In many white Christian contexts, theology produced by racial minorities comes with an assumption of heresy and heterodoxy. The implicit message from many [conservative] white pastors and professors is that black Christians have theological integrity to the degree they adopt the teachings that come from approved European and white American sources.
–from The Color of Compromise by Jemar Tisby
Right as 2019 was ending, Daniel Akin, President of the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, called the late Rev. Dr. James Cone a heretic. I don’t know how much news of this made it to mainline/liberal/progressive theological circles, but it’s been on my mind since.
Then, earlier this month, Stanford University announced a paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology* by lead researcher Steven O. Roberts which shows a connection between people’s concept of God and who they think should be leaders.
While the first part of the paper talks about how people conceptualize God, what’s really fascinating is something that the authors note:
Again, even in a novel context, and even among adults who do not believe in God (Study 5) or children who have never heard of God (Study 7), beliefs about a god’s identity predicted the belief that those who shared that identity were more fit for leadership. Informed by these data, we propose that across many contexts, the extent to which people believe in a god and attribute a specific social identity to that god might predict the extent to which they conceptualize those who share that identity as god-like. Our data provide strong support for this possibility, though additional research, especially cross-cultural research, will be needed (see below).
Our finding that even young children conceptualize God as more White than Black (and more male than female), which predicts the conception of White candidates as more boss-like, is particularly important for understanding the development of religious ideologies and social biases. The present research demonstrates, for the first time, that U.S. children have beliefs about God’s social identity, which predict their conceptions of human beings. Preventing children from attributing a social identity to God, or perhaps even encouraging them to develop counter representations of God (e.g., Asian woman), may prevent them from making the kind of hierarchy-reinforcing inferences detected here. How to achieve this will be a challenge for future researchers, especially in the domain of gender, given that descriptions and depictions of God as male are so pervasive.
I’ve been around white religious liberals for a while now. And I see how both the Tisby quote and the information from the Roberts paper play out. Quite often, theology of the marginalized is looked at as a novelty (and less rigorous), if it’s looked at at all. And the way marginalized people are looked at if they talk in liberation theology-speak instead of liberal theology-speak is particularly telling. Is it because the God of liberation theology is decidedly not-white?
What does it mean for liberal religion if those who are the leaders (and lay people) in it mostly see God as white? Who is considered worthy? Who gets to lead? What gets preached from the pulpit? What gets taught in Sunday School?
If God is white, is white God?
*–Roberts, S. O., Weisman, K., Lane, J. D., Williams, A., Camp, N. P., Wang, M., Robison, M., Sanchez, K., & Griffiths, C. (2020). God as a White man: A psychological barrier to conceptualizing Black people and women as leadership worthy. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.