The unique history of African Americans in the United States fuels much of the discussion on the relationship between religion and race in diverse congregations (e.g., Tranby and Hartmann 2008). Indeed, the impetus for much of the current research on multiracial churches began with Emerson and Smith's (2000) pessimistic assessment of the potential for black-white integration within American Protestant Christianity. Arguing that fundamental ideological assumptions between black and white groups operate at cross-purposes, they assert the possibility of black-white churches is remote as individualistic orientation toward social change, especially among evangelicals, keeps whites ignoring the structural inequality that further perpetuates the American racial divide. Follow-up work by Emerson (2006) and Edwards (2008b) continues to affirm the weakness of religion in the face of racial obstacles such that achieving true religious integration between blacks and whites seems nearly impossible.
In contrast, other perspectives argue that religious racial integration is achieved by redefining the bases of shared identity among members and focusing on idealized religious commitments (Becker 1998; Ecklund 2005; Jenkins 2003; Marti 2005; Stanczak 2006). We know that African Americans, like other racial-ethnic groups, negotiate their racial identities in differing contexts (Hutchinson, Rodriguez, and Hagan 1996; Young 2007). And even within Protestant multiracial churches when different ethnoracial groups exist in an uncomfortable alliance (Garces-Foley 2007), these congregations utilize distinctively religious resources to overcome racial obstacles and nurture religious identities to foster long-term, cross-ethnic relationships. Marti (2005, 2008a, 2009a) presents a process of “ethnic transcendence” that describes how the religious culture of Protestant congregations can foster integration. In this strain of scholarship all ethnoracial groups—including African Americans—are able to overcome their racial particularities by taking on a religiously based “master status” as a base of solidarity (see Bartkowski 2004; Ecklund 2005).
In short, sociologists of religion are bringing new insights and new debates to the growing phenomenon of racially diverse congregations, and much of the most recent and extensive attention to these congregations has appeared in this journal (Dougherty and Huyser 2008; Ecklund 2005; Edwards 2008a; Emerson 2008; Emerson and Kim 2003; Garces-Foley 2007, 2008; Jenkins 2003; Marti 2008a, 2009a; Tranby and Hartmann 2008; Yancey and Kim 2008; other research includes Christerson, Emerson, and Edwards 2005; Dougherty 2003; Emerson 2009; Yancey and Emerson 2003). A persistent question in these and other studies remains articulating the relationship between religious identity and racial identity within these churches. The implicit debate wrestles with the relationship between processes of ethnic reinforcement and ethnic transcendence within congregational structures. The question is most accentuated in the case of African Americans. On one hand, scholars assert the importance of ethnic reinforcement by suggesting that African Americans require acknowledgment of the struggles and issues embedded within their own specific racial identity in order to foster authentic, cross-racial religious participation (Edwards 2008b; Emerson 2006; Emerson and Smith 2000; Yancey 2003b). On the other, research also asserts that it is possible to discern African Americans successfully deemphasizing their racial distinctiveness in multiracial congregations and accentuating shared religious identities as a base for integration (Becker 1998; Ganiel 2010; Jenkins 2003; Marti 2005, 2008a, 2008b, 2009a; Stanczak 2006). Awareness of this debate adds an important nuance to our understanding of how religion relates to constructing ethnic identity, negotiating racial alliances, and overcoming racial oppression in the United States.
Following recent ethnographic research on black-white congregations in Emerson (2006) and Edwards (2008b), this article focuses the religious racial integration of African Americans into Protestant multiracial congregations through a case study of yet another black-white church, Oasis Christian Center. What is the relationship between religion and race for African Americans in this multiracial congregation? More specifically, does African-American religious participation in a diverse Protestant congregation require reinforcement of racial identity or does religious involvement move them toward transcending the idea of race? In the end, while religious imperatives can prompt members to participate in racially diffuse congregations, the distinctiveness of the African-American experience in white-dominant American society appears to require multiracial congregations to construct diversity-affirming “havens” such that blacks are affirmed, protected, and even entertained in ways that acknowledge a shared African-American heritage.
