Fellow Mainline Christians: Are We Completely Useless? 

I’m of the mind that the appropriate role for white people in racial justice work is usually supportive: we ask how we can help, we do what we’re asked, and if there are any microphones, we pass them along to someone else who experiences racism directly.

But this is a story that might actually call for a white-person rant. I’m not sure. All I know is that when I read it, I said, “Oh, I recognize this. These are my people. These are my people at our very worst.”

askbadgeI am speaking of this study in which sociologists sent emails to more than 3,000 churches across the country. The emails purported to be from someone who was relocating to the area and was interested in visiting. The only difference between emails had to do with clues to the (fictitious) sender’s racial identity. From census data and focus groups, the study’s authors came up with these pseudonyms: Greg Murphy, Scott Taylor, Jamaal Washington, Tyrone Jefferson, Carlos Garcia, Jose Hernandez, Wen Lang Li, and Jong Soo Kim.

Evangelical and Catholic churches pretty much responded to all of the emails they got. For every 100 evangelical churches that responded to a white-sounding name, 97 responded to black-sounding names, 100 to Latina/o, and 94 to Asian. The difference was not statistically significant. Catholic churches had similar results.

But what about the mainline Protestants?

Yeah, about that.

For every 100 churches that responded to white-sounding names, only 89 responded to black names. 86 responded to Latina/o names. And an abysmal 72 responded to Asian names.

Also, mainliners’ replies to non-white-sounding names tended to be terser and less inviting than our replies to white-sounding names.

My people, listen. There is no sense in which this is okay. There are no mitigating circumstances – no good intentions, no didn’t-mean-anything-by-its, not oh-but-you-have-to-understands, no not-MY-congregations – that make this okay. It is awful that we do this. Like, sackcloth-and-ashes awful. We should be rending our garments (no postmodern winking irony here) and quaking with fear that God will strike us down for our wickedness.

“But maybe they didn’t mean anything by it…” [holds up hand] No. Brzzt. Let me stop you right there. Sure, of the people who never sent the emails they should have sent, probably not all were thinking, “Ooh, a target of my white supremacist ire! I think I’ll not reply. That’ll teach ‘em. Now hand me my white pointy hat; I’ve got an appointment.” Some of them, maybe, were thinking that. But I know us. I imagine a lot of them – of us – might have thought things like:

“Huh? I don’t get it. Weird.”

“They must have us confused with another church.”

“I don’t think they’d be happy here. Egads. I’ll do them a favor and not reply.”

“Oh, I should put them in touch with that one pastor of color whose name I know.”

“If they come here we might have to have conversations about race. Conversations about race are uncomfortable.I come to church to get a break from all that and feel like a good person. Uhh, what I mean is, I come to church to ‘have my Sabbath.’ Because Sabbath is a nice religious word, and I’m pretty sure it means the same thing as being fatuously self-indulgent, right? Let’s go with yes.”

“Oh, that’s precious. Wait’ll I tell the choir. [Delete]”

Ultimately, though, it doesn’t really matter what the intentions were. Sure, if it were one email and one church, you might ask whether it was an accident. If it turned out that the church, like, didn’t have internet access for the duration of the study because the whole town was overrun by zombies, and they couldn’t get word out because there was a quarantine, OK, fine.

But this is a statistically significant pattern. This is something we mainliners tend, as a group, to do. “This” being “act in a white supremacist way.” Yes, white supremacist. That phrase accurately describes the actions of a group that treats emails from white-sounding names as worthier of attention than emails from black, Latina/o, or Asian sounding names.

I mean, my God. If we don’t care about doing better than this, exactly what use are we to anyone? If this is what we offer to people who aren’t in our group, we deserve every bit of our decline, and I hope it goes quickly so that our resources can be transferred to people who will make better use of them than we have.

Has it escaped our collective notice how overwhelmingly white we are? That our Christian denominations are overwhelmingly white while meanwhile our country is becoming less Christian and Christianity is becoming less white? Do we not understand that a person of color who comes to a mainline church probably has other good options that will not require them to risk microaggressions from unfamiliar white people?

We need to do better, and we need to make doing better a big priority: bigger than the denomination’s upcoming convention, bigger than the youth group’s mission trip, bigger than wooing millennial hipsters. Frankly, we needed to have made it a big priority a long time ago.

As it happens, we have an upcoming opportunity for some soul-searching, made possible thanks to the work of Christians of color. The African Methodist Episcopal church – a denomination that exists because white-dominated Methodist churches were so racist – has asked religious leaders to make Sunday, Sept. 6, a “Day of Confession, Repentance, Prayer, and Commitment to end Racism.

We have our instructions. We’ve been asked to do something by a predominantly Black denomination, and it’s something we need to be doing anyway. Are we going to do it, even though it’s not as soothing and feel-good as whatever else we probably had planned for that day?

And are we going to commit to it, as we’ve been asked, in ways that extend beyond Sept. 6? Or are we going to fail to respond, again and again?

