Abiding Issues Concerning Race and Religion in American Communities
With the recent news items on racial profiling and police actions against African Americans in the United States, a set of questions and problematics burst forward from a productive dialogue between sociological and religious views on the topics of race and diversity. Typically in sociology, those who study race reflect on power, while those who examine religion tend to focus on culture or communities and do not like to concern themselves with questions concerning structures or inequality. As Smith et al. noted recently, mainstream sociology and sociology of religion have historically been at cross-purposes. In the conventional sense, “political” issues like race are public, whereas religion is private. This is a misfortune in recent sociology as a discipline, but a cross-pollination is in order and should be productive for the study of both religion and mainstream sociology. Further, there has been a call to change in the discipline itself. Organizations that are religiously based in America tend to be highly segregated, even today reflecting the adage that Sunday morning worship time is the most racially and ethnically segregated hour of the week.
Some scholars have attempted to examine this problem, most famously Christian Smith and Michael Emerson. Their historical and sociological analysis looked at evangelical Christianity’s ambivalence about racial issues—evoking biblical, cultural, and historical texts while describing statistical trends. Emerson and Smith’s text explores something that resonated in peace studies literature. Like many other social institutions, religion is ambiguous when it comes to social problems like racism and violence. Religion—and, based on Smith and Emerson’s focus, Christianity specifically—is a source of both unity and division. Religion can promote conflict, but it can also be a source of overcoming it. This ambivalence of the sacred has been noted in other cases of conflict throughout the world. Religionists, however, have a certain duty to tap the resources of peace and reconciliation in areas where religion has either been the source of, or has contributed to, division. This is the thesis of a trajectory of recent scholarship, perhaps anticipating geo-political shifts concerning culture and religion that emerged following the events of September 11th. This trajectory began with Marty and Appleby’s work on the fundamentalism project and has extended far beyond looking merely at “resurgent religion.” Inspired by these shifts, scholars have suggested that if religion is a part of social conflict and violence, it must necessarily also be used to justify reconciliation and peace building.
Chesterton’s “Nation with the Soul of a Church”: Good or Bad?
Given the American context with regard to current issues of racism and questions of diversity, I will now explore some of the Christian ideas attached to issues of diversity and race. As an aside (for the purposes of Husserlian or phenomenological bracketing)—statements always come from a location—and I therefore speak from my own confessional position. Christianity on a theoretical level, both biblically and traditionally, posits itself historically to concern itself with the question of difference. One of the issues surrounding this question produced a legacy of supersessionism and anti-Semitism. Biblically, Paul in numerous epistles would contrast the spirit of law and boundaries in a Pharisaical sense with the new Christian spirit of love and hospitality. Law and boundaries were associated with Judaic hostility and exclusion, and Jesus came with the new law of radical inclusion, reducing the numerous laws of the Hebrew tradition to “love God and your neighbor.” In theory, then, Christianity is a religion of radical hospitality and acceptance in contrast to the old law of judgment and exclusion.
The paradox in this theory, also noted in the Orthodoxy of G.K. Chesterton, is that it can never be lived up to—a great religion is thus hardly ever practiced. Christianity is difficult. I would go so far as to say that perfect hospitality is only possible in Jesus himself. Yet his model of engaging in community with (forgive the pop-culture reference), metaphorically speaking, Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People”—eating with tax collectors, prostitutes, and others whom we do not find in the “in crowd,”—is what is so celebrated and needed.
Thinking today of the racial issues that still haunt our society a century and a half after the dismantling of slavery, one cannot but wonder if focusing on beliefs and creedal confessions and culture have divided Christians historically. Beliefs can both unite and divide. Most Protestant churches have conflicts, and Catholic parishes draw dividing lines over worship practices that reflect culture— usually language, style of worship, and music. The spirit of Pentecost represents division instead of unity. Different language means different parishes. The situation is hopefully better, or perhaps different, than they used to be with regard to older forms of racial and ethnic division. I recall two Catholic parishes in the town where I went to graduate school. Irish national and Polish national Catholic churches were literally across the street, but dwindling parishioners meant a jointly administered parish at the time I was living there. The particular cultural and linguistic divides of the first-wave immigrant national parishes are no longer visible, but new divides do form with other cultural barriers.
