Does Christianity* make people prejudiced?

So it’s no secret that the evangelical church is divided along racial/ethnic lines; evangelicals rarely engage in meaningful interactions outside of our mostly homogenous church groups. Indeed, sociologists Michael Emerson and Christian Smith report that over 90 percent of all American churches are composed of congregations that are at least 90 percent racially homogenous[i]. Further, even though the landscape of American society is increasing in diversity, American churches are decreasing in diversity.  Perhaps even more troubling is that social psychologist Deborah Hall and colleagues have found a significant correlation between Christian religiosity and racial prejudice[ii]. The more people identify with Christianity, the more they display racial prejudice. Taken together, these research findings and the sad story of racial/ethnic division of the church beg the question: Does Christianity* make people prejudiced?

The answer: Yes, basically. (But it doesn’t have to!)

Social psychological research shows that simply reminding people of their Christian identity by exposing them to concepts like Bible, sermon, heaven and Messiah leads them to engage in pro-social behavior, but only toward ethnically-similar Christians.[iii] This shocking finding is consistent with basic group processes and has everything to do with how we categorize Christians.  Humans naturally create group categories that distinguish us versus them. This distinction is good for group formation; we have a stronger group identity and greater group solidarity when we can easily distinguish ourselves from other groups. However, when it comes to the way we categorize Christians, our natural tendency to make us/them distinctions is complicated by the fact that our fellow church members are mostly, if not entirely, composed of ethnically-similar others. For this reason, the people who belong to our homogenous church group with whom we interact on a regular basis (our “us”) are the people with whom we most closely associate the term “Christian.”  As a result, we automatically and nonconsciously apply the term “Christian” exclusively to “us” (our church group) and not to the broader, diverse body of Christ. As a result, ethnically-dissimilar Christians are labeled “them” and are treated like the outsiders they are perceived to be.

This leads to disastrous consequences. After being exposed to Christian concepts Christians are more pro-social, generous, cooperative, honest and less hypocritical toward fellow group members (e.g., ethnically-similar Christians). However, exposure to Christian concepts increases aggression toward non-group members, willingness to exact revenge on non-group members, and support for violence toward non-group members (e.g., ethnically-dissimilar Christians)[iv]. These findings led social psychologists Norenzayan and Shariff to conclude that “religious prosociality is not extended indiscriminately: the ‘dark side’ of within-group cooperation is between-group competition and conflict. The same mechanisms involved in in-group altruism may also facilitate out-group antagonism.”[v]

So, yes, the current tribal version of western Christianity does make people prejudiced – but that’s only because we typically apply the label of “Christian” to people who are ethnically similar to us. If we ventured beyond the comfort of our racially-homogenous churches, we would begin associate the term “Christian” with those who do not necessarily look, think, talk, or act like us. Only then will we begin to embody the unity and diversity for which the Church was intended.

*When I use the term "Christianity," I'm referring to the religious social institution that is composed of people.

[i] Emerson, M., & Smith, C. (2000). Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America.

[ii] Hall, D., Matz, D., & Wood, W. (2010). Why don’t we practice what we preach?: A meta-analytic review of religious racism. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 14, 126-139.

[iii] Norenzayan, A., & Shariff, A. Z. (2008). The origin and evolution of

religious prosociality. Science, 322, 58-62.

[iv] Johnson, M., Rowatt, W., & LaBouff, J. (2010). Priming Christian religious concepts increases racial prejudice. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 1, 119-126.

[v] Norenzayan, A., & Shariff, A. Z. (2008). P. 62.