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  • cranefly

    What is meant by “mainline” and what is meant by “evangelical”? As far as I can tell, those categories overlap by a significant portion. Sorry, not a thoughtful comment but clearly a concrete distinction was made for the purposes of the study (link broken, btw).

  • Jim Reed

    I suppose you could ask them. The evangelicals are the ones who say they are evangelical. The others are the ones who say they are not evangelical.

  • Diomedes

    Interesting that the term “mainline” is used by American Protestants to make themselves sound like the majority of Christianity while ignoring that the two largest denominations of Christianity are Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy (The single largest Protestant denomination, the Baptist Church, has approximately 200 million fewer adherents than the collective Eastern Church).

  • Kim Fabricius

    … or the ones evangelicals say they are not evangelical.

    Jeez, what an appalling state of affairs. Here in the UK, the Church Times reports that in the recent General Election, 13% of the members of the C of E voted for UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party), whose main selling point was being anti-immigration (though, of course, “we are not racist”).

  • Camera Obscura

    Link didn’t work when I tried it. Can’t comment on the study if I can’t read the report. With those reported percentages I’d like to see more of the data and commentary on it.

    I wonder how those percentages would compare with the world of business, the media, academia, the law, etc. when the subject of a similar study.

  • Jim Reed

    In this country we have a growing divide. Evangelicals are proud to call themselves evangelicals because it makes them feel better than the others, and as the evangelicals get more crazy the others are proud to point out they are not evangelicals.

  • Lisa

    Link works now–thanks for letting us know. And look forward to your response…

  • DavidHarley

    I’m an immigrant, but my sense is that Catholics and the Orthodox would count as “mainline”. Hence the use of “mainline Protestant” to describe the large, well-established Protestant denominations, which are relatively liberal, on the whole — Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Methodists. Some smaller Protestant denominations might be included.

    “Baptist” is not a very useful category. Southern Baptists, especially since the denomination was taken over by fundamentalists, are now very different from Baptists in the North, on the whole.

  • DavidHarley

    However, the Southern Baptists have pretty much ceased being evangelical since the fundamentalists took them over.

    Those fundamentalists who shifted, in part to have a louder political voice such as the Moral Majority, also modified some positions such as total condemnation of alcohol. However, the marginalizing of the relatively liberal leadership of the SBC (e.g. women preachers; against segregation) was a careful political ploy.

    Formerly evangelical congregations have been transformed so that now the Bible reading and experiential narratives of members count for nothing. Authority has been transferred to the texts chosen by the pastor, his exegesis of them, and his authoritative declarations.

  • Jay K

    Last 3 links are still broken, unfortunately.

  • DavidHarley

    Most of my friends in this town are African refugees. It is interesting to watch the difficulty they have connecting with the denominations in which they grew up.

    People who were churchwardens, elders and the like in Nairobi are looked upon with scorn or pity. They are no longer bank managers but taxi drivers. People who were brought up as Catholics in South Sudan are looked upon as freaks. The only mental category in which they can be placed is objects of charity.

    They leave the liberal congregations which brought them into the US because, for example, they feel uneasy with gay elders or lesbian pastors. The African-American churches seem theologically absurd and the music is unfamiliar, so they head for the Episcopalian, Presbyterian or Catholic churches. In both types of church, they are treated as if they were African-Americans, and made to feel unwelcome. In the latter two, the absence of black faces makes them uneasy.

    It has taken quite a while to find a Catholic church where my daughter feels comfortable. The liberal churches don’t mind her skin quite so much, but there are few children.

    If we pay attention, we are familiar with the schools and housing being more segregated that they were in 1960. Most people do not notice that Sunday is the most segregated day of the week.

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  • lsomers

    Mainline American Churches is really White Protestant Churches; that are not fundamentalist, evangelical (in the loud, negative and hostile sense of the majority so named). Most of these, Mainline Churches, are the churches that like their former members are mostly white, mostly reasonably well educated (at least HS), and rather quite satisfied with themselves and their place in the world. Not the kind of people Jesus would hang out with if the Gospels are any indication of whom he chose for friends.

  • Jim Reed

    That might be overcomplicating things. The real problems started a few decades ago when the majority of American Christians sold out to the Republican party. That should still be the dividing line. The problem churches are those that are majority Republican.

  • Pew has released a report on what the most racially diverse religious groups are. Groups that are generally considered more conservative and evangelical (Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims) are the most diverse.

    Here’s the link:

    http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/07/27/the-most-and-least-racially-diverse-u-s-religious-groups/

  • Oscar77

    Apparently, the Seventh-Day Adventists don’t need to pay attention to the instructions given about Sept 6, which is just as well because they don’t keep Sunday anyway. And they are the most diverse of all Christian religions.

  • dogged

    “Do we not understand that a person of color who comes to a mainline church probably has other good options that will not require them to risk microaggressions from unfamiliar white people? ”
    That line reminded me in a less-than-subtle way that the mainline Protestant denominations are chock-full-of leadership oozing with the ole White Liberal Guilt Complex. Their executive council meetings are like MSNBC roundtables: Panels ideologically in a “diversity spectrum” ranging from left-liberal to left-liberal discourse within their “It’s all about Race all the time” mantra.
    It is any wonder that their membership is in a stampede—-right out the front door?

