- The Elusive Dream: The Power of Race in Interracial Churches
It is often said that 11am on Sunday morning, when many Christians gather for church, is the most segregated hour in America. Indeed, as Edwards notes, “[I]nterracial churches, where no racial group comprises more than 90% of a congregation, make up only 10% of churches in the United States” (15). In this volume, Edwards employs a sociological methodology to examine the role of race in interracial churches, focusing specifically on congregations with African-American and white members. She adds to recent studies, including the work of Emerson, that examine multiracial congregations as organizational alternatives to the dominant patterns of religious and racial division.1 Although Edwards pursues a similar research agenda, her results temper her optimism. Combining evidence from her own in-depth congregational study with survey data from the National Congregations Study, Edwards argues that interracial congregations frequently perpetuate white privilege and reaffirm whiteness, despite their professed desire to challenge this bias.2
Edward’s attention to the social production of whiteness in interracial churches is a welcome addition to congregational studies. The types of questions raised in this book should resonate beyond what is at times a narrow subfield of sociology, even for historians and other scholars who might not share its methodology. In her examination of how “race works to reproduce white hegemony,” Edwards touches on themes of [End Page 470] diversity, inclusion, and difference through the lens of power, constraint, and concession. She measures whiteness primarily in terms of congregational practices, which include worship styles, race-related discussions, and community and political involvement. Using these measures, Edwards proposes that interracial congregations are more like white churches than African-American churches. Some historians might take issue with the use of religious habits or cultural styles as markers of racial identities. Historically, congregational practices have varied among both African-American and white churches. To her credit, Edwards recognizes this variation and provides a brief historical overview on race and religion in the United States in her introduction. She also does a wonderful job of describing differences among both African-American and white members in the congregation that she studied. Nonetheless, not everyone will agree that she accounts adequately for those historical variations in her sociological description of whiteness.
Edwards’ argument could have been strengthened with a more sustained analysis of class within a broader view of American religious history. She gestures in this direction when she cites the work of Ignatiev, which describes how Irish Catholics used whiteness as a strategy of economic mobility.3 But she could have pursued that angle further, especially given the fact that interracial congregations are overwhelmingly middle-class. Do African Americans participate in congregations that perpetuate whiteness in an effort to achieve or sustain a certain economic status? Work in anthropology on race and class, such as that of Roediger on whiteness, in addition to Verba’s work in political science on “Anglo-white civic skills” (although Harris and others contest this category), could add insight to an already fascinating study.4 As suggestive as it is conclusive, the Elusive Dream should be required reading for anyone interested in the relationship between race and religion in America.
1. Michael O. Emerson and Rodney M. Woo, People of the Dream: Multiracial Congregations in the United States (Princeton, 2006); Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (New York, 2000).
2. Mark Chaves, National Congregations Study, data file and codebook, Dept. of Sociology (Univ. of Arizona, 1998).
3. Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White (New York, 1995).
4. David R. Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (New York, 1991); Sidney Verba, Kay Lehman Schlozman, and Henry E. Brady, Voice and Equality: Civic Voluntarism in American Politics (Cambridge, Mass., 1995); Frederick C. Harris, Something Within: Religion in African-American Political Activism (New York, 1999).