). Such early distortions influenced how white Christians came to embody and understand their faith and determined what was handed down from one generation to the next.
So it’s not that religion inherently causes racism, says Jones. Rather, the racism that existed in American society through history impacted the development of American social institutions, and that includes religion.
Jones seems optimistic that it’s possible for white Christianity to come to a reckoning with its racist past, calling for “humility and courage and love” to recognize and challenge “the Christian worldview we built to justify” white supremacy. Exactly how, though, is unclear; he’s made the argument that the whole edifice of belief needs to be pulled up by its rotten roots.
The full story can be found in his just-released book, White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity.
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