Robert P. Jones. The End of White Christian America. Simon & Schuster, 2016. (321 pages)
This is an incredibly insightful and helpful read for two specific audiences.
First, for anyone wondering and/or despondent about our current socio-political state of affairs, Jones elucidates an important perspective as well as a prophetic telos. The five final words of the book are “new life is taking root.” While that darn bend in the “moral arc of the universe” is unfortunately not as angled as we would hope, the curvature is still right. For many in this fight against the ways in which race and religion have been used to subjugate and oppress, little in the historical accounting will be of any surprise. But the statistical and demographic approach should offer some solace that the effort to combat injustice is not only worth it but actually effective.
Second, for anyone who is NOT wondering and/or despondent, and maybe even perplexed at why we’re even talking about race and religion, Jones will be a highly necessary introductory course. Historically, our social and political consciousness was laced with racial and religious ideas and ideals. The same will be true for our future body politic for a very long time. Ignoring the indelible mark that race and religion have played and will continue to play in America’s body politic is to not just be unaware, but irresponsible; complicit, even.
Are there three other subjects that are more debated and emotionally wrought than race, religion, and nationalism? Wonderfully helpful, Jones has provided for us an objective accounting of all three through statistics and demography. But he has also written a deeply just and compassionate human response to the numbers. Far from stale accounting, this book is also a plea for a better–and even ultimate–experience of race, religion, and citizenship, one in which white supremacy, religious fundamentalism, and ethnonationalism are eulogized. I am dubious about Jones’s suggestion that White Christian America’s descendants will be left only with “acceptance.” I sense the fight will persist. But for those of us who believe in the Unum of e Pluribus, we can take heart in the charts.
An Obituary for White Christain America
After a long life spanning nearly two hundred and forty years, White Christian America— a prominent cultural force in the nation’s history— has died. WCA first began to exhibit troubling symptoms in the 1960s when white mainline Protestant denominations began to shrink, but showed signs of rallying with the rise of the Christian Right in the 1980s. Following the 2004 presidential election, however, it became clear that WCA’s powers were failing. Although examiners have not been able to pinpoint the exact time of death, the best evidence suggests that WCA finally succumbed in the latter part of the first decade of the twenty-first century. The cause of death was determined to be a combination of environmental and internal factors— complications stemming from major demographic changes in the country, along with religious disaffiliation as many of its younger (1) members began to doubt WCA’s continued relevance in a shifting cultural environment.
Among WCA’s many notable achievements was its service to the nation as a cultural touchstone during most of its life. It provided a shared aesthetic, a historical framework, and a moral vocabulary. WCA’s vibrancy was historically one of the most prominent features of American public life. While the common cultural ground it offered did not prevent vehement—or even bloody—conflicts from erupting, the lingua franca of WCA gave them a coherent frame.
As the nation was being born, George Washington invoked WCA in his first inaugural address. And when it was being torn apart during the Civil War, WCA provided biblical themes and principles that called the nation back to its highest ideals. Without WCA, neither Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address nor Martin Luther King, Jr.’ s, “Letter from Birmingham Jail” could have been written, let alone understood. Virtually every American president has drawn from WCA’s well, particularly during moments of strife.
During its long life, WCA also produced a dizzying array of institutions, from churches to hospitals, social service organizations, and civic organizations such as the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and the YMCA. Beyond these direct functions, WCA also helped incubate and promote the missions of countless independent nongovernmental organizations that met in its facilities and were staffed with its members. Widespread (2) participation in WCA’s lay leadership positions served as an important source of social capital for the nation, instilling in participants skills they carried, not only to other civic organizations, but to democratic governance itself.
But WCA has not been without its critics and controversies. Its reputation was especially marred by its general accommodation to and participation in the institution of slavery up until the Civil War. In the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, WCA’s apathy toward— and in some quarters even staunch defense of— segregation in the American South did little to overturn these negative associations. Its credibility was also damaged when it became mired in partisan politics in the closing decades of the twentieth century. Late in its life, WCA also struggled to adequately address issues such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights, which were of particular importance to its younger members, as well as to younger Americans overall.
WCA is survived by two principal branches of descendants: a mainline Protestant family residing primarily in the Northeast and upper Midwest and an evangelical Protestant family living mostly in the South. Plans for a public memorial service have not been announced. (3)
1. Who Is White Christian America?
White Christian America’s Life in Architecture
cf. St. Paul’s Chapel in lower Manhattan and Trinity Church, a few blocks south of St. Paul’s, on Broadway
cf. the United Methodist Building in Washington, D.C.
