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Denominationalism and Racism

Denominationalism and Racism

In my interaction with Peter Leithart's The End of Protestantism, I have noted times of confusion over Leithart's presentation style. There are many interesting chapters that seem long discourses destined to fizzle in importance. Sometimes it is only much later that a section's relevance becomes clear. There was one such section that seemed rather pertinent and I'd like to spend some time on it.

While discussing "Denominationalism's Dividing Wall" (Chapter 7), Leithart goes in depth on two issues he sees that continue to serve and strengthen American Denominationalism — race and anti-Catholicism. Leithart presents the history of these divides and makes some observations that lead him to believe American Denominationalism is more tribalistic than other parts of the globe. Leithart's own qualifications on the issue are suspect, but thankfully he looks beyond himself in this chapter. He quotes extensively from Michael Emerson and Christian Smith's Divided by Faith : Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. To begin he quotes some generic information about the current climate of American Evangelicalism,

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"The racial division within American churches persists to this day, as nearly 90% of Americans attend racially homogenized churches … From surveys of evangelicals concerning race, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith found that white evangelicals attribute American race problems to three causes: 'prejudiced individuals,' 'other groups—usually African Americans—trying to make raise problems of group issue when there's nothing more than individual problems,' and 'a fabrication of the self-interested—again often African-Americans but also the media, the government, or liberals.'" (91-92)

A secular view would probably mark this as racism itself. Leithart had just finished up a section relating the profound segregation of churches after the conclusion of the Civil War and all roads point to latent racism. But Leithart states that "these simplistic explanations do not reveal latent racism" [emphasis mine]. Yet, Leithart thinks there are many problems with these "simplistic explanation." With Emerson and Smith, Leithart attributes these answers/explanations to the "the racial isolation of white evangelicals and the limitations of their cultural 'tool kit,'"

"Evangelicals engage the world with the tools of accountable freewill individualism, relationalism, and antistructuralism … Using these tools, evangelicals reduce social evils to individual sin. Thus, 'if race problems—poor relationships—result from sin, then race problems must largely be individually based …. the concept of individual sin lies behind many white evangelicals accounts of the race problem' ... Evangelicals find 'structural explanations irrelevant or even wrongheaded'" When structural explanations for racial tensions are introduced, evangelicals often detect the form of blame-shifting, from the individual to the system." (92)

Put simply, evangelicalism's emphasis on personal accountability and responsibility is incapable of perceiving the innate structural issues at the base of America's racial issues. The church's decentralization of responsibility (found in varying degrees across different denominations), renders no one someone else's keeper. This is particularly true concerning matters of race which are only exacerbated by our proficiently segregated churches. Instead of speaking of corporate sin, the theology of the evangelical church demands that personal sin be the answer to race problems.

It cannot be a structural problem, thus any structure that claims such becomes "the other group" with their own problem. This only furthers the homogeneity of race across denominations. Even marked "victories" within American Evangelicalism are marked by how many minorities they have in the church (individualistically centered) — a shoddy substitute for reconciliation of entire churches or groups. And this is where the rubber meets the road for Leithart. Conquering racism is good but uniting the churches divided by racism is Leithart's goal for the church (and the purpose of The End of Protestantism).

For Leithart, the solution is not merely correcting racism but correcting the cultural "tool kit" used by evangelicals. These cultural tools are at the heart of Leithart's criticism of American denominationalism,

"Evangelicals fail to address racial issues in so far as they conform to American presumptions. A long-standing division in the church and society, which typically takes the form of denominational division, becomes intractable because of evangelical inherence to the individualistic assumptions of the American way … To address the racial divisions in the churches more effectively, evangelicals have to repent, not (or not only) of our racism, but of our Americanism." (93)

Leithart, with the help of Emerson and Smith, concludes that "Evangelicals want people to get along" but "the evangelical outlook is 'a powerful means to reproduce contemporary racialism.'" Leithart cannot be accused of being a leftist or liberal. But his criticism of the conservative church's plugged ears surely will not win him fanfare from his target.

For Leithart's vision of a unified church, latent racism and individualism — to a certain extent congregationalism — are unacceptable within the church. But he also argues that to remove one we must work to remove them all. And that he refers to as the goal/purpose/end of Protestantism.

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