- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 21, 2001

Evangelical Christians are talking more openly about race relations in the United States, but three new books by supporters of the good-faith discussion say that even such cutting-edge efforts at racial reconciliation are not breaking down the barriers.
"Evangelicals are above and beyond most groups in making efforts at this reconciliation," said Christian Smith, a sociologist and co-author of the book "Divided by Faith."
"Their great intentions, however, can't overcome the fact that they are every bit as much the problem as they are the solution," he said.
The book, based on extensive surveys, found that evangelical belief in individualistic salvation and the ease of winning members by the "market niche" of a racial group reinforces racial separation in evangelical culture.
"Just making friends with someone of another race doesn't seem to change the structure of the religion," Mr. Smith said.
Mr. Smith, who teaches at the University of North Carolina, wrote the book with sociologist Michael Emerson of Rice University. Over the weekend, the book was given a top award by the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.
Phillip Yancey, a best-selling evangelical author and essayist for the leading journal Christianity Today, also has focused on race relations in his recent book, "Soul Survivor."
"The race topic is something that evangelicals don't like to be reminded of," Mr. Yancey said. "The evangelical church was not in the forefront of civil rights and, in fact, dragged its feet."
The book recounts his upbringing in a fundamentalist Georgia church that befriended the Ku Klux Klan and tells how he later was inspired by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
"People in the South don't like the book very much," he said. "They say, 'Why do you have to keep opening up old wounds?'"
He said his critics point to Mr. King's many extramarital affairs, but Mr. Yancey said: "We've got to get over who God works with. God only uses flawed human beings. What's worse that or racism?"
He agrees with the "Divided by Faith" study that well-intentioned reconciliation efforts don't change much in society and said we need a more candid admission of racism.
"We should admit it," he said of his tradition. "Instead, evangelicals would rather join the bandwagon of reconciliation."
Evangelic interest in the "race problem" dates from the "born again" revival of the 1970s and new efforts in the 1990s.
The Promise Keepers men's movement, formed in 1991, made repentance for racism and comradery of men of different races a goal.
Later in the decade, black and white Pentecostal leaders met to repent for past wrongs, the Southern Baptist Convention called racism a sin and the National Association of Evangelicals elevated a black minister to be chairman.
In a 1996 PBS documentary, "With God on Our Side," the Rev. Jerry Falwell told how he once had accepted his elders' teaching to separate from blacks, but he now rejects that doctrine and was applauded for his candor.
Perhaps more candid still is the book "Letters Across the Divide," in which the Rev. David Anderson, the black evangelical pastor of Bridgeway Community Church in Columbia, Md., talks with a white church friend about faith, slavery, blame, forgiveness, white guilt and black anger.
"The conversation that Brent and I had is a real one," Mr. Anderson said in the book, a collection of letters he exchanged with Brent Zuercher of Chicago.
Both men talk about the hopes of change in black and white hearts but also of skepticism that it can happen deeply or rapidly.
"For all the times a black person has used the 'race card' or falsely blamed a white person or the white establishment for their own personal failures or errors in judgment, I apologize," Mr. Anderson wrote.
In response, Mr. Zuercher said, "Your question of what is the average 'white guy' thinking when he apologizes [for racism] is a difficult question, and I must confess I share your skeptical perceptions."

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