  • Scott Bouldrey

    First, thank you for posting a link to a research article that we are not allowed to read fully unless we’re willing and/or able to spend at least $25. It makes verifying your conclusions that much easier.

    So, I am left with some questions.

    For instance, did the author of the study consider any other reason for non-response to the letter other than assumed race?

    Allow me one example. Three years ago I officiated 8 funerals in 10 days (7 of the 8 were members of the church I was serving). During that I didn’t respond to any emails at all; not even from family and friends. And with the number of emails I used to get (from, say, I don’t know, someone like Christianity Today spamming me for a subscription to their magazine) on a daily basis, that email could have gotten buried in a hurry. There were times when I would discover emails a couple of months after they were originally sent. Many times I would just consider the real possibility that that proverbial ship had sailed and not respond at all. Let’s supposed I did get one of those emails at that time and didn’t respond at all; would the author qualify my non-response as racism, or did s/he follow up with those who didn’t respond in order to clarify?

    Again, I couldn’t read the study. So I don’t know. If you can answer these questions I would appreciate it.

  • FA Miniter

    Bravo.

  • the53rdpercent

    It’s ironic that mainline congregations are generally more supportive of social justice policies, while preferring to keep minorities at arms length. On the other hand, evangelical and lower denomination churches tend to be more socially and politically conservative, yet more comfortable relating to minorities on a personal level, and much browner in general.

  • Peter

    A sincere response to your question–you don’t find it odd that “For every 100 churches that responded to white-sounding names, only 89 responded to black names. 86 responded to Latina/o names. And an abysmal 72 responded to Asian names.”? I mean, truly, in your heart of hearts, this sounds to you like, happenstance? Pure unfortunate coincidence? If your answer to these questions is in fact that you do think they are a mere coincidence, then you are part of the problem–a refusal to believe what is happening in the world around you.

  • andrew123456789

    The more racially diverse, the more anti-gay. I do find this dynamic to be strange and interesting.

  • Abide

    that’s crap. look at fundamentalist churches – they’re monolithic and homophobic. there are few racially-diverse churches, but those that are have people who live to get along with each other by respecting differences, not trying to get rid of them. it’s the funies that want to get rid of them.

  • Jurgan

    “Jong Soo Kim?” Come on, guys, there are more Presbyterians in South Korea than the U.S. Why would they not be welcome?

  • Nick

    I mean, I don’t want to say useless, that seems harsher than I prefer, but the minority with the most extreme positions is controlling the conversation. When nobody knows what you stand for because all the crazies are the one doing the shouting, they get to decide.

  • Wonder

    you know, you two are agreeing past each other.

  • Wonder

    “I wonder how those percentages would compare with the world of business,
    the media, academia, the law, etc. when the subject of a similar study”

    likely similar.
    And that is the problem

  • Jim Reed

    My problem with the whole thing is it is easy for fundamentalists to blame other fundamentalists. It is more black and white when you frame it as did the people of your church vote more for Republicans or Democrats.

  • Wonder

    plenty of nice, well-meaning white Democrats engage in these sort of unreflective white-supremacist assumptions & behaviors.

  • Jim Reed

    But it is the Republican voters, both well meaning and not well meaning, that are destroying our country.

  • Camera Obscura

    Of course it is the problem, that religious people who should be doing better aren’t. Unlike business, the media, academia, the law, etc. religion contains both the requirement to try to do better, the reason to continue to try to do better and the command to keep trying. If religion fails sometimes, those institutions that either don’t contain those commandments or reject them have nothing to prevent them from doing worse. That is what I think the result of increasing secularization will be, to remove any cultural vestige of the religious encouragement to do better and the force to try to.

  • Camera Obscura

    I doubt Seventh-Day Adventists are more diverse than Catholics.

  • Oscar77

    Read the study posted by Daniel above.

  • Camera Obscura

    Considering the majority of Catholics live in Latin America, Africa and Asia, that study is irrelevant to the assertion.

  • Jim Reed

    You have to cut them some slack because when you drop the traditional beliefs of the crazies, it becomes really questionable what beliefs are left. How can they communicate what they stand for when they probably don’t know?

  • andrew123456789

    I don’t know what you mean by crap. I’m simply going by the data provided in the article. Maybe I should have said “responsive to racially diverse names.” The point I was paying attention to, however, was that the fundies and the Catholics were the ones most likely to respond to every letter equally. The mainline Protestant churches, which the writer is admonishing here, are more likely to be accepting of queer people, but according to the data presented here, less likely to be welcoming to racially diverse inquirers. Was I too vague? Or is this just a misunderstanding caused by too many White Russians?

  • “Risk microaggressions.”

    These ridiculous infantilizations of blacks and other minorities are almost as racist as overt racism. What are they? Fragile flowers?