UT Arlington sociology professor examines interplay of race and religion in America in new book

The beliefs of black and white Christians may appear similar, but a University of Texas at Arlington researcher has found significant differences among the races in everything from how frequently people pray or attend church to whether they believe in heaven or hell.

In his new book, Blacks and Whites in Christian America: How Racial Discrimination Shapes Religious Convictions (NYU Press), assistant sociology professor Jason Shelton reports on survey data from 2006, and interviews and focus groups conducted in 2008. Shelton co-authored the book with Michael Emerson, sociology professor and co-director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University.

The team carefully analyzed data from a survey that they designed and collected from Protestants across various U.S. denominations and regions. They also analyzed the General Social Survey, an annual opinion poll that asks Americans questions about a wide range of topics, including religion and race relations. They complemented the surveys with interviews with everyday Christian believers and clergy.

“We were inspired to write this book because the subject of race relations among Christians has not received much attention from scholars,” said Shelton, who joined the UT Arlington Department of Sociology and Anthropology in 2008. “This topic sheds much needed light on who we are as a nation and the role that faith plays in determining whether groups get along with one another.”

Shelton said it is coincidence that the book happens to have been published at a time when religion has become part of the dialogue surrounding the November presidential election.

“So much of the talk concerns the dynamics of religion and race. For example, there are questions about whether evangelicals will come out in strong support for Mitt Romney, who is Mormon. Similarly, since President Obama took office, there have been questions about his affiliation with Christianity,” Shelton said. “There are strong similarities between evangelical Protestantism and black Protestantism, but there are major differences as well.”

Emerson added: “At the very core, the fundamental beliefs of Christianity – that God exists for example – black and white Protestants do not differ. But on most everything else, even the terms they use to describe who God is, they do differ and often dramatically so.”

Shelton said the book brings greater balance to the topic by showing that “our nation’s history of slavery and segregation shaped the way blacks think about and practice their faith even now.”

“We hope to call attention to ways to bridge gaps between black and white Protestants, as these groups are important to the progress of American race relations,” Shelton said.

Beth Wright, dean of the UT Arlington College of Liberal Arts, said, “Dr. Shelton’s rigorous analysis adds important insights into complex intersections of race and religion in America. His work also helps to improve our understanding of society and culture.”

Shelton’s work is representative of the research under way at The University of Texas at Arlington, a comprehensive research institution of more than 33,200 students in the heart of North Texas. Visit www.uta.edu to learn more.

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