Race and religion in America

The 2007-2008 presidential run of Barack Obama energized discussion about the interplay between race and religion in the United States. This longstanding debate consistently draws political scientists, historians, theologians, sociologists, politicians and citizens.

It generates big, wide questions: Is religion used to justify racism? Does it help combat it? Or both? Does religion offer hope for erasing inequalities closely tied to race? How often does religious faith affect people’s view of other races and ethnicities? As the country becomes more ethnically diverse, how will that affect the various faith groups and their public voice on social policy?

At the same time, religion and race affect issues that play out in concrete ways in communities and through government policy on issues such as immigration, health care, education and criminal justice. ReligionLink offers a guide to experts on race and religion who can illuminate issues large and small.


Why it matters

People’s core beliefs about how others should be treated are often defined by religion and, sometimes, their view of race and ethnicity. The relationship between race and religion affects government policies on dozens of issues.



National sources

  • Cornel West

    Cornel West is the Princeton University Class of 1943 University Professor of Religion. His interests include philosophy of religion and cultural criticism. Among his many books are Race Matters and Democracy Matters. Among courses he teaches is “The Religious Dimensions of Du Bois, Baldwin and Morrison.”

  • Benjamin Valentin

    Benjamin Valentin teaches theology and culture at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton Centre, Mass., where he directs Latino/a studies. He co-chairs the AAR Latina/o Religion, Culture and Society Group. His expertise includes the intersection between Latinos and African-Americans, liberation theology and Hispanic theology. Valentin authored Mapping Public Theology: Beyond Culture, Identity and Difference (Trinity Press International, 2002); edited New Horizons in Hispanic/Latino(a) Theology (Pilgrim Press, 2003);and co-edited The Ties That Bind: African-American and Hispanic-American/ Latino(a) Theologies in Dialogue (Continuum, 2001).

  • Fernando Segovia

    Fernando Segovia, professor of New Testament and early Christianity at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., has written about the challenge and promise of Latino spirituality. He co-edited A Dream Unfinished: Theological Reflections on America from the Margins (Orbis Books, 2001).


  • Mark Noll

    Mark Noll is Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame and one of the most cited authorities today on evangelicalism in America. He co-founded the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College, where he taught for many years. Noll’s many books include America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln.

  • Khyati Y. Joshi

    Khyati Joshi is an associate professor of education at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, N.J., and a scholar on cultural and religious pluralism in the United States. Her books include New Roots in America’s Sacred Ground: Religion, Race and Ethnicity in Indian America. She is also co-founder of the Institute for Teaching Diversity and Social Justice (IDSJ), which offers multi-day institutes, customized workshops, and one-on-one and small-group coaching for organizations and professionals seeking to build their equity and justice competencies.

  • Sherman Jackson

    Sherman Jackson holds the King Faisal Chair of Islamic Thought and Culture at the University of Southern California, where he is also professor of religion and American studies and ethnicity. He was formerly the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Near Eastern Studies, Visiting Professor of Law and Professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Michigan. His books include Islamic Law and the State: The Constitutional Jurisprudence of Shihâb al-Dîn al-Qarâfî and Islam & the Problem of Black Suffering.

  • José Irizarry

    José Irizarry is a part-time professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University in Villanova, Pa. He can discuss public theology, religious education, ecumenism, intercultural issues and the arts.

  • Douglas Hartmann

    Douglas Hartmann is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota and co-author of the 2006 study on the social acceptance of atheists in America.

  • James H. Cone

    James H. Cone, Bill and Judith Moyers Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York, is the author of Risks of Faith: The Emergence of a Black Theology of Liberation, 1968-1998. He is widely considered to be one of the founders of black liberation theology, which frames Christianity as a means out of oppression.

  • Elizabeth Conde-Frazier

    Rev. Elizabeth Conde-Frazier is Dean of Eastern University in Penn. Her interests include immigration/migration and ecumenism. She is founder of the Orlando E. Costas Hispanic and Latin American Ministries Program at Andover Newton Theological School. She wrote Hispanic Bible Institutes: A Community of Theological Construction (University of Scranton Press, 2005) and co-wrote A Many Colored Kingdom: Multicultural Dynamics for Spiritual Formation (Baker Academic, 2004).

  • Anthea Butler

    Anthea Butler is an associate professor of religious studies and Africana studies and graduate chair of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She specializes in the history of Pentecostalism and is the author of White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America.

