Bradley Wright on Religion, Race, and Discrimination
Date: August 30th, 2015

When it comes to welcoming a stranger to a new church, are mainline churches, evangelicals, or Catholics more likely to discriminate based upon racial-sounding names?  Prof. Bradley Wright — an associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut — reveals the findings from his field experiment designed to answer this question.  The answers may surprise, and Brad provides some insight into why mainlines churches may differ from evangelicals when it comes to welcoming individuals who are different from them.

The first half of our interview is devoted to a methodological and ethical discussion of Prof. Wright’s innovative study.  While this may sound a bit dry to some, understanding how academic studies that are reported in the news are conducted is very important, and both Brad and Tony spice up things with a bit of humorous banter.  Brad lists the colleagues who helped in the study, their various roles, where the idea for the project came from (hint: his first book that we link to below), and how the study was set up.  To uncover the possible prevalence of racial discrimination across different religious denominations, Brad and his team sent emails out to several thousand churches across the U.S. mentioning that the they were a person moving to the area and looking for a new congregation.  The emails were randomly tagged with “racial sounding” names.  Prof. Wright discusses how they came up with these names, and how the sample of congregations was generated.  We also get into the ethics behind such a study.  Brad describes the “internal review board” process and how the identities of participants were protected.

We then review how Brad and his team decided to measure and code responses from churches, determining whether they were “warm and welcoming” or “terse.”  We also talk about the all-important category of non-responses, which contain as much information as responses.  Tony questions Brad as to whether some responses represent “racial discrimination” or whether the church staff avoided answering a response because they believed they didn’t have the language capacity to minister to certain individuals (particularly true with Asian and Latino congregants).  Brad has some interesting comments on this topic.

The second half of the interview looks at some of the theoretical expectations behind the study.  Brad introduces Tony to the term “homophily,” which is a sociological concept wherein individuals tend to clump together with others who are like them.  While Christianity espouses an openness to all humans, Christians are individual people who do sort out according to demographic and cultural characteristics.  That people like to attend churches close to them, and that neighborhoods are clustered according to similar demographics pretty much determines that congregations will be hemophilic as well.  But what if somebody of a different race seeks to move into one of these neighborhoods?  Who will be more welcoming?  The standard hypothesis is that mainline Christians who prefer a “social gospel” theology of racial inclusiveness and justice will be the ones with more open arms to those from different races or ethnicities.  Evangelicals, it is assumed, will tend to be more exclusive, fitting in with the general stereotype of them in the media.

Brad finally reveals his findings and, much to his surprise, it turns out that evangelicals are more welcoming to those of different races than are mainline congregations!  He also reviews the difference in response rates and response quality to different races, with Asian respondents being the least likely to be welcomed.  Brad suggests that this surprising result is due to evangelicals’ emphasis on personal salvation and that this makes them more likely to engage with people one-on-one.  This is contrasted with mainline theology that looks more towards groups, and larger systems of social justice.  Tony probes Brad’s data a bit more, getting Brad to reveal that there are geographic differences in responses as well, something that he is saving for a future publication.  We finish off with some updates on SoulPulse, a “big data” project that seeks to measure how people interact with their faith on a day-to-day and hour-to-hour basis.  Listeners can participate in this study by clicking the link below.  Recorded: August 21. 2015.



Prof. Bradley Wright’s bio at University of Connecticut.

Prof. Wright’s personal blog.

SoulPulse, a unique smart phone-based study that you are participate in.

“Dear Pastor, Can I Come to Your Church?” by Bradley R.E. Wright on Christianity Today (preview).

Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites … and Other Lies You’ve Been Told, by  Bradley R.E. Wright.

Upside: Surprising Good News About the State of Our World, by Bradley R.E. Wright.


Bradley Wright on SoulPulse.

Bradley Wright on the Upside of Life.

Bradley Wright on Christian Stereotypes.

James Patterson on MLK, Fulton Sheen, and Jerry Falwell.

Darrin Mather on Evangelical and Racial Attitudes.

Luis Bolce on the Media and Anti-Fundamentalism.

4 Responses to “Bradley Wright on Religion, Race, and Discrimination”

  1. Craig Ott says:

    Thanks for a an excellent podcast! Two questions for Brad: first, is the article in print yet? I wasn’t able to find it with the usual searches.
    Second: Please explain how you controlled for the rival hypothesis that evangelical churches may just be more interested in growth and outreach, and that the responses have less to do with race per se.

  2. Brad Wright says:

    Hello Craig,

    Thanks for the questions. The paper will come out in the next several weeks at JSSR. If you want to email me, I can send you an earlier draft.

    Growth and outreach is part of evangelical hypothesis… that they want to see love and justice happen at the individual level and part of this is outreach. So, I’d agree that’s part of the story. Put differently, the great commission = welcoming strangers of all races.

    Thanks for the questions,


  3. Andy Rowell says:

    Glad to see Brad and Craig interacting here! Good, sharp people! Thanks Brad for this update on your earlier findings. Fascinating!

Leave a Reply

Listen or Download This Episode
Search The Podcast
To search the podcast, type a term and click the Search button.

Connect With Us