Ethnic Transcendence: Congregational Havens and the Negotiation of Racial-Ethnic Boundaries
The analytical approach introduced by Marti (2005) explicitly frames the experiences of religious racial integration in Protestant churches as a process by which members of ethnoracial groups subsume their contrasting ethnic identities to a shared religious identity (see Ganiel 2010). Marti follows ethnic identity management theorists (De Vos and Romanucci-Ross 1975; Lyman and Douglass 1973), which extend insights from Goffman's (1959, 1963, 1967) impression management theory and views race and ethnicity as one of multiple aspects of personal identity that is accessed and negotiated within organizations (Marti 2009a; see also Nagata 1974; Stryker 1981). Ethnicity (not “race”) among these theorists is a complex aspect of the self that can be highlighted or obscured, constructed or reconfigured, guided by interests involving social status and social mobility according to the demands and constraints of presentation; as circumstances require, other social statuses are emphasized (Alexander 1992; Conzen et al. 1992; Fenton 1999; Lacy 2007; Leonard 1992; McCall and Simmons 1978; Nagel 1994, 1996; Royce 1982; Sollors 1989; Stryker 1981).
Marti analytically builds on ethnic identity theory through an understanding that American congregations are voluntary organizations. Individuals connect to congregations by taking opportunities for relational interactions that appeal to at least one aspect of their social selves. Diverse congregations are those that construct relational “havens” (defined as situationally specific arenas of interaction) from the interests, beliefs, values, and life circumstances that ally people together regardless of ancestral heritages. Havens therefore exhibit an interesting dualism as self-selective mechanisms that draw certain people and repel others. Over time, member participation in havens obscures their ethnic identifications and bring out other valued aspects of their personal identity, and ultimately a shared religious identity becomes more important than their disparate racial identities (see also Marti 2008a, 2008b, 2009a).
The process of ethnic transcendence as originally developed depends on havens being racially neutral. And because Marti initially presented this process in a case study of a church with only 2 percent African American, the analysis is ambivalent as to whether the process is applicable for understanding the religious racial integration of African Americans. The church studied conducts its activity in the context of a popular American culture available to English-speaking immigrant children and achieves diversity by attracting both native whites and children of immigrants who acculturate into the segment of American culture most accessible to them. Among these second-generation ethnics, a generational passing of ancestral history is substituted with socialization into white dominant popular culture. Although a few African Americans in the church find affinities based on theology, artistry, or age, no “haven” acknowledges or affirms a black racial identity. And the few younger blacks in the church report either rejecting their parents’ and grandparents’ African-American expressions of spirituality or growing up immersed in white-dominant schools and neighborhoods (see Marti 2005:8, 10, 62, 141, 162–63).
Ethnic Reinforcement: African Americans and the Acknowledgment of Racial-Ethnic Distinctives
Given the distinctive challenges of African Americans in white-dominant culture, defining the process of religious racial integration in terms of segmented portions of individual identity presents difficulties for understanding how multiracial churches connect with African Americans. In contrast to Marti's (2008a) more “fluid” approach to ethnoracial identity, both Emerson (2006) and Edwards (2008b) draw on racial formation and critical race theories to underscore how “race” is more significant than “ethnicity” (which Edwards sparsely defines as oriented around “claims of shared culture, history, or common descent”) for understanding American society and to demonstrate how the structural advantages of being white extend to the structure of black-white churches (Bonilla-Silva 2003; Doane 1997; Lewis 2004; Lipsitz 1998; Omi and Winant 1994). For example, in his study of an interracial Protestant church Emerson (2006) argues that whites fail to acknowledge their dominant structural position and use their power to insist that churches operate in ways preferred by them. Edwards (2008b) similarly asserts that a proper understanding of “whiteness” and the racial hierarchies and boundaries that resulted throughout U.S. history indicates “race” to be a central and determining structural characteristic and argues that African Americans must adopt white-dominant cultural norms and practices in order to fit into this integrated church. For both these scholars, race is not viewed as a particular characteristic of African Americans but rather as a dominating one.
