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How faith communities can help ease racial tension in America
When religious leaders confront tensions between white and black Americans, do congregations follow their lead? - photo by Kelsey Dallas
It's been more than a year since Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Protests in the small Midwestern town have quieted, but debates over the state of American race relations continue in town halls, the media and in faith communities.

Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, knows the complexities of this discussion in religious groups better than most. Since Ferguson, he's been calling on evangelical Christians of all races to heed one another's pain, receiving plenty of hate mail in the process.

"If I didn't receive hate mail on these topics, it would probably be an indication that we had moved past the problem, and that I could write about other things," he said. "But hate mail encourages me to write even more."

Moore longs for a Christian community in which black and white believers work together to end race-related suffering. However, new research highlights how difficult it could be to reach this goal, reporting notable differences in the way Christians of different races view American law enforcement.

Public Religion Research Institute's 2015 American Values Survey, released earlier this month, found that 72 percent of white evangelical Protestants and 73 percent of white mainline Protestants view police killings of African-American men as isolated incidents, rather than part of a broader pattern of discrimination against people of color. Only 13 percent of black Protestants said the same.

Robert Jones, PRRI's CEO, said the gap between the two racial groups was notable, because many white religious leaders, such as Moore, have vocally decried police violence against black men in the wake of Ferguson. If these efforts have little effect on white believers in the pews, he asked, how can faith communities help to ease racial tension in America?

"It doesn't make one hopeful about the prospects of racial reconciliation if white and black Americans aren't even seeing the same problem," he said.

Religious groups, police authority

PRRI's survey also asked about people's confidence in police, further illustrating the gap between black and white Christians.

More than 8 in 10 white evangelical Protestants (85 percent) and 88 percent of white mainline Protestants have a "great deal" or "some" confidence in the police, compared with 52 percent of black Protestants, PRRI reported.

Religiously unaffiliated Americans held views closer to black Christians than white Christians, with 67 percent of the group expressing a "great deal" or "some" confidence in police, Jones said, noting that the result "runs right up against how most pastors would think about it."

Although social status, race, political affiliation and other personal characteristics affect how people respond to police authority, religious practice can also increase acceptance of the use of force by police officers, said Tobin Grant, a professor of political science at Southern Illinois University and the associate editor of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. He wrote on the topic in August for his Religion News Service blog.

Support for the police is higher among people with high social status in their community, such as wealthy or college-educated people, he said. Membership at a well-established, predominately white church can be a factor in heightening one's social status, and it has a small but significant impact on how those Christians relate to law enforcement.

"Even among people with less education, who are usually less inclined to support the use of force by police compared to others, religious practice provides a bump," Grant said, which he determined by controlling for education level and other personal characteristics in an analysis of General Social Survey data.

However, minority religious groups, such as black Protestants or Hispanic Catholics, are less likely than their white counterparts to support the use of force by police, likely because their churches don't enjoy the same social power associated with many large, historical white churches, Grant added.

Additionally, black and Hispanic Americans are more likely to be personally affected by the use of force by police. A special report, released this month by the U.S. Department of Justice, found that 3.5 percent of black Americans report being threatened with the use of force or experiencing it during their most recent encounter with police, compared to 1.4 percent of white Americans.

Sunday segregation

As PRRI's survey and other research illustrates, addressing racial issues within faith communities is a difficult task, and it's complicated even further by the lack of diversity in most congregations.

"Sunday morning continues to be one of the most segregated times in American life," Jones said.

Similarly, Moore noted the need for white and black Christians to come together and learn from one another.

"I think the only way we're going to be able to get beyond (racial tension) is when we have white and black Christians serving one another in the same congregations," he said.

However, diversification efforts will fail if they don't recognize the complex role faith communities play in the lives of many black Americans, said the Rev. Frederick Streets, senior pastor of Dixwell Avenue United Church of Christ and former chaplain at Yale University. He highlighted how predominately black churches drive their members to political and social activism.

For example, in the wake of Ferguson, many black churches led "fundraising projects to help the victims directly impacted by these tragedies and provided spiritual and psychosocial support for individuals and communities," the Rev. Streets said.

Bringing black and white Christians together in worship threatens to disrupt this activism, especially if the focus is on increasing understanding between the two groups, rather than on working together to end racism in the larger community, he added.

Toward reconciliation

Although PRRI's findings are discouraging for faith leaders working to bridge the gap between black and white Christians, Moore said he is optimistic about the future of faith communities.

"I don't think this is something that is going to be solved in six months with a set of initiatives," he said. "Just having conversations (about racial issues) is a good first step."

In March, Moore's organization, the ERLC, hosted a conference titled "The Gospel and Racial Reconciliation," at which white, black, Hispanic and Asian-American evangelical church leaders shared how they're uniting believers from a variety of backgrounds.

"We had pastors who have successfully led their churches in this direction talk about how they did so," Moore said.

For example, a pastor from Texas described how he worked to diversify his nearly all white congregation by changing the church's worship style so it would be more comfortable for potential Hispanic and African-American members. He also met with white churchgoers to explain the importance of integrating new members into congregational roles, Moore said.

"This change did not simply mean a white congregation reaching black and Hispanic people. It had to be a congregation that genuinely shares leadership, not just membership," he said.

As believers become more comfortable addressing difficult subjects like race and police authority, Moore hopes historical divisions between predominately white and black churches will lessen, paving the way toward racially diverse congregations.

According to Moore, the good news for Christians struggling with and stumbling through racial reconciliation is that the Bible describes the way forward.

Reconciling differences "is exactly the problem that the churches (described in) the New Testament faced, which are detailed in the letters from the apostle Paul," he said. Church members were instructed to "count one another as more important than oneself and to bear one another's burdens. That's what we need in our churches."
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