Race & Religion

Religion was once significantly more important than race as a personal and national identity marker. Medieval society, for example, didn't think much of genetic differences between people groups, and the average person probably had little conception of a humanity divided into distinct racial categories. The primary distinctions our ancestors drew between people groups were religious: Christians against Muslims, Catholics against protestants, Baptists against Mormons, etc.

At some point in our fairly recent past, however, the supreme importance of religious identity was  supplanted by racial identity. No greater proof of this is necessary beyond common experience: the rise of the alt-right, constant accusations of "racism," historical obsession with the American civil rights movement, slavery, the Holocaust, and a never ending stream of news articles interpreting every event through a racial lens. Talk of racial identity permeates every school room in America, and racial conversations among students can be heard during nearly every class period ("What race are you?").

The rise of racial identity over religious identity is an important topic for Christians to discuss. Why has this shift in identity occurred?

Modern Westerners no longer consider religion important. Religion has been declining for over a century in some parts of the West. In the United States, this decline only visibly began in the late 1960's. The collapse of religiosity in America has accelerated over the course of the last two decades. In 1994, 94% of Americans possessed some religious identity. In 2014, only 85% did. Similar steep declines can be seen when measuring the amount of psychic energy and commitment people dedicate to religion. With about 16% of the 2017 American population expressing no religious identity whatsoever, religion is no longer a useful identity marker for a large swath of Americans. The numbers are much worse outside America, 53% of the United Kingdom's population claim no religious identity.

Religious identity may rise and fall, but a full 100% of the population of every country worldwide retains a racial identity. Racial identity might be rejected, but it still exists. The simple fact that religious identity can be erased (on a conscious level), whereas racial identity cannot, means race will rise in importance as religion falls. Racial identity will inevitably become supreme by default.

Religion is changeable and constantly in flux, but race is forever. We all know people who've changed their religion multiple times. Many of these people are following spiritual fads or attempting to find themselves. Personally, I grew up attending church with a girl whose father was a preacher. When she reached college she abandoned Christianity for Buddhism, then became an agnostic humanist, and then converted back to Buddhism. In reality, she probably believes a synthesis of New Age ideas. Personal religious flexibility is the result of ever increasing globalization. Each individual is now exposed to every belief on earth via the internet and social diversity. The girl I grew up with is hardly an exception, and I can think of numerous people I know who've acted out similar spiritual journeys. Even within Christianity, most Christians undergo alterations in doctrinal belief that would technically carry them across denominational boundaries, and they often experience these evolutions every other year.

The fact that religion has become so flexible and unstable often leaves folks confused about where to categorize many of the people they know. It's often less mentally exhausting to simply abandon attempts to categorize these flexible people. Many people have stopped assigning religious identity as their ancestors would have because they know the categories are too fluid to offer much explanatory power.

Contrasting religion's flexibility is race's inflexibility. Every person is buried with the same racial identity they were born with. No one ever has to redefine another person's racial identity inside their mind. They always know that "John Deer" is white, and "DeNaquesha Jackson" is black.

Religion can be concealed, but race is openly recognizable. Religion, first language, country of origin, sexuality, and culture can all be hidden. If a person doesn't talk too much their religion might never be known, or they can lie to cover it up. Race, however, is instantly recognizable and cannot be hidden without considerable, and probably ineffective, measures. Michael Jackson probably spent millions of dollars and untold hours of time trying to make himself look Caucasian, but even after all his efforts people still knew he looked like a freak even if they couldn't tell he was black. In an increasingly globalized and fluid world, the ability to easily identity those belonging to one's in-group will become more important.

The collapse of religious conviction, religion's devolution into a changeable lifestyle choice, and race's greater recognizability explains the modern Western obsession with interpreting everything through a racial lens. Racial identity will become an increasingly important identity marker in the coming years. Christians should understand this as necessary.

Jesus told his disciples to preach the Gospel to every nation, but how can such a thing be done if nations no longer exist? If they've been diversified into oblivion? Humans require an ethnic identity through which Christianity can be understood, and God gave humans ethnic identity as a conduit through which to serve him.