cf. the Interchurch Center on New York City’s Upper West Side
cf. the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California
These buildings, edifices of the white Protestant Christian hope and power that rose and receded over the course of the twentieth century, represent–respectively–the high water mark of the first wave of white mainline Protestant denominational optimism in the Roaring Twenties, the second wave of white mainline Protestant ecumenism at midcentury, and the third wave of white evangelical Protestant resurgence in the 1980s. (7)
Indeed, through the life of these buildings, we can see the decline of white Protestant dominance amid the steady diversification of the American religious landscape. (7)
The United Methodist Building (Washington D.C., 1923): White Mainline Protestant Optimism
The public tide against Prohibition began to turn before the ink had dried on the Eighteenth Amendment, but [Dr. Clarence True] Wilson continued to defend the ban on alcohol as the “greatest moral triumph of Christianity in a century.” (11)
Well into the twentieth century, Protestant critics accused the Catholic Church of debasing Christianity, encouraging ignorance and superstition among its members, and stifling religious freedom and democratic citizenship through blind obedience to the pope and his U.S. deputies, local Catholic bishops and priests. But by the 1920s, thanks to rapid population growth, Roman 912) Catholicism’s influence could no longer be ignored–hence the need for an assertive “Protestant presence” in the nation’s capital. (13)
The passage of the Twenty-first Amendment was an undisputable confirmation of Protestant leaders’ loss of political power. (14)
The Interchurch Center (New York City, 1960): White Mainline Protestant Ecumenism
The 2500 occupants of this building will not only at times worship together but they will work together for common objectives. And it is by working together that we best develop ‘the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.’ We hold endless discussions of racial problems and church unity. It would be far better if we stopped talking so much about these problems and got together as races and churches to tackle together our common problems such as moral laxity, juvenile delinquency, and the dangers of war. – Ralph Sockman
At the Interchurch Center’s official dedication ceremony, visitors were invited to wander through a corridor lined with documents related to American religious freedom. After gazing at a display dedicated to “the basic theme that it is faith in God and understanding of his laws which provide sanction for human freedom,” exhibit goers would walk past panels showing early American documents that guaranteed (18) religious liberty, ending with a display case showing the evolution of “In God We Trust” on American money. The point was clear: America was a pluralistic but fundamentally religious country, and the Protestant-led ecumenical movement–with its powerful symbolic incarnation in the Interchurch Center–was positioning itself to be the official voice of American religiosity. (19)
The truth was that the longed-for spirit of ecumenical activity had never fully materialized, even when the building was new. For example, the NCC’s administration failed even in their attempts to convince the tenants to create a building-wide phone system. Over time, the desire for denominational self-sufficiency–and the growing sense that New York City was the home of an elite East Coast liberal establishment that had little to do with ordinary Americans–overpowered the ecumenical dream. Christian unity was ultimately overshadowed by more basic concerns about keeping churchgoers in their pews. (20)
The Crystal Cathedral (Garden Grove, California, 1980): White Evangelical Protestant Resurgence
[Robert] Schuller was one of the pioneers of a new conservative Christian trend that explicitly tied Christian worship to consumer culture. (23)
But if demographics had set Schuller on a swift path to success, the shifting regional profile of Orange County set the stage for his downfall. (27)
In 2012, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange County bought the Crystal Cathedral for $57.5 million. (28)
From Monuments to Memorials
Great buildings are symbolic expressions of power, capturing within their structures the aspirations and concerns of their builders in a particular historical moment. Each of these three historic buildings tells an important part of the story of White Christian America’s rise and decline. Over the last half-century, the United Methodist Church and even the National Council of Churches have been culturally disarmed, and Schuller’s ministry has been completely bankrupted. Built as monuments to Protestant power, they ultimately became memorials to a White Christian America that never realized its aspirations. (29)
| But each in different ways has also become a harbinger of the new religious America and the place of white Protestants within it. (29)
While the descendants of White Christian America still wield considerable financial assets and cultural influence, their future import will depend less on imposing presences than on strategic partnerships and alliances. (30)
Understanding White Christian America
It’s related to the term “WASP” (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant), … But it is broader than “WASP.” First, (30) it goes beyond northern mainline Protestantism to include southern evangelical Protestantism. Second, White Christian America is a more inclusive and neutral term than WASP, describing the view as it appears from within.(31)
In the twentieth century, White Christian America developed along two main branches: a more liberal mainline Protestant America headquartered in New England and the upper Midwest/Great Lakes region and a more conservative evangelical Protestant America anchored in the South and lower Midwest/Ozark Mountains region. (31)
Curtis Lee Laws, the editor of a widely distributed Baptist periodical and the person credited with coining the term “Fundamentalist” in 1920, defined their response as “a protest against that rationalistic interpretation of Christianity which seeks to discredit supernaturalism.” (32)
The gaping wound between Modernists and Fundamentalists proved impossible to heal. …the Modernist/Fundamentalist controversy exposed deep epistemological fault lines, with those who came to be known as mainline Protestants embracing modernism and evangelical Protestants championing the fundamentalist outlook. David A. Hollinger called this struggle the “Protestant dialectic, within which the two great rivals for control of the symbolic capital of Christianity defined themselves in terms of each other.” Historian Martin (33) Marty … “Whoever asked the question, ‘Will America remain Protestant and Anglo-Saxon?’ now had to ask, “Which kind of Protestant?'” (34)
In 1908, thirty-two denominations joined together to form the Federal Council of Churches (FCC), which grew into the National Council of Churches in 1950. (34)
| Council leaders racked up impressive accomplishments and accolades. They played an important role in the formation of the United Nations, including adding the historic amendment that called for an international declaration of human rights. (34)
White evangelical leaders founded the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) in 1942 as a direct challenge to the Federal Council of Churches. In 1947, to compete with the mainline Protestant’s flagship Union Theological Seminary, evangelicals founded Fuller Theological Seminary… In 1956, to counter the influence of The Christian Century, L. Nelson Bell, known as an aggressive fundamentalist and segregationist, founded Christianity Today.
The Social World of White Christian America
In its heyday, a set of linked institutions reinforced White Christian America’s worldview across generations: the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), the Boy Scouts, the Masonic Lodge, and the local country club with limits or even outright bans on membership for Catholics, Jews, and ethnic minorities. White Christian America had its golden age in the 1950s, after the hardships and victories of World War II and before the cultural upheavals of the 1960s. June Cleaver was it smother, Andy Griffith was its sheriff, Norman Rockwell was its (38) artists, and Billy Graham and Norman Vincent Peale were its ministers. (39)
cf. Protestant, Catholic, Jew by Will Herberg
…it’s no longer possible to believe that White Christian America sets the tone for the country’s culture as a whole. And that (39) realization–both for those inside and outside WCA’s domain–marks something genuinely new in American life.
