The End of White Christian America

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Robert P. Jones
  • New York, NY: 
    Simon & Schuster
    , July
     2016.
     320 pages.
     $28.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781501122293.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

To put my cards on the table: I think whiteness must die. Christianity will endure. “America” is morally implicated in exceptional violence, but its diverse peoples and openness to dissent make it salvageable. And White Christian America (“WCA”)—whose end Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute announces, analyzes, and, to a degree, mourns—has never existed.

That White Christian America is a fictional entity lends the subject of Jones’s book—which is really Protestants in America and their waning numerical and cultural dominance—more than a touch of True Blood or Walking Dead un-deadness. Jones variously describes his subject, WCA, as a “what,” which makes some sense, and a “who,” which does not. And in any event, this zombie keeps resurfacing, despite repeated efforts to kill it off. Will Herberg announced the end of Protestant hegemony and a new Protestant-Catholic-Jew center to American culture in 1955. Sydney Ahlstrom suggested the passing of the “Protestant Era” in American history in 1973. Robert P. Handy declared the end of Protestant hopes for a Christian America in 1984. And Diana Eck profiled A New Religious America that was decidedly not white, Protestant, or Christian in 1999. You get the picture.

Jones carries his argument through five chapters, bracketed by an obituary and a eulogy. In the eulogy Jones stretches to the point of literary pain to fit U.S. Protestants into Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  Jones’s examples seem more than a touch arbitrary. For instance, “mainline” Protestants (think National Council of Churches) get a page and a half of depression and acceptance, while evangelicals (mostly Southern Baptists) get five. I can attest personally that those of us in the so-called mainline deserve more than a page and half in the despair category (having basically, through Kierkegaard, invented it).

Jones’s first chapter more or less defines White Christian America as “European-descent Protestants in the United States.” Jones crafts a usable past, including some attention to the ways Protestant buildings once dominated skylines but now are dwarfed by commercial structures. He waffles a bit on exactly when his subject was “born,” and is even less than clear about when the death actually happened. Like Handy and many others before him, Jones thinks the Scopes Trial opened a “gaping wound” in Protestantism that has “proved impossible to heal”(33), but then sees a “high water mark” for mainline Protestant influence in the mid-1960s, and ongoing evangelical influence through the presidency of George W. Bush and the “Mormon moment” (76).

The second chapter traces the by now well-known statistical markers of decline among Protestant institutions. Plenteous graphs and charts document what has already been documented in numbing detail by every media outlet in the country (the death of anything religious being a reliable media trope). Jones doesn’t attend to the hundreds of enduring social ministry organizations begun by Protestants (many of which have collaborated effectively with state and federal agencies), where he might actually have found some interesting signs of life and even growth. Jones’s plot is decline (or ending, or death), and he mostly sticks with it.

The three chapters at the center of the book narrate how influence by Protestants of European descent has waned in U.S. politics, the family, and race. Each narrative is debatable. In politics, Jones leans heavily on the demise of what he calls the “White Christian Strategy” for the Republican Party. By attending to that “Southern strategy” and its eventual demographic failure, Jones conveniently elides the millions of Northern, Midwestern, and Western Protestants who who have voted Democratic or Independent, or who have opted out of electoral politics and contributed in other ways to civil society (through their family life, for instance).

Speaking of sexuality and the family, Jones seems to think that White Christian America equals the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). He spends a lot of time documenting the dramatic change from the days of DOMAs to the current embrace across the U.S. of marriage equality—to which Jones’s WCAs would be retrograde and reprobate dinosaurs, to mix metaphors badly. In fact, many mainline Protestant groups and individuals were in some ways ahead of the general culture on LGBT issues, as Heather White’s excellent book, Reforming Sodom, has recently shown.

The chapter on race is perhaps Jones’s strongest. He nods obliquely to Protestant influence in the Civil Rights Movement, but attends most heavily to Southern (again) resistance to integration—including an interesting section on the pitfalls of a too speedy advocacy of racial “reconciliation”(189-91). Yet near the end of the chapter Jones drops sociological detachment and advocates for racially-integrated Protestant congregations. I appreciated the turn to advocacy for ways these Protestant walking dead might be resurrected, but it did seem a somewhat odd methodological shift.

In his acknowledgments Jones describes himself as having been “raised in White Christian America” in a long Baptist lineage. So perhaps Jones’s narrative ought to be understood as working out his own death anxieties—as Ernest Becker suggests in The Denial of Death is the case for most cultural projects. But generalizing from a limited sample is as dangerous for a sociologist as it is for a historian. And when the sample set is constantly shifting (Jones never really defines the parameters of “whiteness”; “Christianity” really means “Protestants”; and “America” would be the United States of America as defined by denominational affiliation and voting practices), complex people and even more complex systems get reduced to data sets and are used to replicate conventional narratives under the guise of science.

I suspect that whatever WCA might be or has been could be more accurately and sharply analyzed as a chapter in the history and ongoing transformation of that hybrid phenomenon scholars have called the American civil religion. Such a narrative could not point to an ending, although it might suggest decline. American imperial power, which no doubt has roots in Protestant initiatives (although hardly Protestant alone), is alive if not well. Saying, then, that whatever it is that is pointed to by “White Christian America” is “dead” could in fact be a way to distract attention from redressing precisely the ways “whiteness” continues to prescribe privilege, concentrate power, and reinforce supremacy, and the ways Christianity in the U.S. (and again hardly just among Protestants) is yet another (largely unexamined) system of privilege and cultural and material power.

Finally—what Jones’s narrative obscures most of all is the principled and ongoing engagement in ecumenism and interreligious service, social policy change on behalf of justice, and what we might broadly call peacebuilding among those who could be identified as white Christian Americans. For Jones, these efforts on behalf of progressive legislation for education, ending child labor, promoting women’s suffrage, supporting ecumenical and interfaith service, campaigning for women’s ordination, activism in the Civil Rights and Black Lives Matter Movements, and a host of other causes, are all sociological survival strategies by a dying breed: efforts to assert national influence that “could be maintained only by cooperative endeavors”(17) or “politically expedient concessions” (37). Granting these strategic advantages to cooperation, what if these continuities and deepened commitments in Protestant practices, affiliations, and agencies over the history of the U.S. could be and have been principled expressions of what we might call authentic Christian public theology? Such a birth and growth of religious peacebuilding in America (to stay with Jones’s life-cycle metaphor) is a narrative awaiting an articulate and accurate analysis that could be at least as compelling as this story of death and dying—though certainly not as likely to draw media attention as this report of the demise of white Christian America.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jon Pahl is the Peter Paul and Elizabeth Hagan Professor of the History of Christianity at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, and author of Empire of Sacrifice: The Religious Origins of American Violence. He is at work on a book with the title “A Coming Religious Peace.”

Date of Review: 
August 8, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Robert P. Jones is the founding CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and a leading scholar and commentator on religion and politics. Jones writes a column for The Atlantic online on politics, culture, and religion and appears regularly in a “Faith by the Numbers” segment on Interfaith Voices, the nation’s leading religion news magazine on public radio. He is frequently featured in major national media such as CNN, NPR, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and others.

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