Depending on your particular demographic, the question of whether or not white Christians in the United States are racist has either an obvious answer for you or it’s viewed as an inflammatory question. Of course, for some of us, the answer is much more complex. How do you define racism? Does a person actively need to engage in deliberate prejudicial practices in order to classify as a racist? Does denying the existence of systemic racism count? Or does merely being apathetic about racial injustice qualify as a racist disposition? In this post, we will take a look at the more significant research on Christianity and racism, and then we’ll let you decide if white Christians in America are more prone to racism than the general public.
White Christian Apathy Toward Racism
Activist Brian McLaren once wrote,
“Here in the United States we see large sectors of the Christian community associated with American hyperconfidence, white privilege, institutional racism, civil religion, neocolonialism, and nationalistic militarism—often fortified by a privatized faith in a privatized national/tribal god.”
Assuming his observations are correct, is there any historical evidence to suggest that American white Christians have been responsible for perpetuating racial inequality.
According to Darren Slade, the historical evidence does, in fact, exist. In his recent book publication entitled, The Logic of Intersubjectivity, Darren suggests that self-professed Christians have bought into an American exceptionalism narrative that has trained them to believe people are responsible for their own fortunes and, therefore, should not blame institutionalized prejudices for their inability to attain upward economic or social mobility. The result is social apathy.
Indeed, according to a 2004 report, two-thirds of evangelicals do not believe the government has an obligation to help improve the lives of the black community and over one-third believe too much money has already been spent on the problem of racism. Nearly half simply believe African-Americans ought to overcome prejudice on their own and four-fifths believe blacks ought to “work their way up” in society without the backing of government policies. Likewise, over half of evangelicals believe blacks lack the motivation to pull themselves out of poverty and almost three-quarters do not think the impoverished plight of blacks is due to discrimination.
Today, the number of white Christians who don’t think racism is a problem in America has only increased. Back in 2019, a Barna poll showed that only 40% of white Christians believed America has a race problem. In 2020, the number plummeted to just 33%. This data means that only 1-in-3 Christians think the United States has trouble with racism. Astonishingly, 1-in-4 (23%) white Christians do not believe the United States has historically oppressed minorities! The implications are not surprising. Now, 36% of white Christians (and 30% of Christians overall) are either unmotivated or not at all motivated to address racial injustice in American society.
Of course, black Christians are twice as likely to see a race problem than their white counterparts. When asked what causes racism, 61% of white Christians fault individuals and their poor choices, as opposed to 66% of black Christians who attribute the problem to systemic institutional oppression built into the society.
The Modern History of Christians and Racism
The most obvious instance of racism within the church was during the slave trade. David Livingstone Smith explains how some Christians declared African men and women to be soulless beasts and, therefore, they were under no obligation to offer Africans the church’s sacraments. Other Christians justified the enslavement of blacks and Native Americans by suggesting they were pre-Edenic creatures (or leftover refuse from the deluge) and, thus, were not truly human at all. Still other Christians cited the “curse of Ham” (Gen 9:22–25) as evidence that God had destined Africans to be slaves. Regardless of the excuse, these were mere rationalizations that allowed white Christians to condone or support the enslavement of human beings by other Christians.
Equally, when it came to the morality of Christians owning, trading, or mistreating black slaves, David Whitford and Katharine Gerbner explain that many of the justifications for slavery appealed to higher spiritual purposes, such as insisting that only through slavery could Africans receive salvation in Christ or learn of the Bible (note: they were not permitted to read the Bible for themselves). Christians routinely cited Scripture, particularly the New Testament, to pacify slaves into obedience to their masters.