Both Emerson and Edwards extend research that supports being black in America is not simply one aspect of identity but rather overwhelms the identity of a person that religion largely fails to address. Everett Hughes (1945) classically constructed the concept of “master status” with particular reference to how racial stigma overwhelms other markers of prestige through observations of how whites treated African Americans in professional occupations, and black social theorists have described how their race dominates definitions of their identity and relations across society (Du Bois 2003; Fanon 1965, 1967). What W. E. B. DuBois called “the problem of the color line” remains evident in studies on the pervasive social consequences of segregation and stigmatization based on skin color, legal definitions of whiteness, and institutionalized racism (quoted in Lewis 1995:639; see also Bobo, Kluegel, and Smith 1997; Drake and Cayton 1945; Freeman et al. 1966; Hunter, Allen, and Telles 2001; Keith and Herring 1991; Lopez 1996). African Americans who attempt to assimilate into a white culture must make a cultural leap—and still experience prejudice and discrimination (Feagin and Sikes 1995). Because African Americans are “involuntary minorities” who are painfully aware of their disadvantaged status in comparison to native majority members (Kao and Tienda 1998; Massey et al. 2003; Ogbu 1978, 1981), Yancey (2003a) forcefully argues that African Americans experience an alienation that cannot be compared to other racial/ethnic groups.
Neither Emerson nor Edwards provides an explicit description of the process of religious racial integration through the ethnic affirmation that they believe is necessary for achieving truly integrated congregations; yet, both argue that religious communities need to accentuate the distinctive racial experiences of African Americans and create hospitable environments that explicitly welcome and incorporate them (see also DeYoung et al. 2003; Yancey 2003b). And both stress that nonwhites joining diverse congregations are not “race traitors” who wish to deny their ethnoracial distinctives; instead, these members want to affirm the “uniqueness” of their racial identity “while at the same time being around people from other cultures” at church (Emerson 2006:129). Emerson (2006:168–69) provides a list of ethnic reinforcement mechanisms found in multiracial churches (see also Yancey 2003b). He primarily argues that interracial churches must make a clearly stated institutional commitment to racial equity and create structures to ensure that equity. Emerson issues a two-fold call: whites should accede privileges for the sake of marginalized nonwhite groups, and blacks (as well as other oppressed minorities) should avoid victimization and take bold initiatives to create racially affirming, integrated religious communities. Furthermore, congregational leaders are said to be central to cultivating integrated congregations by personally committing to racial equity, creating forums where racial issues are actively discussed, and actively managing member commitment toward common religious goals. Edwards (2008b:137) similarly urges interracial church leaders to “select African Americans as key contributors to the process” of creating an environment of racial inclusion to counter white hegemony. In resisting “white normativity and structural dominance,” she calls interracial churches to create congregations “where the culture and experiences of all racial groups are not just tolerated, but appreciated.”Tranby and Hartmann (2008) also apply whiteness studies and critical race theory to the possibility of black-white congregations, specifically arguing that racial identity should be highlighted and affirmed rather than merely subsumed under the auspices of religion.
Given the contradictory assertions between these two perspectives, the question remains: Do African Americans retain racially specific identities as a primary base of interaction and not “obscure” or “subsume” their racial specificity in order to participate in a multiracial community of faith? Or, does religious racial integration require transcending racial specificity in favor of religious unity?Doughtery and Huyser (2008:39) state that “the central challenge of race in the United States remains black and white. Correspondingly, the congregational identity necessary to unite blacks and whites may look different than an inclusive identity for other racial-ethnic groups.” Consequently, is there perhaps a more dynamic relationship between the processes of ethnic transcendence and ethnic reinforcement that remains to be uncovered?