Evangelicals Take on Race Relations

Article excerpt

Byline: Larry Witham

Evangelical Christians are talking more openly about race relations in the United States, but three new books by supporters of the good-faith discussion say that even such cutting-edge efforts at racial reconciliation are not breaking down the barriers.

"Evangelicals are above and beyond most groups in making efforts at this reconciliation," said Christian Smith, a sociologist and co-author of the book "Divided by Faith."

"Their great intentions, however, can't overcome the fact that they are every bit as much the problem as they are the solution," he said.

The book, based on extensive surveys, found that evangelical belief in individualistic salvation and the ease of winning members by the "market niche" of a racial group reinforces racial separation in evangelical culture.

"Just making friends with someone of another race doesn't seem to change the structure of the religion," Mr. Smith said.

Mr. Smith, who teaches at the University of North Carolina, wrote the book with sociologist Michael Emerson of Rice University. Over the weekend, the book was given a top award by the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.

Phillip Yancey, a best-selling evangelical author and essayist for the leading journal Christianity Today, also has focused on race relations in his recent book, "Soul Survivor."

"The race topic is something that evangelicals don't like to be reminded of," Mr. Yancey said. "The evangelical church was not in the forefront of civil rights and, in fact, dragged its feet."

The book recounts his upbringing in a fundamentalist Georgia church that befriended the Ku Klux Klan and tells how he later was inspired by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

"People in the South don't like the book very much," he said. "They say, `Why do you have to keep opening up old wounds?'"

He said his critics point to Mr. King's many extramarital affairs, but Mr. Yancey said: "We've got to get over who God works with. God only uses flawed human beings. What's worse - that or racism? …