Why White Christian America Matters Now
Today, many white Christian Americans feel profoundly anxious. As is common among extended families, WCA’s two primary branches, white mainline and white evangelical Protestants, have competing narratives about WCA’s decline. White mainline Protestants blame evangelical Protestants for turning off the younger generation with their antigay rhetoric and tendency to conflate Christianity with conservative, nationalistic politics. White evangelical Protestants, on the other hand, blame mainline Protestants for undermining Christianity because of their willingness to seel out traditional beliefs to accommodate contemporary culture. (40)
| This book aims to tell a story that rises above intra-family feuding, examining White Christian America as a single dynasty. The key question here is not why one white Protestant subgroup is faring worse than another, but why white Protestantism as a whole–arguably the most powerful cultural force in the history of our country–has faded. This is a story of theology and culture, but it is also a story of powerful demographic changes. (40)
…with the retirement of John Paul Stevens, a Protestant, and the 2010 confirmation of Elena Kagan, a Jew–for the first time in its history, the U.S. Supreme Court has no Protestant justices. (41)
No other country has experienced such rapid racial and ethnic change. – Mark Mather, New York Times, In a Generation, Minorities May Be the U.S. Majority
…the other critical factor in declining influence is religious, most notably religious disaffiliation among younger white Americans. (42)
2. Vital Signs: A Divided and Dying White Christian America
It’s hard to imagine a more quintessentially American cocktail than the Super Bowl, Coca-Cola, and “America the Beautiful.”
But the visceral responses to the ad indicate that for many Americans, “simply showing” their country’s diversity and pronouncing it “beautiful” was a provocative act. (47)
The Declining Numbers of White Christians in America
The mainline denominations have been losing members by the thousands for decades. Many of these churches have become so theologically inclusive, politically liberal, and doctrinally confused that there is no compelling reason for anyone to join anyway. … Sadly, they reject the one way out of their crisis–a return to biblical authority, Gospel preaching, and theological orthodoxy. – Dr. Albert Mohler, When Will They Ever Learn? Mainline Decline in Perspective, December 14, 2005
These numbers point to one undeniable conclusion: white Protestant Christians–both mainline and evangelical–are aging and quickly losing ground as a proportion of the population. (56)
White Christian America’s Homeland
Struggles for Admission to White Christian America
…necessity is the mother of collaboration. At key historical moments, the need to resist and outflank competing forces–Catholicism, secularism, and often each (60) other–drove white Protestants to form expedient alliances, highlighting common interests while conveniently overlooking differences. These alliances, they hoped, would allow them to claim the WCA birthright, which conferred on its holder the ability to speak for the moral center of the country. (61)
Catholics and White Christian America
cf. Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race, by Matthew Frye Jacobson
It is inconceivable that a Roman Catholic president would not be under extreme pressure by the hierarchy of his church to accede to its policies with respect to foreign interests. – Norman Vincent Peale
The evangelical-Catholic rapprochement was an unparalleled display of ecumenism between two groups that had historically been at odds. Declaring a shared commitment to the Christian faith was itself a radical act. Since the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, Protestants and Catholics had disputed who deserved the label of “Christian.” So why, at the end of the twentieth century, were Catholics and evangelicals officially declaring a truce? In the wake of the 1970s, they had found common cause in three emerging culture war issues: abortion, gay rights, and religion in public schools. (66)
Resolution On Abortion
St. Louis, Missouri – 1971
Tags: abortion, sanctity of life
WHEREAS, Christians in the American society today are faced with difficult decisions about abortion; and
WHEREAS, Some advocate that there be no abortion legislation, thus making the decision a purely private matter between a woman and her doctor; and
WHEREAS, Others advocate no legal abortion, or would permit abortion only if the life of the mother is threatened;
Therefore, be it RESOLVED, that this Convention express the belief that society has a responsibility to affirm through the laws of the state a high view of the sanctity of human life, including fetal life, in order to protect those who cannot protect themselves; and
Be it further RESOLVED, That we call upon Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother
The Mormon Moment
Nearly one hundred years ago, white Protestant Christianity fractured over debates about evolution and the inerrancy of the Bible. Nonetheless, white Protestants maintained indisputable dominance over American cultural and political life. For the first two thirds of the twentieth century, white mainline Protestants were the most visible face of White Christian America at the national level. But beginning in the 1970s–due to the twin forces of demographic change and religious disaffiliation–white mainline Protestants began to rapidly decline in both power and numbers. In this vacuum, white evangelical Protestants began to assert themselves as the face of White Christian America, only to find their own numbers dropping by the first decade of the twenty-first century. (77)
3. Politics: The End of the White Christian Strategy
Despite the messy aftermath, Obama’s inauguration was indisputably the end of the white Christian presidency. It was not, however, the end of the white Christian political strategy. That would come four years later. (82)
The Politics of Nostalgia
The multiple layers of meaning in this single image make it a nearly perfect exhibit of the lost utopian world of White Christian America. (84)
The End of the White Christian Strategy
We are witnessing the end of the era. For the first time in more than five decades, an (87) appeal to a sentimental vision of midcentury heartland America is not a winning political strategy. To understand the post-Obama milieu, it is necessary to understand the “White Christian Strategy,” a political tactic employed primarily by the Republican Party beginning with the campaigns of Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon in the mid-1960s and ending with Mitt Romney’s failed presidential run in 2012.
