Nationwide protests against racial injustice have shone a spotlight on U.S. corporations’ lack of diversity. Despite decades of initiatives to increase the number of Black executives, only 1 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are Black. While there are many reasons for this disparity—including systemic racism and discrimination and a lack of economic opportunity—psychologists have recently uncovered a startling potential factor: the tendency to view God as white. Christianity, the dominant religion in the U.S., conceptualizes the deity as the ultimate leader. And the image that people associate with God can color the image they have of leaders in general.
Psychologist Steven O. Roberts of Stanford University and his colleagues recently published a paper describing seven studies that link our conceptualizations of God with those who we see as fit for leadership. In one study, the researchers asked a sample of 1,000 Christians of different backgrounds how they picture God: old or young, white or Black, male or female. Along with asking people directly, the researchers showed participants 12 pairs of faces that varied in age, gender, and race and asked them to select the visage that most closely matched their idea of God. In both the approaches, indirect and direct, the majority saw the Almighty as older and male. White people tended to view God as white, while Black individuals were more likely to see the figure as Black. These same participants were then asked to imagine they were assisting a company in its search for a new leader. After seeing the faces of 32 job candidates that varied in gender and race, they rated each contender’s suitability for the leadership position. Those who believed that God was white were more likely to select white candidates over Black ones. And the more participants believed that God was male, the more highly they rated male candidates, compared with female ones.
The researchers replicated the study with a group of children to determine how these intuitions play out at a younger age. In that examination, they recruited 176 Christian children of diverse racial backgrounds in the U.S., ranging in age from four to 12, and asked them to draw a picture of God. A sample of 224 adults, blind to the study’s hypotheses, assessed the age, gender and race of the figure depicted in the children’s drawings. Their assessments indicated that, like adults, children tend to view God as a white man. The young participants were also shown 12 faces that varied in race and gender and were asked to choose the three most likely to represent the researchers’ “bosses.” The children showed no preference for gender, choosing male and female individuals equally. But race remained a key determinant: those who had drawn God as white also selected more white people as the “bosses.”
Although highly suggestive, these studies showed a correlation, not a causation: the researchers still had not proved that people’s beliefs about God’s identity caused their leadership preferences. To answer this question, investigators designed a thought experiment set on a mythical planet named Zombot. This world, participants were told, contained two kinds of creatures, Hibbles and Glerks, who pray to the god Liakbor, the creator of Zombot. Subjects were informed that Liakbor was a Hibble, a Glerk or an alien creature. They were then asked to decide whether Hibbles or Glerks should rule over Zombot. Participants who were told the Liakbor was a Hibble thought that the Hibbles should run the planet. Those who were made to believe that the god was a Glerk chose Glerks as the rulers. And those who thought Liakbor was an alien creature did not reach any consensus. Remarkably, when the researchers replicated this study among atheists in the U.S., the results were identical. Regardless of whether people actually believe in God, they still use a fictitious deity’s identity to make judgments about who should be leaders.
On the surface, it seems unlikely that people’s image of God has anything to do with corporate America’s ongoing struggle to advance Black employees. But the present research provides a strong argument that our assumptions about who should rule in heaven strongly affect our preconceptions about who should do so on earth. Historians have argued that a white view of God has been prevalent in the U.S. since the 1830s and was actively embraced and promoted by white people in order to assert and justify their greater social power. Manipulating individuals’ conceptions of the deity appears to be an effective way to reinforce beliefs about who belongs at the top of the social hierarchy. And as shown by the study with children, these views develop at an early age and are deeply ingrained in our psychology. While troubling, this observation also offers hope that by exposing children to more diverse representations of God, such as through books or other media, we can reduce racial prejudice. Dismantling the religious imagery that depicts God as white will likely require a lot of effort. But understanding the underlying effects of the phenomenon could help explain why decades of diversity training have done little to change people’s behavior—after all, the supreme leader they worship is white.