  • William S. Cohen

    Former U.S. Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen wrote Love in Black and White: A Memoir of Race, Religion and Romance with his wife, Janet Langhart. Cohen is white and the son of a Jewish father and a Protestant Irish mother, while Langhart is African-American and the daughter of a Southern Baptist mother, a single parent. Contact through publicist Max Pulsinelli.

  • Ed Gilbreath

    Ed Gilbreath, who lives in the Chicago area, is editor of Today’s Christian magazine and editor at large for Christianity Today. He wrote Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical’s Inside View of White Christianity and Gospel Trailblazer: An African-American Preacher’s Historic Journey Across Racial Lines.

  • Fumitaka Matsuoka

    Fumitaka Matsuoka is Robert Gordon Sproul Professor of Theology of Pacific School of Religion, Berkeley, Calif., where he is executive director of the Institute for Leadership Development and Study of Pacific and Asian North American Religion. He is an ordained minister in the Church of the Brethren. He co-edited Realizing the America of Our Hearts: Theological Voices of Asian Americans (Chalice Press, 2003) and wrote The Color of Faith: Building Community in a Multiracial Society (United Church Press, 1998) and Out of Silence: Emerging Themes in Asian American Churches (United Church Press, 1995).

  • Brenda Salter McNeil

    Brenda Salter McNeil is president of Salter McNeil & Associates, based in Oak Park, Ill., and a nationally known consultant on racial healing and diversity within Christian organizations. She co-authored The Heart of Racial Justice: How Soul Change Leads to Social Change (InterVarsity Press, 2004).

  • Patricia Raybon

    Patricia Raybon, a professor emeritus in journalism at the University of Colorado at Boulder, wrote My First White Friend: Confessions on Race, Love and Forgiveness (Penguin, 1997) and I Told the Mountain to Move (Tyndale House, 2005). She writes often about religion, family and race

  • Marc Schneier

    Rabbi Marc Schneier is founder and president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding and a leading figure in building up relationships between the Jewish community and African-Americans, Latinos, Christians and Muslims. He wrote Shared Dreams: Martin Luther King Jr. & the Jewish Community.

  • Mbaye Lo

    Mbaye Lo teaches Arabic at Duke University, Durham, N.C., and studies Islam in America. He is the author of Muslims in America: Race, Politics and Community Building (Amana, 2004).

  • Richard Land

    Richard Land is president of the nondenominational Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, N.C., and previously served for 25 years as president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

  • Brenda Girton-Mitchell

    Brenda Girton-Mitchell is director of the Department’s Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. She is also chaplain to the National Bar Association and is a deacon trustee at the Metropolitan Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. She can discuss the NCC’s work on social issues, including marriage, single-parenthood and families. Contact 202-544-2350.

    Contact: 202-544-2350.
  • General Commission on Religion and Race

    The General Commission on Religion and Race is one of six commissions of the United Methodist Church.

  • Mark Franken

    Mark Franken is executive director of migration and refugee services for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

  • Russell Moore

    Russell Moore is editor-in-chief of Christianity Today.

  • Assemblies of God USA

    Assemblies of God is a national and international organization that makes up the world’s largest Pentecostal denomination of some 66 million members and adherents worldwide, and over 3 million members in the U.S. The organization works to promote religion itself and aspects of practice to its members. The church’s four-fold mission is expressed through evangelism, discipleship, worship and compassion.


Many universities have centers that focus on the study of race and ethnicity, and many of those have faculty members and/or programs that include religion. Websites offer a range of resources. Here are some of the most prominent centers:

  • Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture

    The Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis explores the connection between religion and other aspects of American culture.

  • Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity

    Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. is dedicated to the study and research on race and ethnicity across all the disciplines and national boundaries. The organization is divided into two interdisciplinary undergraduate programs and a research institute.

  • Race, Ethnicity & Religion Project

    Race, Ethnicity & Religion Project at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. is dedicated to the research and study of the relationship between race, ethnicity and religion in the U.S. Contact project coordinator Kornelia Tancheva.

  • Program of Black Church Studies

    The Program of Black Church Studies at Emory University, Atlanta, Ga. educates men and women on the “origins, development, and contemporary diversity of the black church tradition.” The program includes the exploration of other religious traditions. Contact Dr. Andrea C. White.

  • Center for the Study of Religion and Society

    The Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame in Notre Dame, Ind. is dedicated to the study and research of religion in society through scholarly research, training and publications.

  • Center for the Study of Religion and Culture

    The Center for the Study of Religion and Culture at Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville, Tenn. works to develop, promote and increase faculty research on the relationship between religion and culture.

  • Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations

    The Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations at the University of Florida Levin College of Law in Gainesville, Fla. works to de-stigmatize race by educating and encouraging studies and discussions on the topic. Contact director Katheryn Russell-Brown.

  • Center for Race and Gender

    The Center for Race and Gender at the University of California, in Berkeley, Calif. is a research facility that studies the intersection of race and gender in society.

    Contact: 510-643-8488.
  • Center on Race, Religion and Urban Life

    The Center on Race, Religion and Urban Life at Rice University in Houston, Tex. conducts research and supports education on race, religion and society.

  • Center on Race and Social Problems

    The Center on Race and Social Problems at the University of Pittsburgh, Pa. is dedicated to the social-science research on race, color and ethnicity, and the quality of life for all Americans.

  • Center for Reconciliation

    The Center for Reconciliation at Duke University in Durham, N.C. is dedicated to “shaping a distinctly Christian vision of reconciliation, with a desire to equip the Church for reconciliation, justice, and peacemaking in a divided world.”

  • Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race

    The Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race at Columbia University in New York is dedicated to promoting innovative thinking about race, ethnicity and other categories of difference to better understand their roles and impacts on society.

  • Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America

    The Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America at Brown University in Providence, R.I. is dedicated to research, academic exchanges and scholarship on ethnic studies.


  • Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity and Gender

    The Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity and Gender at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa. studies the issues on race, ethnicity and gender that are “essential to understanding the world of the 21st century.” Contact Director, Susan Reed.

  • Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture

    The Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture at the University of Chicago, Ill. is dedicated to establishing a new type of research institute that studies the relationship of race and ethnicity.

  • The Pluralism Project

    The Pluralism Project at Harvard University lists resources across the country by religious tradition, including interfaith resources. It is aimed at engaging students in studying the new religious diversity in the United States.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Harold Dean Trulear

    Harold Dean Trulear, senior pastor of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Twin Oaks, Pa., is an expert on religion and social policy. He is associate professor of religious education at Howard University and is ordained in both the Progressive National Baptist Convention and American Baptist Churches in the USA.

  • Cheryl J. Sanders

    Cheryl J. Sanders is professor of Christian ethics at Howard University School of Divinity and senior pastor of the Third Street Church of God in Washington, D.C. She has written extensively on race and culture and on the holiness-Pentecostal experience in African-American religion and culture. She can discuss the tradition of community work among black churches.

  • Eddie Glaude Jr.

    Eddie Glaude Jr. is a professor of religion and African-American studies at Princeton University in Princeton, N.J. He specializes in African-American religious history and is the editor of Is It Nation Time? Contemporary Essays on Black Power and Black Nationalism.

  • Michael Eric Dyson

    Michael Eric Dyson is Avalon Foundation Professor of Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster (Basic Civitas Books, 2006).

  • David Kyuman Kim

    David Kyuman Kim is an assistant professor of religious studies at Connecticut College in New London, Conn., and director of the college’s Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity.

  • Cheryl Townsend Gilkes

    Cheryl Townsend Gilkes is a professor of sociology and African-American studies at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. She is an expert on black churches. She has written widely, including If It Wasn’t for the Women: Black Women’s Experience and Womanist Culture in Church and Community (Orbis Books, 2000).

  • Wallace D. Best

    Wallace D. Best is professor of religion and African-American studies at Princeton University. He has written about storefront churches and other topics concerning black Americans and religion, and he teaches a course titled “The African-American Sacred Music Tradition.”

  • Judith Weisenfeld

    Judith Weisenfeld is a professor of religion at Princeton University, where she specializes in American religion, with an emphasis on the 20th century and African American religion. She is the author of Hollywood Be Thy Name: African American Religion in American Film, 1929-1949. She has taught 17 courses, including ones on religion and American film, religion and the civil rights movement, and “cult” controversies in America

  • Tamelyn Tucker-Worgs

    Tamelyn Tucker-Worgs, associate professor of political science and African-American studies at Hood College in Frederick, Md., teaches African-American religions, the politics of the black church and black liberation theology.

  • Peter Paris

    The Rev. Peter Paris, an ordained Baptist minister, is Elmer G. Homrighausen Professor of Christian Social Ethics and Liaison with the Princeton University African American Studies Program at Princeton Theological Seminary.

