This interview was published in Faithfully Magazine No. 2 (Fall 2017).
Glenn E. Bracey is a professor of Sociology at Villanova University. Bracey specializes in critical race theory, social movements, and religion. In May 2017, the journal Sociological Inquiry published Bracey and Wendy L. Moore’s paper about a study he conducted between 2008 and 2011 involving White Evangelical churches. The paper was titled “Race Tests”: Racial Boundary Maintenance in White Evangelical Churches.”
As Faithfully Magazine reported online in April:
In his church visits and participation in homegroups/Bible studies, Bracey encountered what he described as numerous “utility-based tests” (does the person of color serve the church’s interests to appear “diverse?”) and “exclusionary race tests” from his White hosts. Of the latter, he explained: “When people of color were unwanted and/ or potentially threatened the boundaries of white institutional space (through their presence or their racial perspectives), white insiders in the churches employed exclusionary race tests to identify and repel people of color whose racial status, non-white customs, and/or racial politics disrupt the norms of white space.
During one of Bracey’s church visits, his White host caught herself as she blurted that her church had prayed for a Black man to join them. When he visited an all-White home Bible study, Bracey and a Hispanic man found themselves as the butt of a violent and racially-insensitive joke. The others in their group, however, had a great laugh at their expense. When Bracey visited another home for a different group gathering, his White hosts seemed startled to see that he was Black. While giving guests a tour of their home, Bracey’s Christian hosts [seemed eager to show off] their Confederate decorations.
You did the “Race Tests” study between 2008 and 2011 and restricted it to seven churches in Florida, Texas, Indiana and Illinois. Did you revisit or update any information to account for the gap in years before your paper was published?
On the one, let me say racism is entrenched in us and frankly, the things that make racism change aren’t common enough for there to be mass changes in how racism operates in churches. You’ll notice that in the article I cite several pieces where the data collection is more recent and some of them are quantitative, so they’re much larger studies that look across multiple churches and they’re consistent with what I find.
In terms of questions of recency, I think in general the literature has covered that. For me, in particular, I was doing a long ethnographic study, so this particular piece is only about the work I did gaining access to those churches. But when I gained access to those churches, I was then in there for months, sometimes over a year, and that takes time, and the travel and all those sorts of things take time.
What motivated you to take a look at this particular issue?
My mentor in graduate school (was) Joe Feagin at Texas A&M (University) who is a renowned race scholar. When he used to have meetings with his graduate students, maybe once a week, one of his other students (discussed how she) was conducting studies in churches. I was, in my meetings with him, telling him about some of the stories that are in that article [“Race Tests”]. She said, “Yeah, I’ve seen similar things in the churches that I’ve been (to),” which is what clued me into that this is a general pattern that spreads across regions. So, in seeing that other researchers were recognizing the same thing, that let me know that maybe this is a particular kind of tactic that the churches use to police people of color, especially Black bodies in these churches.
In the paper you describe yourself as a Christian of color with a long history in White churches.
I’m an African-American man. I was in my late 20s when I did the work—so don’t do the math. In terms of my involvement in churches, I served for five years as a lay minister in a church. I preached Sunday sermons, I organized our evangelism teams, I raised money. Our church went from 80 people to 450 by the time I left and about half of those were people that I had either directly evangelized into the church or the people that I discipled had brought in.
When Christianity, traditional values—however you want to define them—and whiteness have come into conflict, the White church has always decided for whiteness. Because whiteness is the centerpiece. Not the values. The values are a fig leaf to promote the whiteness.
This church … was maybe 90 percent White. The number has changed over the course of that growth, of course, but on average (it) was about 90 percent White. The lead pastor was White. It was a non-denominational, evangelical church. In the course of working with the local church and the national movement, I learned a lot about the ins and outs of ministry and Evangelicalism in general.
Based on your experiences, what do you think Black Christians, or Christians of color, Evangelicals of color, are potentially sacrificing—for lack of a better word—when seeking to belong in predominantly White Christian spaces?
