That’s the question I was asked this week by the Newsweek and Washington Post editors of the On Faith section, in light of the fact that 33% of Americans admit to racial prejudice and 90% of us claim to believe in God. My immediate response? It’s an ancient tradition!
The fact is that one can, and many have, articulated powerful religious systems that posited a divine preference for one race of human being over others. In fact, like many views which we now find repugnant, it was the norm for most of human history. The same can be said for other institutions, such as slavery, which were considered entirely consistent with “good faith” until relatively recently.

Personally, the basis of my faith which renders belief in God and racism mutually exclusive is found in the Genesis creation story. Whether historically accurate or not, I live by the truth that flows from a story which insists that we all share a common ancestor. We are all one family. So to hate one group of people is to actually hate a piece of myself and to deny the truth of that narrative. But of course, people have read that same story for a long time and reached very different conclusions.
Simply assuming that one can not be “genuinely religious” and a racist denies the lived faith experiences of millions. And it’s dangerous too. It makes us less able to address them and the sincerity of their positions, and therefore less successful at changing them – about which I have no compunctions.
We can judge religious racists to be wrong or improperly religious. But being shocked by their existence is like being shocked by people invoking the name of God before they pull a trigger. It’s horrible, but not surprising. In fact, when our shock replaces our engagement with such people, we find ourselves shouting things like “how can you do that”, when what we really mean is “stop”. And we know how effective that is.
But if we seriously inquired about how such people hold together multiple beliefs, some of which we experience as so good and others which seem so diametrically opposed, we might actually figure out how to help them see the wisdom of other, more humane positions. It really boils down to whether we want to wrap ourselves in “sacred shock and horror” or get over our own sanctimony and make real arguments in favor of that which we believe in ways that can be heard by those with other beliefs.
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