People of Goodwill? Race, Lukewarm Acceptance, and the Christian Reformed Church

May 18, 2017

In a work that is roundly understood as the most important sociological examination of race and religion in the United States from the last two decades, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith’s Divided by Faith quotes a man who belongs to a Christian Reformed Church (CRC) congregation. When queried about the idea of mixed race congregations, the congregant acknowledged that he saw it as noble concept, but then wondered about the costs: “I think the whole idea of blacks and whites worshipping together is great, but how can you do that when you feel so uncomfortable?”1 That quote, in many ways, captures a lukewarm acceptance regarding race, racism, and racialization that has historically haunted the CRC. In short, the denomination could be described as having a desire for racial reconciliation but also displaying a marked hesitancy in actually making the necessarily sacrificial steps in that direction.

In fact, when considering just documents and declarations, the CRC has an intellectual history concerning race and racism that some might find strikingly progressive. Already in 1957, the Synod of the CRC offered a bold, enlightened statement regarding race relations:

deprivation of equal rights and opportunities in society on the basis of race or color is contrary to the will of God… Negroes have been deprived of rights and opportunities equal to those given whites, have been relegated to a position inferior to that of whites in social respectability. Racial prejudice leading to such social injustice is a tragic blot on our society. It is the duty of the members of the church of Christ to be active in removing this stain. The church is called upon to heal that which is broken and raise up that which is fallen. Therefore, it is called to give special help and nurture to those against whom a social injustice has been committed.2

A little over a decade later, Synod reiterated and elaborated its stance. In addition, the organizational body delivered its message in a somewhat more threatening tone:

Fear of prosecution or of disadvantage to self or our institutions arising out of obedience to Christ does not warrant denial to anyone, for reasons of race or color, of full Christian fellowship and privilege in the church or related organizations, such as Christian colleges and schools, institutions of mercy and recreational associations; and that if members of the Christian Reformed Church advocate such denial, by whatever means, they must be reckoned disobedient to Christ and dealt with according to the provisions of the Church Order regarding Admonition and Discipline.3

Of course, these bold proclamations resonated little at the congregational level. While Synod denounced instances of racial discrimination, the denomination would witness local decisions that demonstrated little concern about the relationship between racial prejudice and social injustice. As the Great Migration brought hundreds of thousands of African Americans seeking new economic opportunities to the Chicago South Side neighborhoods of Englewood and Roseland, the Dutch CRC enclaves therein departed for the security and homogeneity of the suburbs.4 On the western fringes of Chicago in the suburb of Cicero, the CRC society-supported Timothy Christian School refused to enroll the African American children of Lawndale CRC.5 Less than 200 miles up the road in Grand Rapids, the CRC congregations there experienced the same arrival of African Americans and the churches remained in their neighborhoods—but only because the smaller scale of the city allowed congregants to commute from whiter neighborhoods on the fringes of the city on Sunday morning.6 In these and other instances, the denominational authorities had little recourse other than to offer written rebukes.

Statements, of course, have the benefit of being low-cost.7 That is, stand-alone intellectual engagement with the ideas of racial reconciliation and social justice really have an advantage of offering admirable positions that threaten little. In fact, in some cases, proclamations without implications epitomize the lukewarm acceptance that Dr. Martin Luther King lamented in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”: “Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” Though the CRC has few instances of outward hostility toward racial minorities, it surely has been guilty of lukewarm acceptance.

Perhaps the CRC-affiliated Christian schools offer the most vivid case-in-point. They, of course, pre-date the rise of the “Christian” schools that were founded (especially in the southern United States) in the wake of Brown v. The Board of Education to allow for new forms of racially segregated education when the Supreme Court deemed Jim Crow unconstitutional. In other words, CRC-affiliated schools do not share the same conspiratorial history of being established as a method for creating a new form of “whites-only” education. Even with that in mind, though, might it be appropriate to consider how open and inclusive these CRC-related schools have historically appeared to racial minorities? Have they been consistently hospitable to those who find themselves outside the Dutch Reformed tradition? Have they offered more than lukewarm acceptance?

Of course, these questions could also be asked not just of the schools, but also of the congregations and other organizations that comprise the denomination: what are the costs8 that the CRC is willing to bear to be racially inclusive? Although the denomination likely considers its institutional norms to be race neutral,9 both its history and current demographics belie that assumption.

In the end, the CRC’s stance on race mirrors that of the larger society: most people say that they oppose racial discrimination—and yet when the costs of racial integration might actually start costing something, they tend to get indifferent. The danger of apathy rests in the fact that it remains more difficult to detect than outright hostility. Moreover, that racial indifference functions as nutrient-rich environment in which racialization and the racial caste system festers and becomes ever-more insidious. Even in their lukewarm acceptance, people of goodwill can be complicit.

About the Author
  • Mark T. Mulder, professor of sociology at Calvin College, is the author of Shades of White Flight: Evangelical Congregations and Urban Departure (Rutgers University Press, 2015) and co-author of Latino Protestants in America: Diverse and Growing (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017).

  1. Michael Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 122. 

  2. Acts of Synod, 1957 (Grand Rapids, MI: CRC Board of Publications, 1957), p. 20. 

  3. Acts of Synod, 1968, p. 19. 

  4. Mark T. Mulder, Shades of White Flight: Evangelical Congregations and Urban Departure (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2015). 

  5. Ibid. See especially Chapter 4, pp. 42-52.  

  6. Kevin D. Dougherty and Mark T. Mulder, “Congregational Responses to Growing Urban Diversity in a White Ethnic Denomination,” Social Problems 56 (2009): 335-356. 

  7. Of course, it should also be noted that writing articles doesn’t cost much, either. 

  8. One recent study has found the process of becoming more racially diverse can be correlated with decreasing congregation size. See Kevin D. Dougherty, Brandon C. Martinez, and Gerardo Martí; “Congregational Diversity and Attendance in a Mainline Protestant Denomination” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 54 (2016): 668-683. 

  9. Glenn E. Bracey II and Wendy Leo Moore, “’Race Tests’: Racial Boundary Maintenance in White Evangelical Churches,” Sociological Inquiry 87 (2017): 282-302. 

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  1. Mark,
    I am sorry to have to admit my agreement with your criticism of the CRC on racial matters. I have been a CRC member since 1967 and while that church in Connecticut helped me shape my view on racism it has hardly changed many other people in the churches. It is high time people speak out and correct this prevalent injustice in our church and in our nation. Our Lord is waiting for this.

  2. Our Sheboygan based book club is reading this book by Michael Emerson. Hopefully we will be convicted of inconsistencies in our words and efforts as local CRC bodies. This area is changing ethnically and I hope our area members can make ourselves “uncomfortable” to make other ethnicities “comfortable”.

  3. I am a POC in a CRC and have been struggling with being the only one in my congregation for years, many times I have prayed to be released of membership and find a more racially inclusive church but it has not been the Lords will, instead I am learning how deeply the racial divide really is and spending more and more time in prayer for this denomination because there is so much good here barring this issue.