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The intersection of religion, politics, and race in America: A Pew Research analysis

Americans remain divided on issues of race and discrimination, as revealed by newly released data from the Pew Research Center. In a recent survey, 53% of Americans believe that people not recognizing discrimination when it exists is a bigger problem, while 45% think that people seeing discrimination where it doesn’t exist is the bigger issue.

These divisions are particularly prominent among religious groups. White Christians, including white Evangelicals (72%), white Catholics (60%), and white Mainline Protestants (54%), are more likely to consider claims of non-existent racial discrimination the bigger problem. In contrast, Black Protestants (88%), non-Christian religious Americans (69%), unaffiliated Americans (64%), and Hispanic Catholics (60%) are more inclined to believe that people not recognizing racism when it exists is the greater concern.

These divides over issues of race have intensified within American Christian communities, reflecting broader societal debates over systemic racism. Political factors play a significant role in shaping these attitudes, with Republicans (74%) more likely to view the perception of non-existent racism as the primary issue, while Democrats (80%) prioritize people not recognizing existing racism.

The study suggests that these divisions are unlikely to disappear, as politics and personal beliefs strongly influence attitudes about race. Some experts argue that addressing these divisions requires a spiritual approach, emphasizing the need for genuine dialogue and reconciliation across political and religious lines. Multi-ethnic churches that promote racial reconciliation through diverse leadership and open discussions are seen as a positive step in addressing these issues, although challenges persist in fostering understanding and unity.

The Roys Report adds:

George Yancey, a professor of sociology at Baylor University, said that other surveys have shown similar divides when it comes to matters of race and discrimination, adding that attitudes changed little even after the protests that were sparked by the death of George Floyd.

Yancey said that churches have done little to resist the influence of politics among their members. “We have taken our overall polarization and we place it into the racial debate,” he said. Politics, rather than their religious beliefs, shape attitudes about race.

He believes similar approaches happen among more progressive religious people, and as a result there’s little listening going on when people talk about matters of race. “I don’t think Christians are the source of polarization,” said Yancey. “But I do think we have not fought against it. We have accepted in and put it into our ministries rather than trying to show concern and care for people who disagree with us.”

Sociologist Michael O. Emerson, who studies religion and public policy at Rice University and co-wrote “Divided by Faith,” an influential 2000 survey of religion and race in America, suspects the trouble is more than politics. In a new book, “The Religion of Whiteness,” due out in the spring, Emerson said he and his co-author argue that the idea of being colorblind — disregarding race as having any impact on life — has become theological.

“It’s not just a ruse for politics,” he said. “It is theological. It is a transcendent reality.”

Emerson said that the religion of whiteness — a distinctly American faith, he said — has a number of symbols, including a white Jesus, the cross, the American flag and firearms. “The only way to address this is a spiritual battle,” he said. “You can’t just use politics to change it.”

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