When it comes to racism in the 20th century, what is not widely recognized is that white religious leaders initially entered American politics in order to promote racial segregation. As Darren argues, district courts in the 1970s denied the tax-exempt status of Christian “segregation academies,” such as Bob Jones University, because they discriminated against African-Americans. These rulings prompted the burgeoning Religious Right to seek changes in federal anti-segregation laws. The basis for the conservative religious movement, then, was not abortion or same-sex marriage. It was a belief that religious liberty should grant the freedom to discriminate against segments of the American population. In the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement, however, religious conservatives realized that overt racism was no longer acceptable outside of the South. Thus, they hid their discriminatory agenda behind a number of emotionally-infused issues in order to galvanize, polarize, and distract religious voters. Jerrold Packard explains,
With few exceptions, Southern Protestants defended segregation as strongly in the mid-twentieth century as they had slavery in the mid-nineteenth. As it remained quiet about race riots, and as it did the same in questions of lynching, so, too, did the voice of the Southern church remain silent about the primal Christian command to love one’s neighbor….American Protestantism before the civil rights revolution stood foursquare, shoulder to shoulder, and homily to homily as a defender of white supremacy.
The Republican Party, in turn, capitalized on the situation by politicizing Southern sentiments, masking their other political agenda in the process (e.g. tax cuts for the rich, elimination of environmental and free-market regulations, voter suppression of minority groups, etc.). Prior to this time, Republicans had no stance on abortion and avoided religious talk altogether. Consequently, while objecting to abortion and homosexuality are now hallmarks of the conservative base, the reality is that the Religious Right was originally animated by a cultural grievance against social equality. Eventually, a mutual co-opting occurred where the Republican Party exploited the fears of religious Southerners while the Religious Right exploited the Republican Party’s willingness to endorse segregation.
Indeed, when at the looking at the history of Christianity’s involvement in American racism, there is ample evidence that people of faith have helped construct and sustain racial injustices throughout America’s history up to the present day, whitewashing much of the church’s involvement in the process.
So, are Most White Christians Racist Today?
It depends on how you interpret the data.
Today, significant percentages of evangelicals continue to believe racism does not exist, as well as believe that blacks are inherently unintelligent and lazy, oppose laws that protect racial minorities, and object to having neighbors of a different race. A 2017 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) published the following data:
~60% of white Protestants and 48% of white Catholics do not believe blacks face a lot of discrimination in America.
~White Americans (55%) were somewhat less likely than Hispanic (66%) and black Americans (67%) to oppose religiously based service refusals.
~Only half (50%) of white Americans believe blacks face a lot of discrimination, while roughly as many (47%) say this is not the case.
~Republicans (the party to which most white evangelicals belong) largely reject the idea that black Americans face a great deal of discrimination today. Fewer than one-third (32%) of Republicans believe blacks face a lot of discrimination in society, compared to roughly two-thirds (65%) who say they do not. In contrast, nearly six-in-ten (58%) political independents and more than three-quarters (77%) of Democrats agree blacks experience a great deal of discrimination.
This data is backed up by recent public opinion polls that reveal white Christians are consistently more likely than religiously unaffiliated whites to deny the existence of structural racism. In 2018, PRRI released a report showing that white Christians — including evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics — are twice as likely as religiously unaffiliated whites to say the killings of black men by police are isolated incidents rather than part of a pattern of how police treat African Americans. And white Christians are about 30 percentage points more likely to say monuments to Confederate soldiers are symbols of Southern pride rather than symbols of racism. White Christians are also about 20 percentage points more likely to disagree with the statement that generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions making it more difficult for blacks to work their way out of poverty.
In fact, one 2010 publication from Social Psychological and Personality Science entitled, “Priming Christian Religious Concepts Increases Racial Prejudice,” found that people subliminally “primed” with Christian words reported more negative attitudes about African-Americans than those primed with neutral words.
According to Ronald Sider in his book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience:
~A 1989 Gallup poll showed that 11% of white Catholics and non-evangelical Protestants, as well as 16% of white Mainline Protestants, 17% of evangelicals, and 20% of Southern Baptists would object to having black neighbors.
~White conservative Protestants are more than twice as likely as other whites to blame a lack of equality between blacks and whites on a lack of black motivation rather than discrimination.
~Conservative Protestants are 6 times more likely to cite lack of motivation than unequal access to education.
What’s the Lesson?
