by Robert P. Jones
A Review by Dwight A. Moody
A thousand people and more are trying to make sense of these things: religion, politics, and Donald J. Trump; but no one does it better than Robert P. Jones, especially in this splendid book, The End of White Christian America.
Jones was born and educated as a Southern Baptist but, like many (including me) found his intellectual and religious home elsewhere. Unlike me, Jones turned his interest in these things into a professional expertise, founding and running the Public Religion Research Institute, located in Washington DC.
Jones defines White Christian America (WCA) as the white Protestant community, both in its Mainline expression (including Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, Disciple, and Episcopalian networks) and its Evangelical expression (including Pentecostal, Southern Baptist, Holiness, Independent, and Bible networks). WCA has dominated the religious landscape in the United States from the very beginning until now. For most of that time, Mainliners were the leaders through such entities as the National Council of Churches, but in recent years, Evangelicals have been the leaders through a multitude of para-church organizations as well as their National Association of Evangelicals.
Both are on the down grade, according to Jones (and almost everybody else). Mainliners have been slipping for a long time—fifty years and more. Evangelicals are just now experiencing the eclipse of their position and power, the election of Trump notwithstanding (as he explains in a post-2016 afterward).
Jones traces the downgrade through the lenses of three important ethical and cultural realities: politics, sex, and race (the same three used by David P. Gushee in his forthcoming book, After Evangelicalism). Jones analyses how WCA uses politics to establish and express its preferred place in our culture, how WCA has responded to the rise of LGBTQ presence in public spaces in America, and how race remains the most trying test of civic and religious legitimacy for WCA.
Finally, Jones employs the death-and-dying schematics pioneered by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross a half century ago and now imbedded in all language and literature on the subject—the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Mainline WCA is already at the acceptance stage, while Evangelical WCA is still struggling through anger and bargaining (with their political deal with Donald J. Trump a classic illustration of the latter).
This book is an easy read on important things, asserting conclusions already widely accepted. These facts make it an attractive selection of church and community reading groups, even Sunday School classes. I suspect it can be followed up with his recent White Too Long (but I’ll wait a few more days to state that with certainty).
I do wish Jones would have written more about white Catholics and their role in this White Christian America. After all, how can we employ that phrase and exclude one quarter of the American population which also happens to be the largest white Christian network in the United States? And then there are the Pentecostals—growing here and around the world. Nobody that I know of has given adequate attention to their role in White Christian America, particularly in Trump Nation; they remain under the radar. Perhaps Jones will turn his attention to them as his next project.
One other thing Jones does not address in this book—what to do about it? What can or should WCA do about this (other than “acceptance”)? Are their effective and compelling strategies for Christians (black and white, Protestant and Catholic) to engage the wider American population so as to continue our story of mission and ministry in these United States? Is an obituary the only conclusion to our history (as Jones implies with the title of his sixth and final chapter—”A Eulogy for White Christian America”)?
I don’t see a funeral in our future (even as some expressions of Christian faith and practice fade from public view). I am looking for other scholars and practitioners to show us the way into a more faithful future as followers in Jesus in this wild and wacky world in which we live, and move, and have our being. There are ways of being white and Christian in America that are hopeful and helpful, that bring healing to our nation and delight to our communities of faith. That is the future we all want.