Are Churches Making Americans More Racist?

Resurrection Baptist Church in Kannapolis, North Carolina held a 'Blue Lives Matter' event. Image: WBTV

America recently witnessed another display of the power of white supremacy in the failure to indict the murderers of Breonna Taylor. This summer of racial reckoning now trails into an election with numerous implications for racial justice.

And while all of these events have raised awareness of systemic racial injustice, and white Christians are more likely to admit that the U.S. has historically oppressed minorities, they’re less likely than one year ago to say that the country currently has a race problem. In fact, despite the number of whites participating in the mass protests this summer, fewer white Christians say they are motivated to address racial injustice. This information should lead scholars, theologians, and church leaders to ask: are churches making people more racist?  

It comes as no surprise that in a recent favorability survey, now just two months before the election, seven in ten white evangelicals hold favorable views of President Trump. This is consistent with the infamous 81% of white evangelicals who voted for him in 2016 and will likely do the same again. What might be more surprising is that despite his authoritarian impulses, overt racist statements, and obvious pandering to conservative Christians, nearly half of white mainline Christians still view him favorably. This means that six in ten white Christians hold favorable views of Trump—a much higher rate than for Biden—compared to just 35% of non-white Christians and 25% of religiously unaffiliated Americans.

Even after a summer of anti-racist protests, continued visible expressions of racial injustice, and renewed calls for action, a majority of white Christians still support an openly white supremacist president who, as recently as this week, effectively endorsed a white supremacist group. And whether that Christian is conservative or mainline makes less difference than whether they’re Christian or not. Something about Christianity itself, in all its varieties, pulls people toward white supremacist ideology, and progressive theology or philosophy doesn’t appear to offer much resistance. 

These are truths far too apparent to African Americans, yet one with which few whites are willing to reckon. As James Baldwin clearly recognized: 

“White America remains unable to believe that black America’s grievances are real; they are unable to believe this because they cannot face what this fact says about themselves and their country.”

The power of whiteness affects all white people, and also shields us from seeing those effects. To make the point as bluntly as I can: all white people are implicated in and benefit from white supremacy. Yet, we white progressives are clever obfuscators, especially white progressive Christians, who are most likely to see ourselves through white-washed lenses. 

In the wake of each of the far-too-many incidents of racialized violence over the past few years I see conservative and progressive Christian writers alike use the term “white supremacist” to refer almost exclusively to individual agents or groups. We have been taught to see racism as the product of bad actors: Dylann Roof at Mother Emanuel, Officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on the neck of George Floyd. 

Yet, individualizing “white supremacist” as a bad actor allows white people—conservative and liberal alike—to distance ourselves from the white supremacy that engulfs us all. As White Fragility author Robin DiAngelo observes, the more one believes that racism is wrong, the less likely one is to acknowledge their own complicity in it, and the more defensive one becomes when confronted with it.

Even progressive whites who know deeply that racism exists beyond a few bad apples—that it’s a system, an invisible institution that lurks beyond and within our policies and programs, limiting opportunities for minority communities, constructing impediments to minority bodies to gain the same access to healthcare and housing, employment opportunities and education—are loath to take the big steps necessary to change those systems. 

I write this as a white progressive. And I, like many others, responded hopefully to significant changes in beliefs among white Americans regarding systemic discrimination following the Floyd protests. While surveys demonstrate a changing white America becoming “woke” to the systemic nature of police brutality and mass incarceration, and responding favorably (for the first time) to the Black Lives Matter movement—and this is indeed good news—other studies suggest that white Democrats are still wary of significant or costly proposals to reduce racial inequality. 

As a recent poll discovered, “even since Floyd’s death, white Democrats have been fairly opposed to giving reparations to the descendants of enslaved people. . . . And on a wide range of other policy ideas intended to address racial inequality, white Democrats are fairly tentative.” We’re willing to march, to protest police discrimination, to call out racist individuals for their sins. But when it comes to sacrificing something for the collective repair of 400 years of white supremacy, white progressives fall woefully short.

I also write this as a white Christian theologian, and as recent research suggests, white Christians are more racist than any other white religious or nonreligious group. To answer the question I posed at the beginning: the truth is that Christianity as currently practiced in white churches does make people more racist. And just as the political data suggest, this is not only true for the white conservatives or evangelicals who typically shoulder most of the blame.

Religion scholar and data expert Robert P. Jones created a Racism Index, controlling for factors external to religious tradition and including questions about beliefs in systemic racism, Confederate monuments, and racial wealth gaps. His results found that mainline and progressive white Christians scored over 50% more racist than white religiously unaffiliated—only slightly better than white evangelicals. As Jones puts it in White Too Long, the differences between conservative and progressive Christians when it comes to views on systemic racism are “largely differences of degree rather than kind.” This is not to set up a false equivalence between the Christian Left and the Christian Right, only to suggest that the overt expressions of racism on the Christian Right are supported by the polite racism of the Christian Left. White supremacy doesn’t require displays of hatred, just the willingness to benefit from the privilege it confers.

In my book, Witnessing Whiteness, I argue for the Christian theological roots of white supremacy. What this means is that Christians have a special responsibility to do something about it. But most of the time, white progressive Christians shield ourselves from such critiques by claiming that we’re on the side of social justice while evangelicals are the racist ones. However, just as political data suggest the intrinsic racism of the political Left, so too do they suggest that there’s something deeply intrinsic to the Christian Left that also cultivates and advances white supremacy. As Kelly Brown Douglas asks, if Christianity has been used for centuries to oppress black people, “Was there not something wrong with Christianity itself?”

White supremacy isn’t something that has seeped into our mainline churches; it’s something we’ve proclaimed to the world. It’s entangled with our theology and has shaped our practices. (Which leads many progressive white churches to consider integration or reconciliation as goals, unaware of the ways this unequally burdens churches of color.) Some deep soul-searching is long overdue, and the work of exorcising white supremacy when it’s so ensconced in our tradition will be painful—if, as Daniel Schultz questions in a recent RD essay, it’s even possible.

The silence about racial injustice in many progressive white churches and the failure to live up to the commitment to equality and justice of political progressivism offer hidden (and sometimes overt) support to the individual white supremacists who are marching in the streets with Confederate flags and or standing outside courthouses with assault rifles or sitting in the Oval Office. 

This deeper, polite white supremacy remains veiled behind our social justice mantras and liberal theologies. None of us is untouched. I am implicated in white supremacy, even if I try daily not to be with all of my strength. And it is in that daily struggle that justice and liberation lie.