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Religious Conservatives and Outsiders: Determinants of Cross-Racial Ties Among White Christians


This article analyzes how a congregation’s theology and denominational affiliation influence the racial ties of its white members. We posit two distinct pathways. In the first, theologically conservative congregations generate more embedded social ties (measured by number of friendships) than do non-conservative congregations, and more congregation friendships increase the likelihood of cross-racial ties. In the second pathway, congregations not affiliated with historically major denominational families report higher levels of racial diversity, and high levels of congregation racial diversity increase the likelihood of cross-racial ties. Our key methodological innovation is to divide Evangelical congregations into two categories: those affiliated with the historically major families (Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian) and those not (e.g., Pentecostal, Seventh-Day Adventist). Christian groups that join theological conservatism and outsider (non-major) status generate high levels of friendships and racial diversity in their congregations, both of which contribute to cross-racial ties among white members. Analysis of survey data from a national probability sample of white Christians (2006 Faith Matters Survey) mostly supports our hypotheses.

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Fig. 1


  1. In this article, “outsider” or “non-major” simply refers to being outside historically major denominational families (Mainline, Major-Evangelical). Outsider does not mean sectarian or socially marginal, in the sense of Jehovah's Witnesses or early Mormons and Pentecostals.

  2. The GSS scheme (Major Protestant Families/Other Protestant) is a parsimonious, established method to code historically major, denominational families. The groups coded as “Other Protestant” were mostly either nonexistent or considered less establishment than the “Major Protestant Families” denominations before 1950, and we expect this institutional history to influence current race relations. The validity of the categorization emerges in our analysis.

  3. The variables for black friend and Hispanic friend are dichotomous; therefore, we utilize logistic regression. Congregation racial diversity is originally an ordinal variable; for purpose of analysis, it is appropriate to construct dichotomous variables for high and medium levels of diversity. To facilitate comparisons among adjusted odds-ratios, we also construct dichotomous variables for high and medium levels of congregational friends and total friends. Wuthnow (2003) also creates dichotomous variables for friends (10 or more friends; less than 3 friends).

    Alternately, one can analyze congregational friends and total friends as simple count variables. In separate analysis (not shown), we conducted ordinary least squares regression on congregation friends and used logged counts of congregation friends and total friends to predict black and Hispanic friends. The results are substantively similar.

  4. Putnam and Campbell (2010 : 296) find that the most important predictor of congregation diversity is congregation size (c.f., Chaves 2011), followed by Catholic, county racial diversity, Latino (race of respondent), West region, Evangelical, age, and female. The publically available dataset does not include county diversity, so we use urban residence as a proxy. Instead of West, we use the South region. Contrary to Emerson (2006: 49), participation in small church groups is not a significant predictor of congregation racial diversity (analysis not shown). The Faith Matters dataset does not include a variable for charismatic worship (cf., Emerson 2006; Dougherty and Huyser 2008).

    An appendix of our variables and measurements and a table of summary statistics (not shown) are available upon request from the authors.

  5. In Table 1, 17% of white Christians attend highly diverse congregations (less than three-quarters white). The 17% figure matches the results of the 2006–07 National Congregations Survey: 17% of all congregations report no race making up 80% or more of the majority (Chaves and Anderson 2014). The NCS reports a steady, linear growth in such congregations, from 15.3% (1998) to 19.7 (2012).

  6. One might infer that the differences between Major- and Other-Evangelicals are explained by geography. Major-Evangelicals, mostly Baptists, are concentrated in the historically segregated South. In further analysis (not shown), we find the differences are not geographic in nature. Even among Southern whites, Other-Evangelicals are 11% more likely to frequently attend service, nearly twice as likely to report multiracial congregations, and more likely to claim black and especially Hispanic friends than are Major-Evangelicals.

  7. Ideally we would have utilized structural equation modeling or some sort of path analysis, as our theoretical model implies the existence of endogeneous variables, but our variables of interest are binary (e.g., close black friends) and this is a non-trivial case for such approaches. Thus, we opted to use logistic regression using listwise complete cases to model outcomes.

  8. In additional analysis, the absolute number of friends in one’s congregation is highly correlated with her total number of friends (r = 0.367, p < .001).

  9. Due to the way church diversity and congregational friendships are operationalized, we are not able to investigate the intuitive possibility that having many congregational friendships within a diverse church is more likely to lead to cross-racial friendships than either having many congregational friendships or attending a diverse church alone. We hope to test this interaction in the future using either different data or a different analytic approach.


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This article was supported by Hanyang University Research Fund.

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Correspondence to Joseph Yi.

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Joseph Yi and Christopher Graziul have contributed equally to the article.

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Yi, J., Graziul, C. Religious Conservatives and Outsiders: Determinants of Cross-Racial Ties Among White Christians. Rev Relig Res 59, 231–250 (2017).

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  • Christian
  • Evangelical
  • Race
  • Social ties (friendship)
  • Bridging