White Christmas, Black Christmas

Though minority and white evangelical Protestants have more in common than any other Christian groups, they are deeply divided on matters of race and justice.  

Carlo Allegri/Reuters

Now to the Lord sing praises,
All you within this place,
And with true love and brotherhood
Each other now embrace;
This holy tide of Christmas
Doth bring redeeming grace

—God Rest Ye Merry, Gentleman

This week, approximately nine in 10 Americans will celebrate Christmas, in a wide variety of ways. Among Christians, the two groups who share the most in their approach to Christmas celebrations are white and minority evangelical Protestants. These two groups stand apart even from other Christians in that they are significantly more likely to celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday, to read the Christmas story from the Bible, and to believe that the nativity narrative—including the Virgin birth, the angels communicating with shepherds, the appearance of the star of Bethlehem, and the arrival of wise men from the East—is historically accurate. Majorities of white and minority Protestants also report that they attend religious services on Christmas Day, where they will hear the same stories, light the same Advent candles, and sing the same carols.

These shared Christmas practices are a part of the remarkably similar religious worlds of black and white evangelical Protestants. Black Protestants and white evangelical Protestants are the two groups with the highest church-attendance rates in the country. While less than four in 10 (38 percent) Americans overall report attending religious services weekly or more often, 58 percent of white evangelical Protestants and 55 percent of black Protestants attend church at least weekly. White evangelical Protestants and black Protestants also share a particularly literal approach to the Bible. Among the general public, approximately one-third (35 percent) believe the Bible is the literal word of God, but about six in 10 white evangelical Protestants (61 percent) and black Protestants (57 percent) hold a literal view of the Bible. These two groups also share a belief in a personal God, an emphasis on individual salvation, and religious architecture that emphasizes the centrality of the pulpit over the altar.

But the grand-jury decisions in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York—where, in both cases, no charges were brought against white police officers who were responsible for the deaths of unarmed black men—revealed a chasm between black and white evangelical Protestants. Ironically, despite their shared religious worldview, there are virtually no major subgroups in the American public who disagree more than white evangelical and black Protestants do about the fairness of the criminal-justice system in the wake of the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. In a national survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute from November 25 to 30, two thirds (66 percent) of white evangelical Protestants agree that blacks and other minorities receive treatment equal to whites in the criminal justice system. More than eight in 10 (82 percent) black Protestants disagree with this statement.

Moreover, these divergent attitudes are not limited to the criminal-justice system. For example, white evangelical Protestants not only reject assertions that blacks experience unequal treatment in the criminal-justice system; many claim themselves to be the victims of discrimination. Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of white evangelical Protestants agree with the statement, “Today, discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.”

After the Ferguson shooting, I wrote about how the historical legacy of legal segregation and contemporary self-segregation leaves white Americans with few resources to help them understand African-American responses to the death of Michael Brown. PRRI’s key finding was that white Americans’ core social networks are on average 91 percent white and only 1 percent African-American. Moreover, according to Duke University’s National Congregations Study, churches are nearly as segregated as individuals’ core social networks and offer few resources to bridge the divide. While the number of multiracial congregations has increased since the 1990s, 86 percent of congregations, representing eight in 10 attendees, remain overwhelmingly monoracial.

To be sure, especially after the second grand-jury decision in the Eric Garner case, there have been prominent white evangelical Protestant voices speaking up and reaching out to the African-American community. And it is important that these voices have included not only those such as the Reverend Jim Wallis, the founder of Sojourners who has long been outspoken on racial reconciliation, but also the Reverend Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Moore noted that while he had received some negative responses from fellow white evangelicals that were “right out of the White Citizens’ Council material from 1964 in my home state of Mississippi,” he spoke out because of his own belief that “there is nothing that is clearer in the New Testament than the fact that the gospel breaks down the dividing walls that we have between one another.”

Despite these sincere convictions and outreach efforts by white evangelical leaders, it seems unlikely that anything like an embrace of “true love and brotherhood” will reign during this Christmas season. At church services around the country on Sunday, black and white evangelical Christians lit the fourth Advent candle before Christmas, the candle that represents peace. But the racial tensions that have spilled from Ferguson and Staten Island into Advent this year promise to haunt our holiday celebrations like the ghost of Christmas past.