Why segregation has asylum in the church

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Eleven o’clock on Sunday morning is America’s most segregated hour. But recent indications suggest that some want to fix America’s last home of segregation: the church.

Former Congressman J.C. Watts recently challenged a Baptist crowd to end segregation and find a way for different races to work together. Preceding this, a Mobile, Alabama, church made headlines for orchestrating a bi-racial church service with the same aim.

If America is to continue making racial progress, we must confront our last bastion of permissible segregation. However, it will take much more than a “let’s just all get along” approach, or showy, sanctified interracial love-ins to end centuries of separate worship. If we can determine the real reason why the church house remains the site of America’s deepest racial divisions, we can understand why demolishing the church’s racial barriers is easier said than done.

Tradition is one reasonable explanation for why blacks and whites in the 21st century church are separated as much as those in the 18th century were. After all, the American church was founded on the principle of racial segregation and black inferiority. Unsurprisingly, once freed from their chains, black Christian converts said, “See ya later,” while white Christians said, “Good riddance.” Today, more than two-thirds of blacks and white evangelicals, born-agains, or Christians, won’t worship under the same roof. However, while church tradition explains the church’s segregated origins, it doesn’t explain its persistence.

It could be that churches merely mirror our neighborhoods. Take neighborhoods which are as racially segregated today as they were in 1980, couple that with America’s culture of convenience and, voila – an explanation: we merely worship at churches in our own neighborhoods. But this doesn’t square with reality. Studies routinely show that churchgoers travel beyond their neighborhoods – an average of 14 miles and up to 100 – to attend church. These two default explanations merely conceal the real reason separate worship remains the American way.

Churchgoers frequently refer to their place of worship as their church “home.” Like home, the church is a place people go to find refuge, to be among people who share the same outlook, the same goals, and the same spiritual desires. That is, people are comfortable at their church because they are among people who understand them.

While they may share the same spiritual desires, black and white church folk worship separately because they have a drastically different racial outlook and don’t share the same goals.

Ninety percent of black churchgoers believe discrimination is a serious problem, while just 60 percent of whites do. One-third more whites than blacks believe that things have got better for black men over the past 10 to 40 years. A majority of blacks say that black neighborhood schools worse than whites. The majority of whites say no.

By margins ranging from 25 percent to 40 percent, whites Christians believe, more than their black counterparts, that blacks are treated equally by the criminal justice system, that police protection is equal in black and white neighborhoods, and that blacks are portrayed fairly in the media. White Christians overwhelmingly believe – by a 30% margin above blacks – that whites are just plain different from racial minorities.

Black and white churchgoers simply do not understand each other and therefore are not comfortable worshiping among each other. Whites don’t understand why racial identity and pursuing racial justice are central to the spiritual life and mission of the black church, while blacks resent the fact that confronting race and racial problems rarely are goals for white congregations.

Thus, separate worship both contributes to and ensures that blacks and whites will continue to move further and further a part, making meaningful conversation about race increasingly more difficult.

If we are to overcome problems associated with divided worship, white churches must make pursuing racial justice a fundamental part of its spiritual mission. Black church folks, on the other hand, must be willing to risk losing one of the last remaining institutions available for openly and honestly discussing racial problems.

Neither solution is as simple as we might hope, and both have far-reaching implications.