  • Pyong Gap Min

    Pyong Gap Min is professor of sociology at Queens College, Flushing, N.Y, and his research interests include race and ethnic relations, ethnic identity, immigrants’ religions and Asian-Americans. During the 2006-07 academic year, he worked as a visiting scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation. His books include, as editor, the three-volume Encyclopedia of Racism in the United States (Greenwood Press, 2005) and, as co-editor, Religions in Asian America: Building Faith Communities (Altamira Press, 2002).

  • Henry Goldschmidt

    Henry Goldschmidt, assistant professor of religion and society at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., wrote Race and Religion Among the Chosen Peoples of Crown Heights (Rutgers, 2006) and co-edited Race, Nation and Religion in the Americas (Oxford University Press, 2004). He teaches a course called “Race and the Making of American Jewish Identities.”

  • Preston N. Williams

    The Rev. Preston N. Williams is Houghton Research Professor of Theology and Contemporary Change Emeritus at Harvard University, Boston. He directs the Summer Leadership Institute and is an ordained minister in the United Presbyterian Church.

  • Marla Frederick

    Marla Frederick is an assistant professor of African-American studies and of religion at Harvard University, Boston. Her expertise includes the African-American religious experience. She wrote Between Sundays: Black Women and Everyday Struggles of Faith (University of California Press, 2003). 

  • Khalilah Brown-Dean

    Khalilah Brown-Dean is assistant professor of political science and African-American studies at Yale University, New Haven, Conn.

In the South

  • Katie Geneva Cannon

    Katie Geneva Cannon is president of the Society for the Study of Black Religion. She was the first black woman ordained in the United Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and she is Annie Scales Rogers Professor of Christian Ethics at Union Theological Seminary and Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, Va. Her areas of expertise are womanist theology, women in society and religion and Christian ethics. She wrote the book of essays Katie’s Canon: Womanism and the Soul of the Black Community and Black Womanist Ethics (Continuum International, 1997).

  • Robert M. Franklin

    Robert M. Franklin was tenth president of Morehouse College in Atlanta. He was ordained in the Church of God in Christ and worships in several different traditions. He has previously been president of the Interdenominational Theological Center, directed black church studies at Candler School of Theology and has been the Ford Foundation’s program officer, directing grants to African-American churches delivering secular social services. He is a frequent commentator and radio and TV guest. Among the books he has written are Crisis in the Village: Restoring Hope to African American Communities (Fortress, February 2007) and Another Day’s Journey: Black Churches Confronting the American Crisis (Fortress, 1997).

  • Jacquelyn Grant

    Jacquelyn Grant is Callaway Professor of Systematic Theology at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, where she founded and directs the Center for Black Women in Church and Society. She wrote White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus: Feminist Christology and Womanist Response (American Academy of Religion, 1988). She is also assistant minister at Victory African Methodist Episcopal Church in Atlanta.

  • Michelle Gonzalez Maldonado

    Michelle Gonzalez Maldonado is an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla. Her interests include Afro-Cuban studies, feminist theologies and Hispanic religiosity. She wrote Sor Juana: Beauty and Justice in the Americas; Afro-Cuban Theology: Religion, Race, Culture and Identity; and Embracing Latina Spirituality: A Woman’s Perspective.

  • Michael Leo Owens

    Michael Leo Owens is an associate professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga. specializing in urban politics; state and local politics; political penology; governance and public policy processes; religion and politics; and African American politics. He is the author of the 2007 book God and Government in the Ghetto: The Politics of Church-State Collaboration in Black America and numerous articles and essays on faith-based community development and political mobilization by congregations in the United States.

  • Michael O. Emerson

    Michael O. Emerson is a professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He has written several books on race and religion, including People of the Dream: Multiracial Congregations in the United States and Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America.

  • Gerardo Martí

    Gerardo Martí is a sociology professor at Davidson College, Davidson, North Carolina. He teaches about race and ethnic relations and is the author of A Mosaic of Believers: Diversity and Innovation in a Multiethnic Church. Martí is researching whether worship music matters for making congregations racially and ethnically diverse.

  • Eric L. Goldstein

    Eric L. Goldstein is an associate professor of history and of Jewish studies at Emory University, Atlanta, and edits the quarterly journal American Jewish History. He wrote The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race and American Identity (Princeton University Press, 2006).

  • Eric McDaniel

    Eric McDaniel is associate professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin. He researches religion and politics, including Black religious organizations’ political involvement and what effect they have on Black political activity.