From the Southern Strategy to the White Christian Strategy
What I am calling the White Christian Strategy is an outgrowth of the Southern Strategy, a tactic developed by political conservatives and the Republican Party in the mid-1960s to appeal to white southern voters who were angry with the Democratic Party for its support of civil rights. The Southern Strategy picked up momentum through two critical transition moments, one in the 1960s and one in the 1980s, which political scientists Merle and Earl Black identified as the two iterations of the “Great White Switch.” (88)
Over the next eight years, Reagan presided over the second Great White Switch, the decade of transition when many southern whites shed their long-standing affiliation with the Democrats (90) and began not only to vote for Republican presidential candidates but to identify as Republicans. (91)
If the Moral Majority reigned over the 1980s and the Christian Coalition dominated the 1990s, the 2000s were the decade of James Dobson’s Focus on the Famly. (92)
2007…Rev. Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority, died on May 15. (93)
2007…on September 5, Rev. D. James Kennedy–the Florida megachurch pastor and founding board member of the Moral Majority whom Rolling Stone magazine called “the most influential evangelical you’ve never heard of”–died as well. Between 2007 and 2008 alone, Focus on the Family laid off nearly 250 workers, approximately one fifth of its workforce. By 2011, it was operating with half the staff it had employed in 2002. (93)
2006…November, Ted Haggard resigned as head of the National Association of Evangelicals. (93)
The Rise of the Tea Party
The Tea Party is animated by a narrative of cultural loss that allows it to function as a continuation of the White Christian Strategy. The Obama presidency provided a unique focal point for many white Christian voters, who already felt as if familiar cultural touchstones were disappearing at every turn. Shifting social norms, declining religious affiliation, changing demographics, and a struggling economy–all were embodied in one powerful symbol: a black man in the White House. (97)
A remarkable three quarters (73 percent) of Tea Party members agree with the statement, “Today discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities,” compared to just 45 percent of Americans overall. More than half (55 percent) of Tea Partiers agree that the United States today s a Christian nation–compared to only 39 percent of Americans as a whoel. (97)
Overall, the Tea Party movement is best understood as a socially conservative movement with deep roots in White Christian America;… (98)
The Romney Campaign and the White Christian Strategy
The traditional Republican coalition–heavily dependent on white Christians–simply no longer added up to a majority. Black voter turnout jumped between 2008 and 2012, making 2012 the first presidential election in which the black turnout exceeded white turnout. (100)
In post-election analysis, the Associated Press concluded that if the composition of the electorate in 2012 had looked the way it did in 2004, Romney would have narrowly defeated Obama. (101)
| It was clear that the Romney campaign had doomed itself from the start by using an outdated playbook. The Romney campaign–with its largely successful execution of a campaign that ended in defeat–marks a milestone: the end of the White Christian Strategy for presidential elections. (101)
The 2013 GOP Autopsy Report
Here is a rule of politics which just does not change, ever: When Republicans distinguish themselves from Democrats, they almost always in, and when they don’t they almost always lose. – Brent Bozell, chairman of the Tea Party group ForAmerica
As the voter pool shrinks in midterm elections it skews more heavily toward older white voters–voters who (104) also tend to be conservative Christians. The turnout rate for the 2014 midterms was shockingly low; at only 36 percent of eligible voters, it was the lowest in seventy-two years. In fact, going back to 1900, the only two other national elections with similarly paltry turnout occurred just head of the Great Depression and in the midst of World War II. Because so many voters stayed home in 2014, white Christians exerted a disproportionate influence over the election’s outcome. (105)
The Shrinking White Christian Voter Pool
White Christians will likely make up 55 percent of voters in 2016 and drop to 52 percent of voters by the following presidential campaign in 2020. If current trends hold steady, 2024 will be a watershed year–the first American election in which white Christians do not constitute a majority of voters. (105)
| The chart demonstrates that every midterm election, the GOP essentially gets to rewind the clock. (105)
…the math here is simple. In 2016 and beyond, the shrinking white Christian voter pool will probably continue to support Republican candidates as much as they have in the past, but their loyalty will help the GOP less and less. By the 2024 presidential election, even if the GOP nominee could secure every single white Christian vote, these votes would land 3 points short of a national majority. The data point to one unavoidable conclusion: if the GOP wishes to remain competitive in 2016 and beyond, the White Christian Strategy, one of the most dependable tactics in the Republican playbook, will need to be put to rest. (110)
4. Family: Gay Marriage and White Christian America
“Same Love” at the Grammys
Opposition to Gay Rights and White Christian American Identity
The Dramatic Rise in Support for Same-Sex Marriage (2003-2015)
Courts and Legislatures: Changes in the Law
Because evangelical leaders made opposition to gay rights so central to their movement’s identity, no issue captures White Christian America’s loss of cultural power better than the rapid rise in public support for same-sex marriage. (120)
The Sea Change in Public Opinion
Put another way, support for same-sex marriage among the youngest and the oldest (124) Americans has increased by nearly equal amounts during the last decade: 25 percentage points among young Americans and 26 percentage points among seniors. (125)
Same-Sex Marriage and Religion
Support for Same-Sex Marriage Among Religious Groups
By 2014, battle lines on the issue of same-sex marriage were no longer between religious and nonreligious Americans. Rather, debate was (126) raging among religious groups… (1227)
Outliers: White Evangelical Protestants and Mormons
…the evangelical wing of White Christian America and Mormons have become increasingly isolated outliers in the religious landscape. In fact, identification as a white evangelical Protestant or Mormon remains one of the strongest single independent predictors of opposition to same-sex marriage. For example, the most prominent common characteristic of the seven states where majorities oppose same-sex marriage is the strong presence of those two groups. (128)
The Impact of Church Opposition to Same-Sex Marriage on Young Americans
cf. UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity, David Kinnaman
cf. American Grace, Robert Putnam and David Campbell
The dilemma for many churches is this: they are anchored, both financially and in terms of lay support, by older Americans, who are less likely to perceive a problem that the overwhelming majority of younger Americans say is there. (133)
The Road Ahead
In the wake of Americans’ sea change in perspective on gay rights, the descendants of White Christian America are heading down one of three major paths. Most white mainline Protestants, along with a small but significant minority of white evangelical Protestants, have already joined most of the country on the road to acceptance. At the other end of the spectrum, a shrinking and graying sector of the white evangelical Protestant world is hunkering down under a “no compromise on marriage” banner, preparing to fight gay rights to the last man and the last dollar. A third group of leaders has conceded the loss of the war on gay marriage but is regrouping to fight a prolonged set of tactical battles around the concept of religious liberty. (134)
Conditional Surrender: The Christian Minority and the Religious Liberty Insurgency
5. Race: Desegregating White Christian America
The Racial Perception Gap
Bur for many white Americans, the stories of unfair treatment of blacks by police and the court system did feel new. (152)
The racial perception gap highlights one of the most powerful–but also least discussed-divisions between Americans on the topic of race: the rift between the descendants of White Christian America and the rest of the country. These stark divides prompt a simple but fundamental question: why can’t White Christian America understand how African Americans feel about the black men who have died at the hands of white police officers? To understand the answer, we need to look back at the dynamics of segregation and racial suspicion that have shaped Christian communities and their moral vision over the past century. (155)
Race and American Institutions
…most white Americans continue to live in locales that insulate them from the obstacles facing many majority-black communities. Second, this legacy, compounded (155) by social self-segregation, has led to a stark result: the overwhelming majority of white Americans don’t have a single close relationship with a person who isn’t white. Third, there are virtually no American institutions positioned to resolve these persistent problems of systemic and social segregation. (156)
Individuals’ Social Networks
To make matters worse, America has virtually no large-scale, widely distributed civic institutions that are equipped to nurture strong relationships across racial divides. (161)
[via: I couldn’t help but think of MLK’s now-famous quip, that the most segregated hour of the week in America is 10:00 a.m. on Sunday morning, and how the church actually could be the “large-scale, widely distributed civic institution.”]