Judaism and the Question of Difference: A Reminder to Christianity
One admirable aspect of my own anecdotal experiences of contemporary expressions of Jewish ability to entertain conversations around these more internal issues without so much external division. I can attest firsthand that at Shabbat and Passover dinners, disagreement and discussion concerning lively issues of justice and culture are encouraged. Gillian Rose, the social theorist, argued that Judaism in this way has a kind of philosophy open to interpretation, maybe even no theology at all. Christians have this in their tradition, the Eastern fathers referring to apophatic or negative theology, in which powerful arguments and rigid truth claims about the nature of God are eliminated in the mystery of God’s transcendence. How can we possibly accurately define or identify that which is a transcendent mystery?
However, perhaps due to Original Sin, in Christianity most of these questions and arguments concerning ideas and identity return; instead of living up to the Jesus model, Christians spent years of bloodshed riven by creedal divisions over ideas. Today, arguably, Christianity suffers from other forms of division and hostility. What is the paradox regarding open conversation about beliefs with boundaries of ritual? Perhaps it is in action that we are united. Liturgy is also public action, but it may be social service action through which people can reach across congregational and inter-religious boundaries. This notion of the ritual-bound community of God was also a part of the spirit of liturgical movements of the Catholic Church’s Vatican II theology, the impetus behind them being that bodies unite, while internal forms of structure and hostility can divide.
Culture brings with it the beautiful paradox of blending both external practices and internal ideas—norms and values about practices. The social anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s work may provide a way into thinking about emerging culture from the point of view of practices. Geertz referred to religion as not strictly a private “belief” phenomenon but as a cultural system. Cultural religion, emerging in systems of practice and ritual-based ethics, may foster more inclusiveness. Ritual, without the prison of sincerity claims or stern belief policing, may offer a more primitive hospitality. Seligman et al. have spoken to this principle of ritual. Many Christian churches today do implement multicultural elements in their liturgy. But practicing these may well lead to arguments, backlash, or white flight out of parishes/congregations that attempt to implement such changes or other practices inviting minority cultural expression.
Striking the Balance
The major question for religious communities in this day and age is how to balance, on the one hand, the practical call for living with and being rooted in a binding sense of culture with, on the other, practicing local traditions, even while engaging with the experience of and living in community with those who are different from the majority. This is not exclusively a Christian question, nor even one about religion in general. Rather, it is a human question. How do we engage with the “other”? Even if that other is our neighbor, even spouse. It is the fundamental question of human existence.
There is no magic formula or answer. It ultimately falls upon the individual to draw elements from his or her tradition and culture—that bosom that makes us feel so at home and comfortable—and then to go deliberately beyond it to welcome the stranger and encounter the other in his or her community. The paradox of the Abrahamic faiths is this very tension between feeling at home and welcoming the stranger—sameness and hospitality.
This paradoxical human and also religious balance has been particularly jeopardized by modern pressures and dynamics at all levels of human existence: local, national, and international. Sometimes religion is blamed for creating conflict or causing division. But, a good social scientific perspective might interject, most modern conflicts are not necessarily caused by religious, cultural, or racial differences. Rather, material or other obstacles can sometimes exacerbate other forms of conflict. Religion and culture are highly emotional domains—remember the bosom metaphor—and other forms of conflict can take on religious narratives to fuel the flame or conveniently legitimate other forms of perpetuating conflict or discrimination. When this attribute of religion is activated to create conflict or division rooted in social factors, peace studies scholars will stress that it is important for scholars and religious practitioners alike to invest in the narratives of peace, forgiveness, tolerance, hospitality, and “welcoming the stranger.” This is Martin Marty’s parsing in When Faiths Collide, but the delicate nuances of the debates between multiculturalism, pluralism, and tolerance —and their boundaries and limits—have been thoroughly articulated in CEDAR’s initiatives, and published in Adam Seligman’s collection of dialogues in Modest Claims. Inter-religious dialogue narratives and ideologies may have their own limits, however, in relation to intra-religious conflict and cultural-racial division. Lewis Coser and other sociologists have articulated a principle of conflict theory that the closer the original relationship, the more divisive the fight. Heretics, for example, were persecuted more than infidels in the Church’s tradition. Battles on music committees and parish decline over unpopular liturgical changes remain difficult, practical challenges to religious communities and the question of encountering difference.