  • Chris Rice

    Chris Rice co-directs the Center for Reconciliation at Duke University. He wrote Grace Matters: A True Story of Race, Friendship and Faith in the Heart of the South (Jossey-Bass, 2002) and co-authored More Than Equals: Racial Healing for the Sake of the Gospel (InterVarsity Press, 1993).

  • Alton B. Pollard III

    Alton B. Pollard III directs the Program of Black Church Studies at Emory University, Atlanta, where he is an associate professor of religion and culture. He co-edited How Long This Road: Race, Religion and the Legacy of C. Eric Lincoln (Palgrave MacMillan, 2003).

In the Midwest

  • Omar McRoberts

    Omar McRoberts, associate professor at the University of Chicago sociology department, has studied faith-based prisoner re-entry programs. He wrote Streets of Glory: Church and Community in a Black Urban Neighborhood (University of Chicago Press, 2005).

  • Christian Smith

    Christian Smith is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame. He was co-principal investigator for the Youth and Religion Project. He is the author, with Melinda Lundquist Denton, of a book summarizing major findings from that study called Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford University Press, 2005). He has written widely on religious giving and is co-author of Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don’t Give Away More Money (2008).

  • Mary R. Sawyer

    Mary R. Sawyer was a professor of religious studies at Iowa State University in Ames. She wrote the entry “National Conference of Black Christians” for the Encyclopedia of African and African-American Religions (Routledge, 2001). She has written about women’s leadership roles in the black church.

  • Dwight N. Hopkins

    Dwight N. Hopkins, University of Chicago theology professor, has written about black theology of liberation and also about gun control. Black liberation theology, he says, is aligning more closely with black churches and developing partnerships with liberation theologians in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America and the Pacific Islands.

  • Carolyn Chen

    Carolyn Chen is an associate professor in the ethnic studies department at the University of California, Berkeley, whose research interests include religion, ethnicity, immigration and sociology of work.

  • Larry G. Murphy

    Larry G. Murphy is a professor of the history of Christianity at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Northwestern University, in Evanston, Ill. He wrote African-American Faith in America (Facts on File, 2002) and edited Down by the Riverside: Readings in African American Religion (New York University Press, 2000).

  • Korie Little Edwards

    Korie Little Edwards is an associate professor of sociology at The Ohio State University. She researches interracial churches and African American churches and is the author of The Elusive Dream: The Power of Race in Interracial Churches.

In the West

  • Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo

    Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo is a sociology professor at the University of Southern California and an expert on issues of illegal immigration and the illegal-immigrant rights movement in the United States. She is the author of Doméstica: Immigrant Workers Cleaning and Caring in the Shadows of Affluence.

  • Jane Iwamura

    Jane Iwamura is the chair of the religious studies program at the University of the West in Rosemead, Calif. She specializes in Asian-American religions, race and popular culture. She co-edited Revealing the Sacred in Asian & Pacific America.

  • Russell Jeung

    Russell Jeung is assistant professor of Asian American studies at San Francisco State University and author of Faithful Generations: Race and New Asian American Churches (Rutgers University Press, 2004).

  • Rudy Busto

    Rudy Busto is an associate professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His specialties include race and religion in the United States, and Asian-American/Pacific Islander religions, Latino religion and evangelical Christianity.

  • Brad Christerson

    Brad Christerson is an assistant professor of sociology at Biola University, La Mirada, Calif. He co-authored Against All Odds: The Struggle for Racial Integration in Religious Organizations (New York University Press, 2005).

  • Charles J. McClain Jr.

    Charles J. McClain Jr. is lecturer in residence and vice chairman of the jurisprudence and social policy program at the University of California, Berkeley. He wrote In Search of Equality: The Chinese Struggle Against Discrimination in Nineteenth-Century America (University of California, 1996).

  • Sara M. Patterson

    Sara M. Patterson, visiting assistant professor of American religious history at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles co-edited Race, Religion, Region: Landscapes of Encounter in the American West (University of Arizona Press, 2006).

  • Roberto Lint Sagarena

    Roberto Lint Sagarena is an assistant professor of religion and of American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. His research interests include religion and migration.

  • Paul R. Spickard

    Paul R. Spickard is professor of 20th-century American social and cultural history at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He co-edited Revealing the Sacred in Asian & Pacific America (Routledge, 2003).

  • David K. Yoo

    David K. Yoo is an associate professor of history at Claremont McKenna College. He edited New Spiritual Homes: Religion and Asian Americans (University of Hawaii, 1999) and wrote Growing Up Nisei: Race, Generation and Culture Among Japanese Americans of California, 1924-49 (University of Illinois, 1999).

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