The Most Segregated Hour in America
Defining a mono-racial church as one that has more than 80 percent of its membership consisting of a single racial group, nearly nine in ten (86 percent) congregations, which account for 80 percent of churchgoers, remain essentially mono-racial. (166)
White Christian America and Race
White Evangelical Protestants: From Segregation to Racial Reconciliation
No segment of White Christian America has been more complicit in the nation’s fraught racial history than white evangelical Protestants. And no group of white evangelical Protestants bears more responsibility than Southern Baptists, who comprise the overwhelming majority of white evangelicals, particularly in the states of the former Confederacy. (167)
In 1845 when the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society declared that any slave owner would be disqualified from consideration for missionary service, Baptist churches in the South seceded and formed the Southern Baptist Convention sot that members would not have to choose between their slaves and their calling to be missionaries. (168)
cf. Brown v. Board of Education, 1954
In the South of the 1950s and 1960s, the widely held gospel of the status quo–what historian John Lee Eighmy described as the “cultural captivity” of southern churches–discouraged a robust Christian voice for racial equality. In 1964, for example, in response to the mobilization of black clergy and churches that drove the civil rights movement, independent Baptist leader Jerry Falwell delivered a famous sermon called “Ministers and Marches,” where he justified white clergy inaction on civil rights issues, declaring, “Preachers are not called to be politicians, but soul winners.” (170)
While Southern Baptists, and the evangelical wing of White Christian America generally, show signs of having their hearts in the right place, their individualist theology may block the path that leads to the fulfillment of those aspirations. (175)
White Mainline Protestants and Racial Justice
No one share slife with God whose religion does not flow out, naturally and without effort, into all relations of his life. … Whoever uncouples the religious and social life has not understood Jesus. Whoever sets any bounds for the reconstructive power of the religious life over the social relations and human institutions, to that extent denies the faith of the Master. – Watler Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis
The renewed focus on racial injustice that fueled the #BlackLivesMatter movement, coupled with demographic change, has brought White Christian America to a new crossroads. There is, of course, the path of (179) least resistance, which also happens to be the one that will ensure White Christian America’s declining relevance: reinforce the current racial isolation that has prevented many white Americans from engaging in meaningful discussions about racial inequality by fortifying the walls around their communities. To be sure, a move to make White Christian America’s boundaries more permeable will leave white Christians vulnerable to uncomfortable conversations and even more difficult actions. Such a choice would require critical self-reflection, humility, and–to use a theological term–repentance. But the payoff would be an enormous boost for white Christians’ communal health and for the country’s overall well-being. While such a shift is difficult, it’s not an impossible feat. While today’s churches mostly reflect the social segregation of the status quo, some are already pioneering a new kind of Christian community that transcends the color line. (180)
Middle Collegiate Church, New York City
Oakhurst Baptist Church, Atlanta
Why Is Desegregating Church So Difficult?
