One good thing about White Christian America’s declining political clout is that evangelicals can return to the biblical obligation of making disciples, rather than making political ones. Yet there is some very noticeable but subdued cheerfulness by Jones for the end of White Christian America and one gets the sense that he’s not alone in his excitement. The celebration and joyfulness should be measured.
The End of White Christian America, by Robert P. Jones. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016. 309 pages
According to Robert P. Jones, the founder and CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), White Christian America – “the most prominent cultural force in the nation’s history”— is dead.
Jones’ new book, The End of White Christian America, which narrates the historical development and decline of this religious and national phenomenon, functions not only as a eulogy for the once prominent majority but also the obituary of what he refers to as White Christian America. Though the exact time and date of death is somewhat uncertain – Jones speculates around 2004 – the cause of death, according to Jones, is obvious. The factors that inevitably lead to the demise of White Christian America included the changing racial/ethnic demographics, increasing religious disaffiliation among Americans – particularly younger Americans – and the inability of White Christianity to maintain relevance in a shifting cultural environment that welcomed and approved the redefinition of marriage to include homosexuals.
Who is White Christian America?
According to Jones, White Christian America overwhelmingly consists of white Mainline Protestants and white Evangelicals. Jones argues that the political activity of Evangelicals in the latter part of the 20th century forced white Christian America to expand and integrate Catholics and Mormons into their tribe in hopes of expanding its political influence resulting from shared partisan expediency and potential sociopolitical objectives.
Historically, White Christian America traces its religious roots to northern Europe (30-31). In America, Jones chronicles three distinct waves of its cultural influence and growth: the Roaring 20s, World War II, and the political ascendancy of the Religious Right in the 70s and 80s (7). Though viewed as a whole, geography and theology distinguished one half of White Christian America from the other. The liberal, mainline Protestants were headquartered in New England and upper Midwest while the more conservative evangelical Protestants were (and still are) entrenched in the South and lower Midwest (31).
The power and influence of White Christian America were seen not only among institutions that shaped and reflected its culture – The National Council of Churches, the National Association of Evangelicals, The Boy Scouts of America, the Girl Scouts, the Young Men’s Christian Association, denominational colleges and seminaries among others – it was demonstrated in the kind of architecture that defined both halves of this Protestant empire. Jones notes that the (mainline) United Methodist Building in Washington, D.C., the Interfaith Center in New York City, and the (evangelical) Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California reflected the respective cultural prominence of white Protestantism in its heyday.
Recounting the decline of White Christian America, Jones provides very good data from sound sources including the General Social Survey, American Values Atlas, the Pew Foundation, and data derived from Jones’ organization, PRRI. The gathered data suggest that religious plurality; ethnic plurality, the increasing decline in self-identified religiosity, and the graying of White Christian America all contributed to its decline. For instance, Jones highlights that 2008 was the last year on record in which Protestants, regardless of color, represented a majority (50). The estimated white Christian share of the 2016 electorate is only 55 percent and Jones predicts it will make up 52 percent of the electorate come 2020 (47).
Considering the decline of white Christian presence in the country and electorate, Jones contends the election of the country’s first black president was both a symbolic repudiation and conquest over the long dominance of this cultural force. The reaction to the first black president, argues Jones, resulted in the “politics of nostalgia” for White Christian America – specifically by evangelicals – anxiously or angrily pining for a time of recognizable religious and ethnic homogeneity (85). Though he doesn’t mention the current election cycle, one is immediately drawn to the “Make America Great Again” of Republican presidential hopeful, Donald Trump.
Has White Christian America lost its cultural and political influence? Unequivocally, Jones says yes.