Readers might wonder if the issue of racism is really a “Christian” or a “religious” concern. But as Bruce Fields explains, “Because the issue of racism still exists in our society, it still exists in the church.” And hopefully we can all agree that racism should be eradicated wherever it is found, particularly among God’s people. Sadly, as one recent sociological study revealed, church attendance today does little to bridge social, economic, racial, or sexual ties between church-goers and other minority groups. Indeed, increased religiosity is associated with lower levels of empathy in children and a lack of concern for social justice. Sadly, as Robert Jones relates in his book, White Too Long, attending church more often is positively correlated with increased racism among white evangelicals, not less.
We will let you decide for yourself whether you think the data warrants labeling the majority of white Christians as “racist” or if the answer is a bit more complex. But there should be no mistake about what the data exposes when it comes to Christianity. The numbers indicate a strong link between the American church and white supremacy (whether that connection is theological, social, cultural, institutional, or whatever). Some of the top white Christian leaders in our country have made an unholy alliance with political ideologies that have promoted the segregation, suppression, and marginalization of minority voices. Indeed, because white Christians have overwhelmingly aligned themselves with President Trump and the pro-Trump Republican Party, they have (unwittingly?) committed themselves to alt-right white nationalist organizers and media outlets, as well. And if history has taught us anything, it is that these kinds of alliances result in the same style of racial injustices practiced during Jim Crow and the American apartheid.
As Michael Emerson and Christian Smith conclude in their book, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, “White evangelicalism likely does more to perpetuate the racialized society than to reduce it” (p. 170).
It should be noted that much of Christianity’s passive acquiescence to the Third Reich’s plan to exterminate European Jews was rationalized away in much the same way that racial injustice is rationalized away today. Indeed, most Catholic and Protestant church leaders in Germany wholly endorsed the Nazi regime and reassured their congregants that their Christian faith was morally compatible with Nazism. Moreover, German chaplains embedded themselves in Nazi killing squads, offering moral and spiritual support to their fellow Christian soldiers as they witnessed them commit murder. Not surprisingly, explains Doris Bergen, some of these chaplains merely excused Nazi-Christian brutality as simply the natural course of war.
The point is that the Christians have a long history of blaming the victims of racial injustice while doing nothing (or saying nothing) to end racism. Perhaps it is time that Christians question their own culpability and identify whether they are, in fact, being racist or (at the very least) allowing racism to flourish.
 Brian D. McLaren, “Church Emerging: Or Why I Still Use the Word Postmodern but with Mixed Feelings,” in An Emergent Manifesto of Hope, ed. Doug Pagitt and Tony Jones (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007), 148. Not surprisingly, then, a “civil religion” to McLaren is often synonymous with white nationalism (Brian D. McLaren, “The Secret Message of Jesus,” Tikkun Magazine, January/February 2006, 20).  See Douglas R. Sharp, “Evangelicals, Racism, and the Limits of Social Science Research,” Christian Scholar’s Review 33, no. 2 (Winter 2004): 245‒55.  David Livingstone Smith, Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2011), 117–19.  David M. Whitford, The Curse of Ham in the Early Modern Era: The Bible and the Justifications for Slavery (New York: Routledge, 2016), https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315240367; Katharine Gerbner, Christian Slavery: Conversion and Race in the Protestant Atlantic World (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018), https://doi.org/10.9783/9780812294903.  Even Jerry Falwell, Sr. advocated for racial segregation and Jim Crow laws in the South before it became expedient not to do so. In a 1958 speech, Falwell remarked, “The true Negro does not want integration. He realizes his potential is far better among his own race….We see the Devil himself behind [integration]. It will destroy our race eventually” (quoted in “The Nation’s Best Bible College Gets Low Grades on Racial Diversity,” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 31 [Spring 2001]: 43). See also Susan Harding, The Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 25‒26.  