The only word I can think of right now is “everything.” Let me talk about it in terms of opportunity costs on both sides. InterVarstiy (Christian Fellowship/USA) published a book some years ago, but it has a small group diversity guide in the back. The diversity guide, which some of the White evangelicals that are in the larger study showed me because they were using it to organize their evangelism in diverse cities, it says explicitly, “Don’t expect Black people to have connections with God in our services.” [see Editor’s Note] So I think to myself, “This is a movement that knows that it’s not consistent with our traditions. If you’re a Black per- son coming into these particular spaces and they don’t even expect you to have a connection with God, then what’s the point?” In some of the groups that I was talking to, you’re literally sacrificing an opportunity to have a connection with God, period. Then, the traditions that you’re familiar with, the way that service is done, the communal relationships that you lose, all of that is sacrificed constantly, and that’s a big deal.
Then in actually being in the White churches, as you see in some of the (examples in the “Race Tests” paper), you’re risking oftentimes your physical safety. One of the pieces that I cite in the article … one of the author’s of it, she finds that in those churches the people of color that come … have politics that are out of the mainstream for people of color. They’re often what I would call hostile to other people of color. What you’re sacrificing is, you’re being physically there, you’re listening to a politic, to a definition of God, to a definition of your life and your problems, a definition of yourself that are hostile to who you are both in the natural and in the spiritual. That is deeply destructive.
Then you’re talking about making personal relationships with people who at best you have to teach often, at worst you have to fight. That’s counter to the whole purpose of being in a church. So if you’re not going to get any edification and you’re going to be at risk sometimes physically, always emotionally, always spiritually. Then it’s really hard to see what the point is, unless you’re there as a martyr. It’s a lot to lose, and people need to appreciate that, both as Christians of color and as White folks who have people of color in their churches.
What’s your take on White Evangelicals, like Franklin Graham or Pat Robertson, who back Trump no matter what he says or does? Is it really about whiteness and what makes them comfortable and gives them leverage as White people?
That’s exactly the thing I want to push against— looking at this as the Graham or Robertson(thing), as though they represent themselves. Trump is carrying 81 percent of the White Evangelical vote, which I understand to be the highest percentage anyone has ever carried. … I want to move past thinking of this as “their camp.” This is what is defining the movement. Trump is standing at Liberty University and despite the complaint, the president of the university [Jerry Falwell, Jr.] is pro-Trump. Trump then comes and gives the speech for commencement.
The largest churches, the movement in general, 81 percent self-described White Evangelicals, are supporting Trump. And why are they supporting Trump? Because Trump supports whiteness very, very clearly, and it’s a movement organized around whiteness. When Christianity, traditional values—however you want to define them—and whiteness have come into conflict, the White church has always decided for whiteness. Because whiteness is the centerpiece. Not the values. The values are a fig leaf to promote the whiteness.
So we should not think about the 81 percent White Evangelical vote or talk about it as if it’s some kind of phenomenon or fringe movement? You’re saying this is actually how the White church is defined, has come to be defined, is defining itself?
Yes. In no other circumstance would we think of 81 percent as the fringe. We’ve decided to ignore the White foundation of the Evangelical church … that racism is a cornerstone of the movement. It’s time to recognize that, period.
Editor’s note: Bracey referenced InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA’s Student Diversity Guide, which the college ministry explains “contains helpful tips and information for small group leaders on building bridges with Asian, Black, Latino, Roman Catholic, Fraternity/Sorority, Commuter, International and Caucasian/White students on campus.” The guide advises in its section on African- American students:
“Be sensitive to culture shock. InterVarsity employs interactive learning, small group discussion [and] teaching. For Blacks exhortation [and] preaching are more natural so they may find it hard to hear from God. Itmay be difficult for [B]lack students to connect spiritually during musical worship as InterVarsity’s style is different from their home church.”