‘The End of White Christian America’ is meaningless

It's a simplistic story wrapped in data.

Robert P. Jones seems to be making a bold claim in his new book, The End of White Christian America. According to the publisher, the book addresses “a new reality—America is no longer a majority white Christian nation.”

If that doesn’t seem right, it’s because it isn’t.

Jones isn’t writing about “Christian” in the normal meaning of the term. This isn’t an America of Catholic or Orthodox Christians. As Jones states clearly between the covers, “I use the term White Christian America to describe the domain of Protestants in America” (emphasis in original).

The book would be better titled,

The End of White Christian Protestant America

(Actually, since “white” is really short for “non-Hispanic white” it should be The End of Non-Hispanic White Christian Protestant America, but I digress).

I admit that I’m nitpicking, but I like a title that tells what’s in the book. This is a book about white Protestantism, how it’s declining, and why it matters.

The problem is that speaking of “white Protestants” is meaningless. Historically, there has never been a unified Protestantism in the US. Instead, what we now look back and see as Protestantism has always been divided into camps that do not recognize each other as legitimate.

In the early years of the nation, Baptists, Presbyterians, Anglicans, and Quakers each saw themselves more as distinct religions. Over time, there developed some partnerships and shared identities. A Protestant identity developed, largely in response to Catholic immigration. The creation of a common Protestant identity grew in the 20th Century, including associations such as the Federal Council of Churches (the forerunner of the current National Council of Churches).

Yet, even as some were coming together under a new ecumenism, there were others who were separating themselves. Fundamentalists left denominations to retain what they saw as the true faith. Pentecostal and Holiness churches formed new churches. Together, these conservative Protestants formed a new identity as “evangelicals” to differentiate themselves from “mainline” or “liberal” Protestants.

What Protestant consensus may have existed in the first half of the 20th Century changed after World War II. It was part of what Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow calls the restructuring of American religion. Debates over race, sexuality, gender, and other issues led to some denominations splitting; others joined together. Evangelicals were defined by their theological and political conservatism; mainline Protestants were more moderate theologically and maintained their status as America’s establishment.

Jones knows this divide between evangelicals and mainline Protestants, but he still sees them as part of the same declining demographic.

I can only wonder why Jones puts back together what a century has pulled apart. Whatever his reasons, the result is a new story for how American religion has changed. Without mainline Protestants, there would be no Protestant hegemony, nor is there a significant decline in numbers. Without evangelicals, there is no angry mob reacting to their loss of power. Put the two groups together, you have the story of a once mighty religion in the midst of its death throes.

This is a story that is not without implications for today’s politics. For example, in yesterday’s opinion piece he wrote for the New York Times, Jones talks about the angst evangelicals are feeling. They are more than just threatened by the world around them, he says.

But the anger, anxiety and insecurity many contemporary white evangelicals feel are better understood as a response to an internal identity crisis precipitated by the recent demise of “white Christian America,” the cultural and institutional world built primarily by white Protestants that dominated American culture until the last decade.

I agree that evangelicals see themselves as losing their place in America. Where Jones and I disagree is why this perception exists.

Jones, by putting evangelicals and mainline Protestants together, finds a demographic decline (albeit mostly among mainline Protestants) that leads to a reaction (albeit mostly among evangelicals). This loss of cultural control is most clearly represented in the shift in public opinion on the issue of same-sex marriage.

My view, however, is that evangelicals don’t see any decline in mainline Protestants as being related to their own churches. Mainline Protestants, in their view, sold out to liberalism and are declining as a result.

Evangelicals do, however, believe that America once held their values, but no longer. Their perceived decline in importance is based on a false memory. Christian revisionist history sees the Founding Fathers as a group of Bible study leaders who constituted the nation on God’s directives. The changes in America today are seen as only the latest in a history of America turning away from God.

The polling on same-sex marriage does not show that America moved away from white Protestants. Instead, it showed how divided white Protestants are. Same-sex marriage was never a debate between white Protestants and the rest of America. Instead, evangelicals remained opposed to same-sex marriage while mainline Protestants grew to be supportive. Public opinion did not change despite Protestant objections; opinion changed because mainline Protestants shifted their positions.

In Jones’ narrative, evangelicals once held a central place in American life. But that’s now changed. Their current angst and angry politics is, to Jones, a reaction to a real decline in power. The problem, then, is that evangelicals grieving their loss need to move from denial and anger to acceptance. As he stated in the New York Times,

If, however, white evangelicals somehow summon a response that is rooted in real acceptance of their decentered place in a new America, they may find that they have a critical role to play in the revitalization of our civic life.

But are evangelicals really living in a “decentered place in a new America”? If Jones is correct and this is what has happened, then why is it that it is just the evangelical wing of white Protestantism that is most animated by this decline? Why aren’t Lutherans and Episcopalians the vanguard of Trump’s campaign?

What Jones has found in the polling he has done on evangelicals and their views of the past and loss at the present is a perennial feature of evangelicalism. It views itself as holding on to the faith of the past against the challenges of today. Today’s Tea Party and Trump voters aren’t the first evangelicals to be active in conservative, reactionary politics.

Jones presents evangelicals as responding to something real. I don’t. In my experience, racism, xenophobia, and bigotry are not driven by facts. This time around it was Islam and same-sex marriage. Earlier it was communism and Playboys in 7-11’s. Before that it was stopping the Equal Rights Amendment. Further back, it was the dangers of Catholicism, secret societies, or alcohol.

To really understand evangelical politics, you need to start by recognizing their diversity. Large meaningless categories like “white Protestant” aren’t helpful.

Indeed, even evangelicalism is diverse (like other religious traditions). To give one example missing from the book: Pentecostalism. While no author can cover all topics, it was striking that Jones could give a timeline (literally) of evangelicalism in the 20th Century without any mention of Pentecostalism. In fact, I can’t find it discussed anywhere in the book (the closest was a statement linking charismatics to the founding of the Crystal Cathedral–that’s a news to me). To talk about evangelicals and recent politics without including any discussion of Pentecostals ignores a major division within evangelicalism.

There is also racial and ethnic diversity that many denominations (evangelical and mainline) are working toward improving. While President Obama is presented as a threat to White Christian America, Southern Baptists elected its first black president and The Episcopal Church elected its first black leader. The United Methodists are now in full communion with the African Methodist Episcopal Church and others who left because of racism within Methodism. These are few of the ways that leaders with Protestant churches are working against racial and ethnic divisions.

The End of White Christian America isn’t about such diversity. It’s focused on a big, new narrative. White Protestants controlled America until Obama was elected president and same-sex marriage became legal. Their time is over. The white Protestants who can’t accept this are angry, but they would be better off accepting their fate rather than trying to make America great again.

It’s not a simple story. It’s a simplistic one. The real story is complicated but far more meaningful.

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