…although the “reconciliation paradigm” has laudable theological roots and intentions, it contains subtle assumptions that make it inadequate for our current historical situation. Its central shortcoming is that it encourages white Christians to move too hurriedly toward a healed relationship without fully attending to repentance and–more importantly–to repair. (190)
The past is never dead. It’s not even past. – William Faulkner
After the official apologies have been made, the question of what white Christians actually owe African Mexicans looms uncomfortably large. (191)
Given our still present past, white Christians are more likely to find reconciliation as a result of a journey–rather than as a destination that can be reached directly. (192)
The Promise of Desegregated Churches
Despite these daunting challenges, there are two reasons why churches may yet have the potential for bridging the racial divide. First, despite their declining membership rates and dwindling social clout, churches remain one of the most omnipresent features of the American civic landscape. …there are nearly ten times more religious congregations than post offices (35,000). (192)
Second, forming communities that foster meaningful relationships over time is precisely the kind of thing that churches-at their (192) best–can do. Unlike other institutions where race relations work is a means to other ends, it can be central to the mission of churches. (193)
Ultimately, though, the country will need more multiracial congregations. …these multiracial congregations will need to have significant nonwhite leadership. More white Christians will have to worship in churches with senior leadership that is not white, sit in pews where whites are not the overwhelming majority, and experience the tenor of conversations about the connections between Christian commitment and community problems when they are not driven by white interests. In these multiracial settings, even familiar gospel stories and hymns resonate differently. (194)
While not all forms of social separation need be lamented (for example, African American churches have created a vital incubator of community for black Christians in a white-dominated society), the near-absolute homogeneity that currently exists in churches and whites’ core social networks hinders our ability to begin and mend racial rifts. Moreover, this homogeneity thwarts our capacity to age about something as basic as the reality of the problems we face. (194)
| White Christians have good reasons to take this myopia seriously. Even for the six in ten evangelicals and nearly half of white mainline Protestants who doubt there is a real racial problem, the country’s (194) changing demographics will increasingly mean that the descendants f White Christian America will need nonwhite allies to achieve their political goals, both at the local and national level. As a purely practical matter, white Protestants will have to learn to be less cavalier in dismissing black claims of injustice if they are to transition from unilateral to coalition politics. (195)
We may not agree in this country on every particular case and situation, but it’s high time we start listening to our African American brothers and sisters in this country when they tell us they are experiencing a problem. – Russell Moore
Racial reconciliation remains a destination far on the horizon, and there are no shortcuts at hand. The road under White Christian America’s descendants’ feet must lead firs through the uncharted terrain of remembering, repentance, and repair. Given White Christian America’s long history of complicity in slavery, segregation, and racism, we are at the beginning, not the end, of the journey across the racial divide. (195)
6. A Eulogy for White Christain America
Stages of Grief Among White Christian America’s Descendants
cf. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s popular book, On Death and Dying: What the Dying Have to Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy, and Their Own Families.
Denial and Anger
Denial and Anger AMong White Mainline Protestants
Denial and Anger Among White Evangelical Protestants
Bargaining Among White Mainline Protestants
Bargaining Among White Evangelical Protestants
cf. House Bill 1179, January 2015, Mississippi
…consisted of two sentences: “SECTION 1: The Holy Bible is hereby designated the State Book of Mississippi. SECTION 2. This act shall take effect and be in force from and after July 1, 2015. (209)
In moments of vulnerability, politicians routinely turn to declarations of faith as assertions of American power and unity. Requests to place the motto “In God We Trust” on American coins, for example, first came to the Treasury Department in 1861, during the height of the Civil War. In 1864, the mantra appeared for the first time on a two-cent coin. Nearly a century later, another crisis–anxieties about “godless communism” at the height of the Cold War–produced a similar response. The words “In God We Trust” became the official national motto in 1956 and were added to paper money in 1957. The politics of vulnerability also affected the Pledge of Allegiance. Written in 1892–a more religiously secure time–by Reverend Francis Bellamy, an ordained Baptist minister, the original pledge included no reference to a deity. Even when Congress formally approved the pledge’s final language in 1942, there was no suggestion to include a reference to God. But the waves of anticommunist sentiment coursing through the country at midcentury exerted their pull on the pledge; in 1954, Congress voted to insert the words “under God.” (211)
| When leaders feel it is necessary to state explicitly what has always been assumed, they betray their own cultural insecurity. The twin efforts to ensconce the Bible as Mississippi’s state book and recast the state seal were not moves demonstrating White Christian America’s vigor. instead, the flurry of legislative activity is better understood as a last-ditch attempt to resuscitate White Christian America. (211)
The need to forcefully elevate their CHristian status reflects white Christian lawmakers’ fear that for an increasing number of citizens the Bible and God are no longer a guiding cultural force. These efforts amount to little more than bargaining beside the dathbed of White Christian America. (212)
Depression and Acceptance
Depression and Acceptance Among White Mainline Protestants
Depression and Acceptance Among White Evangelical Protestants
Christianity is dying. At least, that’s what major newspapers are telling us today, culling research from a new Pew Center study on what almost all sociologists are observing these days—the number of Americans who identify as Christians has reached an all-time low, and is falling. I think this is perhaps bad news for America, but it is good news for the church.
The lead editor of the report tells The New York Times that secularization—mainly in terms of those who identify as “nones” or with no specific religious affiliation—isn’t isolated to the progressive Northeast and Pacific Northwest. He notes, “The change is taking place all over, including the Bible Belt.”
This is precisely what several of us have been saying for years. Bible Belt near-Christianity is teetering. I say let it fall. For much of the twentieth century, especially in the South and parts of the Midwest, one had to at least claim to be a Christian to be “normal.” During the Cold War, that meant distinguishing oneself from atheistic Communism. At other times, it has meant seeing churchgoing as a way to be seen as a good parent, a good neighbor, and a regular person. It took courage to be an atheist, because explicit unbelief meant social marginalization. Rising rates of secularization, along with individualism, means that those days are over—and good riddance to them.
Again, this means some bad things for the American social compact. In the Bible Belt of, say, the 1940s, there were people who didn’t, for example, divorce, even though they wanted out of their marriages. In many of these cases, the motive wasn’t obedience to Jesus’ command on marriage but instead because they knew that a divorce would marginalize them from their communities. In that sense, their “traditional family values” were motivated by the same thing that motivated the religious leaders who rejected Jesus—fear of being “put out of the synagogue.” Now, to be sure, that kept some children in intact families. But that’s hardly revival.
Secularization in America means that we have fewer incognito atheists. Those who don’t believe can say so—and still find spouses, get jobs, volunteer with the PTA, and even run for office. This is good news because the kind of “Christianity” that is a means to an end—even if that end is “traditional family values”—is what J. Gresham Machen rightly called “liberalism,” and it is an entirely different religion from the apostolic faith handed down by Jesus Christ.
