• Gabriel Solomon

Students Are Eager to Talk about Race and Religion

Religion and race provide rich categories of analysis for American history. Neither category is stable. They change, shift, and develop in light of historical and cultural contexts. Religion has played a vital role in the construction, deconstruction, and transgression of racial identities and boundaries. Race is a social concept and a means of classifying people. In American history, the construction of racial identities and racial differences begins with the initial encounters between Europeans, Native Americans, and Africans. Christian students rank racism and inequality as a top social concern. Asked to name the three most important issues today, nearly 40 percent said racial justice, about 40 percent said poverty, and another 29 percent named the environment. Caring for children in need (28%) and reducing abortion (26%) followed. Racial categories and religious affiliations influenced how groups regarded each other throughout American history, with developments in the colonial period offering prime examples. Enslavement of Africans and their descendants, as well as conquered Native Americans, displayed the power of white Protestants. With the passing of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the religious, racial, and ethnic diversity of the United States increased further. This religious and racial pluralism in many ways reflects the diversity of America, as does the conflict that comes with it.

Data shines a spotlight on where there are inequities in American life. By measuring the demographics of education, income, hate crimes, incarceration, and more, Americans can make judgments on how government helps people and where it’s lagging. The statistics here cover a variety of topics, from 8th grade reading proficiency to police brutality, and come from agencies like the US Census Bureau and Bureau of Justice Statistics. Most often when scholars of religion in America invoke “race,” they use the term to signal the inclusion of African Americans in their work rather than to mark a sustained engagement of racial categories, concepts, or the functions of race in a given context. Racial categories first emerged as a means of classifying people, and thus the presumed “natural” differences between races were socially and culturally constructed. Similarly, religion and American assumptions about religion are also social constructions. As Europeans “discovered” indigenous peoples around the world, they came to similar conclusions about many of them: if those people practiced something that did not look like Christianity, this meant they had either no religion or a very primitive version of it. Even when scholars address “peoples of color” other than those of African descent as racialized, “race” serves not as an analytical category, but an interpretive shortcut for signaling social marginalization or outsider status, Is religion used to justify racism? Does religion offer hope for erasing inequalities closely tied to race? How often does faith affect people’s view of other races and ethnicities? As the country becomes more ethnically diverse, how will the various faith groups and their public voice effect social and political policy?

In January 1925, The Daily Times, in Longmont, Colorado, covered a rally where Alma White, the founding bishop of the evangelical Pillar of Fire Church was quoted as saying, “I defy anyone that is a true American and a Christian gentleman to find anything wrong with the tenets of the Ku Klux Klan.” While she eventually distanced herself from the Klan, she publicly held to white supremacist rhetoric throughout her life. When the Pillar of Fire Church and Pillar Ministries established the Bay Area school in 1955, the year after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, they named it after her. The church’s denomination eventually moved away from its overtly racist past. But like many Christian denominations grappling with historical racism, its preference throughout the 1970s and ‘80s was to ignore that history, Gross said, not to address it. In 1997, the church issued an appeal for forgiveness for “anything in our past that is short of Christian standards based on God’s Word.” Many denominations have offered similar public statements, particularly the Southern and evangelical branches of mainline denominations that split over slavery. Others who opposed the Civil Rights Movement or refused to ordain Black pastors during the 20th century have also issued statements of public repentance. The Southern Baptist Convention, Presbyterian Church in America, and the United Methodist Church have all publicly apologized for their racist histories. Yet churches are still segregated.

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