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When White Progressive Christians Commit to Confronting Whiteness in their Churches: Race, Religion, and the Challenge of Antiracism in American Christianity

Connecting themes on “religion, race, and ethnicity” and touching on "colonial legacies," the co-researchers will report on new research from our current a research project funded by Lilly Endowment, Inc. using data from a white progressive Christian denomination committed to addressing issues of racial justice.

Founded in 1987, the Alliance of Baptists is a theologically and politically progressive Baptist denomination, birthed from a split from the Southern Baptist Convention, whose core constituency consists of 65,000 members dispersed in 130 congregations across the U.S. and Canada. The Alliance constituency extends to an array of partnerships, including seminaries like Andover Newton Seminary at Yale Divinity School, Brite Divinity School, Eden Theological Seminary, Perkins School of Theology, American Baptist Seminary of the West, and Wake Forest University School of Divinity; ecumenical partnerships with groups like the United Church of Christ, and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ); and non-profit service partners like Emmaus House in Raleigh, Strive in Chicago, and Stewart Center in Atlanta.

Since 2019, the leaders of the denomination committed to aggressive work targeting long-term structures of racial exclusion stemming from whiteness, phrased by President Michael-Ray Matthews in this way: “to listen to and follow voices that have been silenced, breaking down barriers that divide us, and raising prophetic voices for liberation and justice to reshape a system that has repeatedly bruised and wounded black and brown bodies, transforming us into a more gentle and compassionate people.” The Alliance revised their Covenant to include explicit emphasis on addressing whiteness. The revised Covenant was deliberated, then formally voted and approved by the membership in 2020.

In partnership with the Executive Leadership of the Alliance, tje social scientists entered into an agreement to use social scientific tools to conduct a racial audit of the denomination. Together, we all submitted a grant proposal to Lilly Endowment’s “Thriving Congregations Initiative,” and received $1 million for the project. Titled “THRIVING for Racial Justice,” the goal of THRIVE is to examine white-dominant congregational life and vitality through the lens of the Alliance’s commitment to racial justice. As a joint endeavor between the Alliance and sociologists of race and religion, the 5-year THRIVE project builds on the conviction from leaders of the Alliance that the denomination, at this moment in their history, must address a fundamental misalignment of their values with the practice of their ministries, within which racialized structures are deeply rooted and difficult to discern. Through this project they seek to build a learning community to address whiteness directly and innovate a process to confront and reshape these structures, retooling the lens through which they view their theological and ecclesial traditions, and aligning the practices of congregational life with the cause of racial justice.

We report on Year 1 of this Lilly funded project. 2021 yielded extensive data – a survey that featured 1,629 denominational participants with 1157 completed questionnaires, and a large pool of personal interviews consisting of 125 pastors, lay leaders, and attendees from 26 churches – which formed the base for examining empirical patterns. The extensive survey, which focuses on racial attitudes and the racial climate of Alliance churches, was distributed by the researchers to the entire denominational network. In that same year, the same researchers recruited and selected 26 congregations in the U.S. and Canada from the denomination who would commit to providing leaders and members (including pastoral leadership) to participate in semi-structured interviews about themselves and their churches. All churches participated. (We have agreements to gather more survey data and more qualitative data in future years.)

For the conference, we will compress the most interesting and generative patterns from our initial findings. Specifically, and within the time allotted, we will: 1) illustrate how Black and white participants in this progressive white-dominant denomination significantly differ in their assessment of the health of their congregation’s racial climate, 2) explain how Black clergy and Black congregants view themselves as a distinct minority in their churches and wonder if the new denominational project of addressing whiteness is “their” project, and 3) demonstrate how both leaders and members of these progressive churches experience profound, unanticipated, and largely unacknowledged tensions between their actions in relation to LGBTQ+ issues and newer initiatives focused on racial justice. Specific empirical evidence and their implications will be discussed – featuring graphs, clear themes, and qualitative examples – and we will indicate the further anticipated direction of our continuing data collection. If time is available, we will discuss other findings or provide information based on the session’s Q&A. Feedback, suggestions, and further conversation will be welcomed from session participants.

Keywords: race, racism, racial justice, antiracism, whiteness, congregations, progressive Christianity

Abstract for Online Program Book (maximum 150 words)

Since 2019, the Alliance of Baptists committed to aggressive work targeting long-term structures of racial exclusion stemming from whiteness. Using extensive data collected in 2021 from a survey of 1,629 denominational participants and 125 semi-structured interviews with pastors, lay leaders, and attendees, we report several provocative and generative key findings that: 1) illustrate how Black and white participants significantly differ in their assessment of the health of their congregation’s racial climate, 2) explain how Black clergy and Black congregants view themselves as a distinct minority in their churches and wonder if the new project of addressing whiteness is “their” project, and 3) demonstrate how both leaders and members of these progressive churches experience profound, unanticipated, and largely unacknowledged tensions between their actions in relation to LGBTQ+ issues and newer initiatives focused on racial justice issues. Empirical evidence and their implications will be discussed, and feedback will be welcomed.

Authors