Now, what some will say is that the decline in self-identified Christians is a sign that the church should jettison its more unpopular teachings. And in our day, these teachings are almost always those dealing with pelvic autonomy. First of all, even if this were the key to success, we couldn’t—and wouldn’t—do it. Christianity isn’t a political party, dependent on crafting ideologies to suit the masses. We received this gospel (Gal. 1:11-12); we didn’t invent it. But, that said, such is not the means to “success”—even the way the sociologists define it.
The Pew report holds that mainline denominations—those who have made their peace with the Sexual Revolution—continue to report heavy losses, while evangelical churches remain remarkably steady—even against some heavy headwinds coming from the other direction. Why?
We learned this answer 100 years ago, and it reminds us of what we learned 2,000 years ago. Two or three generations ago, Christians who held to the Virgin birth of Christ were warned that their children would flee the faith unless the parents redefined Christianity. “If you want to win the next generation,” they were told, “you have to make Christianity relevant, and that means dispending with miracles in favor of modern science.” The churches that followed that path aren’t just dying; they are dead, sustained by endowments and dwindling gatherings of nostalgic senior adults with a smattering of community organizers here and there.
People who don’t want Christianity, don’t want almost-Christianity. Almost-Christianity looks in the mainline like something from Nelson Rockefeller to Che Guevara at prayer. Almost Christianity, in the Bible Belt, looks like a God-and-Country civil religion that prizes cultural conservatism more than theological fidelity. Either way, a Christianity that reflects its culture, whether that culture is Smith College or NASCAR, only lasts as long as it is useful to its host. That’s because it’s, at root, idolatry, and people turn from their idols when they stop sending rain.
Christianity isn’t normal anymore, and that’s good news. The Book of Acts, like the Gospels before it, shows us that the Christianity thrives when it is, as Kierkegaard put it, a sign of contradiction. Only a strange gospel can differentiate itself from the worlds we construct. But the strange, freakish, foolish old gospel is what God uses to save people and to resurrect churches (1 Cor. 1:20-22).
We do not have more atheists in America. We have more honest atheists in America. Again, that’s good news. The gospel comes to sinners, not to the righteous. It is easier to speak a gospel to the lost than it is to speak a gospel to the kind-of-saved. And what those honest atheists grapple with, is what every sinner grapples with, burdened consciences that point to judgment. Our calling is to bear witness.
We don’t have Mayberry anymore, if we ever did. Good. Mayberry leads to hell just as surely as Gomorrah does. But Christianity didn’t come from Mayberry in the first place, but from a Roman Empire hostile to the core to the idea of a crucified and resurrected Messiah. We’ve been on the wrong side of history since Rome, and it was enough to turn the world upside down.
The future of Christianity is bright. I don’t know that from surveys and polls, but from a word Someone spoke one day back at Caesarea Philippi. The gates of hell haven’t gotten any stronger, and the Light that drives out the darkness is enough to counter every rival gospel, even those gospels that describe themselves as “none.”
Is Christianity Dying? May 12, 2015
During the past ten years, the first ten years of the Negro revolution, a good deal was heard about the “good” people of the South, comprising the vast majority, who deplored the violence and who any day would make themselves felt. But these good people are yet to be heard from. If every Christian era has its besetting sin…the twentieth-century Christian South might well be remembered by its own particular mark: silence. – Walker Percy, Signposts in a Strange Land, p.329
cf. the Evangelical Climate Initiative (2006)
cf. the Evangelical Declaration against Torture (2007)
This approach accepts the death of White Christian America and encourages evangelicals to participate fully in a pluralistic society, but avoids the temptations toward domination and sectarianism, each of which is driven by nostalgia for a lost Christian America. (222)
| While Gushee’s vision of an evangelical middle way seems promising, there are three reasons it is unlikely to win the day. First, it challenges head-on the politics of nostalgia. Given its long-standing presence as part of the DNA of American evangelicalism, abandoning this style of (222) engagement would represent a historic sea change. Second, the success of this approach may also be limited by Gushee’s position outside official church structures. … Finally, in his most recent book, Changing Our Mind, Gushee explained his own theological journey that led to affirming the full acceptance of LGBT Christians int he life of the church, including an affirmation of the marriages of gay and lesbian couples. … Given these challenges, it seems more likely than not that, at least for the foreseeable future, most evangelicals will wander the path Moor is charting, with full acceptance of WCA’s death remaining out of reach. (223)
Dancing on the Grave: White Christian America’s Critics
The broadside critique of all religions ultimately runs aground in at least two ways. First, it fails to account for the positive, even noble acts of humanity that are inspired by religious commitment and devotion. While it’s impossible to conduct a utilitarian calculus to measure the relative ration of good versus evil actions that have been inspired by religion, it is at least clear that many of our nation’s achievements and critical moments in our history such as the civil rights movement may have been stillborn without their religious DNA. On a practical level, in a nation where nearly eight in ten citizens claim a religious affiliation, any movement that asserts, as a fundamental organizing tenet, that religion is the root of all social problems is bound to founder. (225)
| Finally, some prominent neo-atheists have taken their critique of religion in decidedly illiberal directions. (226)
At the end of the day, the neo-atheist course seems mired in the very bigotry it seeks to extinguish. (227)
Eulogy: Reflections on the Life and Death of White Christian America
But White Christian America, despite these failings, is also worthy of mourning. (227)
Civic integration has presented a perennial challenge for the American experiment. It’s the question of how to make god ont he dictum that has been with us from the nation’s beginnings: e pluribus unum, “out of many, one.” Although the country has werestled with these questions before, the passing of White Christian America presents a unique challenge, analogous to the death of the patriarch whos erved, for good and ill, at the center of family life. Standing beside the resting place of White Christian America, amidst unprecedented diveristy and renewed racial tensions, it’s unclear what could provide a similar civic glue again. (228)
Saying Goodbye: A Word to White Christian America’s Family
Religion, historically and globally, has been one of the most powerful tools for mapping specific cultural worldviews onto ultimate reality. Until its powers failed, the WCA served as a kind of ontological cartographer for both mainline and evangelical Protestants, adn to some extend for the country as a whole. (229)
As alluring as turning back the clock may seem to WCA’s loyalists, efforts to resurrect the dead are futile at best–and at worst, disrespectful to its memory. Like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, resurrection by human power rather than divine spirit always produces a monstrosity. If resurrection is not possible, both white evangelicals and white mainline Protestants–each still representing sizabel constituencies in the country–will need to choose between sectarian retreat and a new kind of engagement. (231)
With Malice Toward None: A Word to the Rest of the Country
Engaging with us rather than heaping contempt on us simply makes sense. It will prove healtheir for us and for American culture. – David Gushee, The Future of Faith in American Politics
Address by Abraham Lincoln, 1865
At this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.
