Slouching toward racial reconciliation

Race Issues
by Janie B. Cheaney

Posted on Monday, November 9, 2015, at 2:28 pm

“The church is still the most segregated major institution in America. At 11 o’clock on Sunday morning when we stand and sing and Christ has no east or west, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation.”

So said Martin Luther King Jr. in December 1963, during the Q&A time after a speech at Western Michigan University. The words resonated then and have survived in some form all the way down to Barack Obama.

In 1963 it was sadly true. These days, less so, and we can thank the Lord and the civil rights movement for needling the conscience of sincere Christians. Race relations have a long way to go yet, but one of the brightest spots on the landscape is the Christian church—or at least, a certain type of Christian church. If you sense that your evangelical congregation is open to racial diversity, you can now point to something more than your own eyes.

Late last month, the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion released its study of “Religion, Race, and Reconciliation: A Field Experiment of How American Churches Welcome Newcomers.” In what may have surprised the researchers, they discovered that evangelical and Catholic churches are significantly more welcoming to racial minorities than mainline Protestant denominations.

The methodology was this: Researchers randomly selected 3,120 congregations from three major Christian groups: Catholic, mainline Protestant (such as the United Methodist Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), evangelical Protestant (such as the Southern Baptist Convention, Churches of Christ, and Assemblies of God). They then sent emails to the contact person for each congregation, with the subject line “Moving to Your Area.” The emails stated that the sender was looking for a church home and asked for particulars about worship times and “any additional information that might be helpful.” Eight separate email accounts were set up under eight different names: two that might be recognized as “white,” two associated with African-Americans (e.g., “Jamal Washington”), two Hispanic, and two Asian. Researchers then tabulated the responses according to promptness, length, warmth, and quality of information. In all three major groups, the “white” names received a more positive response overall. But the study reported that “it was primarily mainline Protestant churches that showed significant variation by race in both the quantity and quality of their responses.”

This shouldn’t be taken as proof that mainline Protestants, liberal in their politics as well as their theology, are all unreconstructed bigots. The researchers speculate that, perhaps, because their churches’ worship tend toward traditional European styles, mainline Protestant pastors sense that racial minorities will be less comfortable in the pews. And that may indeed be a factor. But the researchers cite a deeper distinction between mainliners and evangelicals. The former tend to “emphasize the structural causes of racism” and see individual action as less efficient in solving the problem. But the latter see racism as a result of individual sin: “Thus, racial reconciliation comes with a personal commitment to Jesus and loving interpersonal relationships,” changing society “one heart at a time.”

In other words, the gospel “works.” Changing hearts lead eventually to changing cultures, and the glory is God’s alone. We can thank Him for the scientific reinforcement and keep working toward the reconciliation of all hearts, regardless of color.

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD's annual Children's Book of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.

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