Belief  /  Study

Racism Among White Christians is Higher Than Among the Nonreligious. That's no Coincidence.

For most of American history, the light-skinned Jesus conjured up by white congregations demanded the preservation of inequality as part of the divine order.

Over the last several weeks, the United States has engaged in a long-overdue reckoning with the racist symbols of the past, tearing down monuments to figures complicit in slavery and removing Confederate flags from public displays. But little scrutiny has been given to the cultural institutions that legitimized the worldview behind these symbols: white Christian churches.

In public opinion polls, a clear pattern has emerged: White Christians are consistently more likely than whites who are religiously unaffiliated to deny the existence of structural racism.

A close read of history reveals that we white Christians have not just been complacent or complicit; rather, as the nation's dominant cultural power, we have constructed and sustained a project of perpetuating white supremacy that has framed the entire American story. The legacy of this unholy union still lives in the DNA of white Christianity today — and not just among white evangelical Protestants in the South, but also among white mainline Protestants in the Midwest and white Catholics in the Northeast.

For more than two decades, I've studied the attitudes of religiously affiliated Americans across the country. And year over year, in question after question in public opinion polls, a clear pattern has emerged: White Christians are consistently more likely than whites who are religiously unaffiliated to deny the existence of structural racism.

For example, surveys conducted by PRRI in 2018 found that white Christians — including evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics — are nearly twice as likely as religiously unaffiliated whites to say the killings of Black men by police are isolated incidents rather than part of a pattern of how police treat African Americans.

And white Christians are about 30 percentage points more likely to say monuments to Confederate soldiers are symbols of Southern pride rather than symbols of racism. White Christians are also about 20 percentage points more likely to disagree with this statement: "Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for Blacks to work their way out of the lower class." And these trends generally persist even in the wake of the recent protests for racial justice.

As a white Christian who was raised Southern Baptist and shaped by a denominational college and seminary, it pains me to see these patterns in the data. Even worse, these questions only hint at the magnitude of the problem.

To determine the breadth of these attitudes, I created a "Racism Index," a measure consisting of 15 questions designed to get beyond personal biases and include perceptions of structural injustice. These questions included the three above, as well as questions about the treatment of African ...