On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, urgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war—seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.
One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
cf. City subpoenas pastors’ sermons in equal rights ordinance case, Katherine Driessen.
[via: See also Snope’s take]
For the country to find a way forward, White Christian America’s (233) direct descendants and its critics will each need to resist their own temptations–nostalgia on the one hand and callous contempt ont he other. Each needs to help the other move toward a sober recognition of the challenges that the death of White Christian America presents. (234)
Life After the Death of White Christian America
The death of White Christian America may also provide some opportunities for white Christians to cross the color line in their religious communities. (236)
When Franklin Graham recently called for a boycott of gay-friendly companies on his Facebook page, it quickly became apparent that to follow through on his own initiative, he’d need to delete his Facebook account (he didn’t), stop using any Microsoft software, and shut down all Apple devices. (238)
The death of White Christian America marks the end of an era in the nation’s life. For many, it is a cause for considerable grief; for others, relief or even celebration. But this much is clear: in the soil fertilized by White Christian America’s remains, new life is taking root. (239)
Trump and the “Last Chance” Election of 2016
Not Dead Yet? Trump’s Victory in Context
The evidence, however, suggests that Trump’s unlikely victory is better understood as the death rattle of White Christian America rather than its resuscitation. (242)
The Rage of White, Christian America
By Robert P. Jones
Nov. 10, 2016
Between Barack Obama’s 2008 election and 2016, America has transformed from being a majority white Christian nation (54 percent) to a minority white Christian nation (43 percent).
But on Election Day, paradoxically, this anxious minority swarmed to the polls to elect as president the candidate who promised to “make America great again” and warned that he was its “last chance” to turn back the tide of cultural and economic change.
One clue to the power of this racial and religious identity can be seen in the striking similarity of a map of white Christian population density by state to the red and blue election night map. While the similarity of those maps in Kentucky and West Virginia might not be a surprise, the same similarity in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania goes a long way to explaining why Hillary Clinton’s Midwestern firewall did not hold on election night.
The choice before the country was starkly clear. Donald J. Trump’s Republican Party looked back wistfully to a monochromatic vision of 1950s America, while the major party fronting the first female presidential candidate celebrated the pluralistic future of 2050, when the Census Bureau first projected the United States would become a majority nonwhite nation.
My organization’s American Values Survey, released a few weeks before the election, found deep divides in the country on this issue. Americans are nearly evenly divided on whether American culture and way of life have changed for worse (51 percent) or better (48 percent) since the 1950s. Roughly two-thirds (66 percent) of Democrats say American culture has generally changed for the better since the 1950s, while roughly two-thirds (68 percent) of Republicans say American society and way of life have changed for the worse.
No other group believes things have changed for the worse since the 1950s more than white evangelical Protestants (74 percent), who turned out strongly and gave Mr. Trump 81 percent of their votes, according to the early exit polls. And here’s a finding that signals why Mrs. Clinton came up short: a majority (55 percent) of independents also agreed that American culture and way of life have changed for the worse since the 1950s.
Hillary Clinton’s final campaign ad featured Katy Perry’s song “Roar,” but the loudest voices of this election turned out to be not the “new America” demographic groups of Latinos, African-Americans and millennials, but Mr. Trump’s aging and raging white Christian supporters.
The waning numbers of white Christians in the country today may not have time on their side, but as the sun is slowly setting on the cultural world of white Christian America, they’ve managed, at least in this election, to rage against the dying of the light.
The Transformation of White Evangelicals from Values voters to Nostalgia Voters
Trump’s campaign–with its sweeping promise to “make America great again”–triumphed by converting self-described “values voters” into what I’ve called “nostalgia voters.” (246)
In 2011 and again just ahead of the 2016 election, PRRI asked Americans whther a political leader who committed an immoral act in his or her private life could nonethless behave ehtically and fulfil ltheri duties in their public life. In 2011, consistent with the “values voter” brand and the traditional evangelical emphasis on the importance of personal character, only 30 percent of white evangelical Protestants agreed with this statement. But with Trump at the top of the Republican ticket in 2016, 72 percent of white evangelicals said they believed a candidate could build a kind of moral dike between his private and public life. In a head-spinning reversal, white evangelicals went from being the least likely to the (247) most likely group to agree that a candidate’s personal immorality has no bearing on his performance in public office. (248)
…white evangelicals fully embraced a consequentialist ethics that works backward from predetermined political ends, bending or even discarding core principles as needed to achieve a predetermined outcome. (248)
The Road Ahead
Like the biblical story of Esau, who exchanged his inheritance for a pot of stew, white evangelicals have traded their distinctive values for fleeting political power. (248)
At the end of the day, white evangelicals’ grand bargain with Trump will be unable to hold back the sheer weight of cultural change, and WCA’s descendants will be left with the only real move possible: acceptance. (249)