The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity
by Robert P. Jones
A Review by Dwight A. Moody
This is the book I have been waiting for: after The Half Has Never Been Told; after Just Mercy; after From Here to Equality; even after The Narrative of the Life of Frederic Douglas, an American Slave, and finally after the prequel to the present book, The End of White Christian America. Finally: White Too Long!
Every page of this book speaks to my formation as a person, a citizen, and a Christian: raised in the South and baptized, educated, and ordained as a Southern Baptist. Robert P. Jones also walked in that path: raised in Mississippi, baptized in Texas, and educated at Mississippi College and Southwestern Baptist Seminary, His story is my story; and his search is my search—for the connections between race in religion in our region, our religion. Yours too, perhaps.
Jones is a sociologist of religion, trained in the doctoral program at Emory University. He founded the Public Religion Research Institute of Washington DC as a platform for his search. He, truly, was made for such a time as this—and these days, Jones is everywhere: New York Times, NPR, Washington Post, CNN, and, yes, in a few weeks, The Meetinghouse, as my radio guest, talking about this book and his journey.
Our question is this: what role has southern religion in America played in articulating, defending, and sustaining this stain upon our soul known as white supremacy?
Jones answers his question with extensive research, interviewing people all over the country, seeking to determine their level of racism (often hidden, or suppressed) using a 15-question tool (together with a lengthy demographic set addressing geography, education, religion, and such). Sample questions are:
Answers to these questions generate what he calls a racism index, with each person assigned a grade between 0 and 1, with 0 representing the least amount of racist attitudes and 1 representing the highest amount of racist attitudes, both across all questions.
Here are four of his findings.
His conclusion is this: “…white Christian churches, both Protestant and Catholic, have served as institutional spaces for the preservation and transmission of white supremacist attitudes” (182).
And further, and more damning: “Even as Jim Crow laws have been struck from the books in the political realm, most white Christian churches have reformed very little of the their nineteenth-century theology and practice, which was designated, by necessity, to coexist comfortably with slavery and segregation. As a result, most white Christian churches continue to serve, consciously or not, as the mechanism for transmitting and reinforcing white supremacist attitudes among new generations” (186).
My head is still spinning, but even in this whirl these questions formed in my mind.
Jones ends the book with several stories of recent efforts to address these serious matters, but they are too few, too weak, too unproven as to impact to provide a remedy to the sadness that overwhelms me as I read through his research. In fact, there is too much evidence in our religion and our culture that the trend is in the other direction—of intensifying the connection between religion and race, of endorsing attitudes and actions that betray racist roots, and of launching initiatives (legal and otherwise) that have the power “to constrict radically the scope of whites’ moral vision” (75).
“A moment of reckoning is upon us,” Jones writes, and I concur, “and it’s time that we white Christians do better, to see what is plainly in front of us and to wrestle with the unsettling implications” (70). To put it another way—this is the chief moral dilemma of our day: not street violence, or free trade, or public health, or even climate change. Getting our hearts right with God and with our neighbor has always been at the center of things, and Jones has demonstrated what we all know—things ain’t right, and we need the kind of spiritual awakening that can shine the light of gospel into these dark corners of our souls.