Michael O. Emerson is founding director of the Center on Race, Religion, and Urban Life at Rice University. He is also the coauthor of People of the Dream: Multiracial Congregations in the United States, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, and several other books on congregational life and race.
While nonwhite Christians voted overwhelmingly for Obama, most white Christians backed McCain. Why did Barack Obama capture so many nonwhite Christian votes but so few white Christian votes?
We have separate cultures because of racial segregation in the churches. What matters in your culture comes from a lived experience. In the white evangelical world, what has been emphasized are the issues of homosexuality and abortion. Other groups—like African Americans and Hispanics—also stress justice in terms of equal rights, addressing poverty, and war, because those things are part of their life experience. Everybody feels frustrated because no party aligns with what we all believe in.
Is there a new or highlighted tension between white and nonwhite Christians this election that hasn't been there before?
Yes, because the election was a black/white issue in this case. It's not like the evangelical vote split got any wider this time. It's been that way for a quarter-century or so. But instead of a white Republican and a white Democrat, now we mixed in race. It does make it more complicated.
What does an Obama victory mean for potential racial reconciliation in the church? How would his loss have affected reconciliation?
If he had lost, I would be worried. There would have been less hope, among African Americans in particular. But the fact that he won has the opposite effect—there is a hope. It provides a new energy to discuss race reconciliation. We're becoming a more diverse nation. He didn't get the majority of the white vote, so that means nonwhites overwhelmingly voted for him. They will also have power and influence in our churches and everywhere else.
Did white Christian or evangelical voters miss an opportunity by not supporting Obama?
Yes. I'm already hearing that. I've heard some African American leaders questioning white Christian leaders who questioned Obama's depth of faith and his commitment to Christian principles. There's the potential for more divide on that front.
Did black evangelical voters hurt their credibility by supporting Obama?
Yes. White evangelicals think, "You know what? How could they vote for the most liberal person in our Senate, a person who is pro-abortion? They voted for him because he's black." That's very offensive on the other side.
What is more likely to happen: racial reconciliation because of Obama's win, or racial divide because of how Christians split over the vote?
It depends on what Christian leaders do. Will they get together and discuss what it means and how can we move forward? Or will they fire stuff back and forth, questioning one another's Christianity? I'm hopeful that there will be reconciliation, but there are some steps along the way that will decide for us what really happens.
It is good for racial reconciliation that Obama won overwhelmingly, and that it was over quickly.
If we are to move forward on reconciliation, it is essential that Obama not be assassinated. I'm sure there will be a threat of that. There would be rioting and a repeat of when Martin Luther King was assassinated. It would further enhance the disturbance between groups.
Will Obama himself have any impact on race relations in the church?
He will not have as big a direct impact as we might think. He's got other things to do; he's limited by different people pulling him in different directions. However, people may take him as a symbol representing a change in our society and then try to institutionalize that in our churches.
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Emerson's page at Rice University has more information about his research on race and congregational life.
More on racial reconciliation is available in our full coverage area.
More coverage of Obama's election is available in our Campaign 2008 area.
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