Can Evangelical Christians Become Woke?

Many Christians, in particular Whites and Asian-Americans, are reluctant either to acknowledge or address racial injustice in the U.S. A comprehensive new report details the indifference — and a new group is dedicated to helping church leaders confront it.

The report, called “Beyond Diversity,” is from the Barna Group, a polling firm that does research for and about churches, religious institutions and spiritual leaders on “the intersection of faith and culture.” Combining data and analysis from polling, focus groups and experts, the report was released to coincide with the establishment of the Racial Justice and Unity Center.

“Barna’s mailing list and key constituency is over 100,000 mostly evangelical churches,” said Michael O. Emerson, a sociologist and religion scholar who was a lead investigator for the report. “The report is most directly created for them.”

Many conservative evangelical churches are, to greater or lesser degrees, racially integrated. The report states at the outset that diversity is not a proxy for justice, and that it can lead to complacency in addressing it. “Racial diversity of churches was never to be the end goal; biblical racial justice, reconciliation and authentic unity are the end goals,” it states. “Diversity on its own offers a bit of initial false hope but can actually lead to more harm than good in combatting the problem.”

The foundation of the report is a large (2,889 adults) survey conducted in 2019 of practicing Christians, buttressed by a smaller 2020 survey, 32 focus groups and additional research. Some of the conclusions are blunt. “Overall, these data represent an unwillingness on the part of some groups to admit basic realities of the country’s history,” it states. “On the whole, there is a direct correlation between White American Christian identity and denial of the reality of past racial oppression.”

Sixty-one percent of White practicing Christians say racism is more a result of individual prejudice than something that is “historically built into our society and institutions.” Hispanic respondents split roughly evenly on the question, while Asian-Americans respond more like White respondents. (The 2019 survey was taken before attacks on Asian-Americans gained widespread attention.)

There are sizable generational differences, with Millennials and the younger Generation Z more likely to view racism as a systemic problem. “Christians have been stalling on making racial progress, but there are some hopeful signs — for example, the younger generations,” Emerson said via email.

Yet there is also resistance to acknowledging some obvious signposts of racial injustice. One in five practicing Christians affirmed that they simply “don’t believe” that Black people in general have lower quality “jobs, housing and income.” Likewise, in the summer of 2020, in the midst of Black Lives Matter protests after the murder of George Floyd, one in five said racism is “not at all a problem.”

Only one-third of White practicing Christians expressed high motivation to address racial injustice. The percentage in 2020 who were “unmotivated” (12) or “not at all motivated” (16) to address racial injustice actually increased from 2019.

“For many Christians, Black Lives Matter is a charged or even offensive movement,” writes Dominique DuBois Gilliard, director of racial righteousness and reconciliation for the Evangelical Covenant Church, in an essay accompanying the report. “But at the heart, ‘Black lives matter’ is prophetic proclamation, a theological statement, and I challenge Christians to hear it that way.”

While many churches are polarized along partisan and racial lines, they are likely a more promising venue than the political arena for changing minds about racism. A recent poll from the Public Religion Research Institute found that many people who are both religious and hesitant or resistant to take a Covid-19 vaccine “say faith-based approaches would make them more likely to get vaccinated.”

There is no vaccine against racist attitudes. But church leaders can almost certainly help combat racism — and the potential impact is huge, if only because churches are so ubiquitous. There are about 330,000 houses of worship in the U.S., Emerson pointed out, more than 20 times the number of McDonald’s restaurants. “What happens in and between them,” he said, “matters deeply for the nation.”

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Francis Wilkinson writes about U.S. politics and domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously executive editor of the Week, a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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