Living in Community and Engaging Difference
The claims for living in community engaging with difference remain, as stated above, the ultimate human problem in a multicultural society. Given that the United States is increasing in racial and ethnic diversity, shifting demographic patterns are changing the religious landscape. This change will result in both inter- and intra-religious questions about dealing with issues of difference. The “salad bowl” metaphor from debates about multiculturalism largely reflects this need for engaging with difference rather than assimilating it away. One of the abiding issues of understanding religion in a Durkheimian sense is that religion works strongly as a source of the collective conscience—namely, shared norms and values. Implied in Durkheim’s definition of the collective conscience, driven by mechanical solidarity in religious socialization, and largely shaped by the context of his living in Catholic France and studying Aborigines in Australia, is an undergirding sense of homogeneity. The strength of the collective conscience comes from its dense and shared nature. Norms are stronger when they are shared. So the very impulse of religion is this need for shared norms and morals. However, what is critical and fascinating about Durkheim’s definition of religion, given his position in French society, is the fact that he was Jewish in a predominantly Catholic culture. In The Division of Labor and Society he makes the point that is most relevant to large-scale modern life—that being the principle of organic solidarity that binds people together in diversity. Society itself in a modern context is conditioned by diversity. The individual is organically free to bond with those who have similar interests, but at the same time those who are dissimilar are also interdependent. A general notion of the “pre-contractual” trust that undergirds society is what draws people together and makes society possible.
In this Durkheimian mode, Keith Doubt has gone so far as to say that difference constitutes society itself. In his book on Bosnia and Kosovo he frames the postmodern question in the following way: how society is actually destroyed when difference is eliminated in acts of genocide. Genocide is in fact, sociocide. The lesson from these cases is that the postmodern tendency toward ethnic and racial fighting and division constitutes the fundamental problematic of post–Cold War political existence. Though this paper began by addressing the issues faced by America, a nation of multiculturalism and a variety of immigration experiences that differentiate it from other post–Cold War cases, what can be learned from this literature is that the notion of difference constitutes postmodern life. The multicultural society is reflected in different demographic patterns. The vital principles drawn from these inter-religious cases about the question of difference from European and international literature are that the principles of hospitality and pre-contractual trust have both ancient and postmodern roots. Given that, it is important to stress that although it is human to isolate, divide, and conflict, it is also both “anciently” divine and fashionably postmodern to tolerate, and even embrace, the other’s difference.
Sarah MacMillen, a 2004 ISSRPL Fellow, is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Duquesne University.
With thanks to Melissa Stoller.
Appleby, R. Scott. 2000. The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence and Reconciliation. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
Bellah, Robert, ed. 1973. Emile Durkheim on Morality and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Doubt, Keith. 2000. Sociology after Bosnia and Kosovo. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
Emerson, Michael O. and Christian Smith. 2000. Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. New York: Oxford University Press.
Geertz, Clifford. 1977. “Religion as a Cultural System.” In The Interpretation of Cultures. Basic Books. pp. 87-125.
Katongole, Emmanuel. 2011. The Sacrifice of Africa: A Political Theology for Africa. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
Marty, Martin. 2005. When Faiths Collide. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
Rose, Gillian. 1993. “Is there a Jewish Philosophy?” In Judaism and Modernity: Philosophical Essays. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Press. pp 11-25.
Schirch, Lisa. 2004. The Little Book of Strategic Peacebuilding: A Vision and Framework for Peace with Justice. Intercourse, PA: Good Books.
Seligman, Adam B. 2004. Modest Claims: Dialogues and Essays on Tolerance and Tradition. Notre Dame, IN: ND Erasmus Institute Books.
Seligman, Adam B., Robert Weller, Michael Puett, and Bennett Simon. 2008. Ritual and Its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity. New York: Oxford University Press.
Smith, Christian, Brandon Vaidyanathan, Nancy Tatom Ammerman, Jose Casanova, Hilary Davidson, Elaine Howard Ecklund, John H. Evans, Philip S. Gorski, Mary Ellen Konieczny, Jason A. Springs, Jenny Trinitapoli, and Meredith Whitnah. 2013. “Roundtable on the Sociology of Religion: Twenty-three Theses on the Status of Religion in American Sociology—A Mellon Working Group Reflection.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 81:4
Tutu, Desmond. 1999. No Future Without Forgiveness. New York: Random House.
Whitehead, Neil, ed. 2004. Violence. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.
 For more on the tension between American sociology and the study of religion see the quite good roundtable article produced by the American Academy of Religion by Smith et al 2013.
 Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith. 2000. Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. New York: Oxford University Press.
 See Appleby 2000.
 There are many examples of this in recent scholarship. For a few examples: Tutu 1999; Whitehead 2004; Schirch 2004; Marty 2005; Katongole 2011.
 Rose 1993.
 See Geertz 1977.
 Seligman et al 2008.
 Seligman 2004.
 This is explored in the introduction to Durkheim’s social theory edited by Bellah. 1973.
 Doubt 2000.