Your traveling correspondent read the obituary when he dropped in at the Between The Covers bookstore in Harbor Springs, a northwest lower Michigan community, a few days ago. A former college professor from Springfield—a city considered one of the buckles in the Bible Belt—had written it.
“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 members began to doubt WCA’s continued relevance in a shifting cultural environment.”
There was more to it but you’ll have to get Robert P. Jones’ The End of White Christian America and read it yourself. Jones was a psychology professor for more than a decade at Missouri State University in Springfield before becoming the CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute. He has a Master of Divinity degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a doctorate in religion from Emory University. His bio note on the PRRI website says he specialized in the sociology of religion, politics and religious ethics during his doctoral work. He does a column online for Atlantic magazine and is often heard on NPR’s Interfaith Voices news magazine program.
Readers of his book might see some explanations for some of the stuff that’s been going on in Missouri’s legislature in recent years. In short, Jones suggests (although not specifically) such things as the personhood amendment proposal, the proposal this observer called the Wesboro Amendment during the last session, the constant efforts to make a legal medical procedure harder and harder to obtain, and other issues are efforts of a weakening White Christian America to preserve in law what it can no longer control from the pulpit.
Jones says WCA has two 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.” But there’s more to the distinction than geography. He sees the two branches as divided on social class and their perspectives on race relations. “Their differences are rooted in disagreements over fundamental tenets of theology, approaches to diversity, and accommodations to the modern world and science,” he says. The divide widened in the 1920s as some Christians saw the Bible and evolution as compatible, a position that “horrified” Protestant Fundamentalists who saw the Bible as true in all regards. He argues that the differences between Modernists and Fundamentalists created a wound that would not heal and created a “fault line” between what is now considered mainline and fundamentalist Christianity and a subsequent fight for control of “the symbolic capital of Christianity.”
It was mainline Protestants, he writes, who led to progressive social change in the last half of the Twentieth Century—the establishment of the United Nations and its declaration for international human rights, and United States civil rights laws among other things. Mainline Protestants, he writes, by mid-century were leaders in government, education, business, and cultural affairs.
But mainline Protestantism began to weaken and the Evangelical Protestants moved to become “the face of White Christian America,” becoming the “dominant cultural voice” that constituted a “Moral Majority” in the 70s “to protect a distinctly Protestant Christian” nation.”
However, the nation was changing socially, politically, and demographically, leading to the election of the nation’s first non-white president, the creation of a non-Protestant Supreme Court (six Catholics and three Jews), a Census Bureau prediction that this country would no longer be a majority white nation by 2050, and increasing numbers of people who, when asked their religious preference, replied “none.”
Jones cites sociologist Nathan Glazer suggesting White Christian America is facing a future in which it tries to preserve its social values, or a future in which it integrates into “the new American cultural landscape.”
Jones suggests some of the things we are seeing in government and in other parts of our lives is the result of the first choice when, he maintains, the second choice inevitably will have to be made if White Christian America is to be relevant in an age when the nation is no longer majority white and increased numbers of Americans are “nones.”
He cites a 2014 study by his organization, PRRI, showing the proportion of white Christians in this country was already at 47% while the number of Americans with no religious affiliation was up to 22%. Another 24% were non-white Christians. A closer look at the numbers shows a generational shift. About 70% of older Americans are white Christians. But only about thirty percent of young adults (18-29) fall into that category. The change in the social and religious structure of this country is well underway meaning, “Falling numbers and the marginalization of a once dominant racial and religious identity—one that has been central not just to white Christians themselves but to the national mythos—threatens white Christian understanding of America itself.”
Further studies show Protestants have not been in the majority in this country since 2008. And the percentage of Catholics and those who are unaffiliated are about the same—22% each. The 2014 study showed those identifying themselves as white Protestants dropped from 51% to 32% in two decades. Black Protestants stayed at about 10% while Hispanic Protestants increased and reached four percent. And the decline in the white Protestant category involves both mainliners and evangelicals. He points to the precipitous decline of the nation’s largest evangelical Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, which operates the seminary where he got his first graduate degree. The conclusion? “White Protestant Christians—both mainline and evangelical—are aging and quickly losing ground as a proportion of the population.”
Jones argues these declines have forced the two branches of WCA to seek alliances, often with other groups that had been unwelcome in their brotherhoods previously. The mainline has moved toward ecumenicity with African-American Protestants and Eastern Orthodox Christians, for example. White Evangelicals have turned to conservative political movements and unofficial alliances with conservative white Catholics and some Greek Orthodox leaders on certain issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.
So now we can begin to understand the roots of some of the things we are seeing in our political campaigns and in the General Assembly of Missouri.
The alliances have shifted. Mainline White Christians were more likely to dismiss fears that John Kennedy would take orders from the Vatican if he was elected. Jones notes that mainliners and Catholics marched together in the Civil Rights era while white evangelicals, with stronger southern roots, “stayed largely on the sidelines.”
Jones thinks Bill Clinton’s election led Republican leaders to reconsider political strategies. White Protestant evangelicals, more closely aligned with Republicans, put aside their reluctance to work with Catholics at the same time white conservative Catholics who had seen their church becoming ethnically transformed and politically divided, moved to increase their social and political power. Republican leaders realized they could move Catholics who had been loyal Democrats since the days of FDR away from the Democratic Party by focusing on abortion, especially since the Democrats had refused to support an anti-abortion amendment. These formerly unlikely bedfellows drafted a statement in 1994 called “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.”
Jones writes that this alliance in recent years has produced the Religious Freedom Restoration movement to allow companies to opt out of Obamacare for religious reasons, and to launch a manifesto last year against same-sex marriage.
And what has this alliance produced? Jones says, “It helped give evangelicals an advantage in their contest to be the face of White Christian America. And as the overall numbers of white Protestant Christians began to slip in the late 1990s, expanding the tent to include white Catholics helped perpetuate the illusion that White Christian America was still the country’s dominant religious culture.”
Illusion, says Jones, because the Catholic Church is slipping, too. Twenty-two percent of the American population in 1990 identified itself as Catholic. By 2014 that number was down to thirteen percent, and an even greater percentage of the population today—FIFTEEN percent—identifies itself as former Catholics.
He asserts the tide is running against the Evangelical-Catholic alliance that is such an influence in American politics, and for the purposes of our discussion here, in the Missouri legislature.
We have highlighted only the first eighty pages or so of Jones’ book to try to present a far less-detailed explanation of the roots of Missouri’s political structure than you will find if you read the book. We think our understanding of contemporary Missouri politics and governance is much better because he has closely examined the demographic changes that are affecting our social, political, and religious lives.
But Jones does more than detail the movements that have put us where we are today. At the end, he assesses how WCA can remain a powerful influence on American culture in an increasingly diverse country.
His book’s title speaks of “The End,” but he suggests the future of White Christian America as a social and political force will be shaped by the process we go through when facing death. That’s a subject for another entry. This one is long enough.
If you are in Missouri politics, an observer of Missouri politics, a Christian, Catholic, Orthodox, Mormon, Muslim—whatever—we think your understanding of national and state politics can be improved by reading this book. And, particularly, if you are a candidate or an incumbent office-holder, you might find helpful his call to abandon “The Politics of Nostalgia”—and begin building a more positive and inclusive political system—as you assess what you are and what you are doing, and shaping what you want to be.
Robert P. Jones, The End of White Christian America, New York, Simon & Schuster, 2016. 309 pages