For the political realignment of the South toward Republicans, see Frances Fitzgerald, The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017), 319‒36 and John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America (New York: The Penguin Press, 2004), 249‒69.  On the Religious Right’s historical involvement in politics, see William Martin, With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America, rev. ed. (New York: Broadway Books, 2005); Glenn H. Utter and John W. Storey, The Religious Right: A Reference Handbook, 3rd ed. (Millerton, NY: Grey House Publishing, 2007), 1‒76; and Mark Labberton, “Introduction: Still Evangelical?” in Still Evangelical? Insiders Reconsider Political, Social, and Theological Meaning, ed. Mark Labberton (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2018), 1‒17.  Jerrold M. Packard, American Nightmare: The History of Jim Crow (2002; repr., New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2003), 159; emphasis in original.  See Richard G. Kyle, Evangelicalism: An Americanized Christianity (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2006), 167‒220; Robert Wuthnow, After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007), 171; and Andrew R. Lewis, The Rights Turn in Conservative Christian Politics: How Abortion Transformed the Culture Wars, Pbk. ed. (2017; repr., New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018), esp. 1‒28.  For details, see Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman, Holy Terror: The Fundamentalist War on America’s Freedoms in Religion, Politics, and Our Private Lives (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1982); Sara Diamond, Spiritual Warfare: The Politics of the Christian Right (Cheektowaga, NY: Black Rose Books, 1990); Doug Frank, Less Than Conquerors: The Evangelical Quest for Power in the Early Twentieth Century (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2009); Daniel K. Williams, God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010); Masood Ashraf Raja, The Religious Right and the Talibanization of America (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016); and Micklethwait and Wooldridge, The Right Nation, 27‒128.  For instance, the Religious Right secured the Presidential election of Ronald Reagan whose administration, in turn, actively defended Bob Jones’ discriminatory practices before the Supreme Court. See Randall Herbert Balmer, “Critical Junctures in American Evangelicalism (IV): The Rise of the Religious Right,” Ashland Theological Journal 38 (2006): 67‒75. Cf. David K. Ryden, “Evangelicals and the Elusive Goal of Racial Reconciliation: The Role of Culture, Politics, and Public Policy,” in Is the Good Book Good Enough? Evangelical Perspectives on Public Policy, ed. David K. Ryden (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2011), 205‒24.  Jemar Tisby, The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019).  See the statistics in Robert P. Jones, Daniel Cox, and Rachel Lienesch, Who Sees Discrimination? Attitudes on Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, Race, and Immigration Status: Findings from PRRI’s American Values Atlas (Washington, DC: PRRI, 2017), accessed April 5, 2018, https://www.prri.org/research/americans-views-discrimination-immigrants-blacks-lgbt-sex-marriage-immigration-reform/; Ronald J. Sider, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience: Why Are Christians Living Just Like the Rest of the World? (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005), 24‒26; Christian Smith, Christian America? What Evangelicals Really Want (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000), 209‒12, 221‒22; Sharp, “Evangelicals, Racism, and the Limits of Social Science Research,” 240‒45; and Emerson and Smith, Divided by Faith, esp. 69‒91.  Bruce L. Fields, Introducing Black Theology: Three Crucial Questions for the Evangelical Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 53.  See Stephen M. Merino, “Religious Involvement and Bridging Social Ties: The Role of Congregational Participation,” Socio-Historical Examination of Religion and Ministry 1, no. 2 (Fall 2019): 291–308, https://doi.org/10.33929/sherm. 2019.vol1.no2.10.  Jean Decety et al., “The Negative Association between Religiousness and Children’s Altruism Across the World,” Current Biology 25, no. 22 (2015): 2951‒55, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2015.09.056.  See Brian D. McLaren, “Why I’ll Be in Charlottesville this Weekend,” Brian McLaren Blog, August 11, 2017, https://brianmclaren.net/why-ill-be-in-charlottesville-this-weekend/.  Robert Michael, Holy Hatred: Christianity, Antisemitism, and the Holocaust (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 164–79.  Doris L. Bergen, “Between God and Hitler: German Military Chaplains and the Crimes of the Third Reich,” in In God’s Name: Genocide and Religion in the Twentieth Century, ed. Omer Bartov and Phyllis Mack (2001; repr., New York: Berghahn Books, 2010), 123–38.