This is a really important book.
Every so often, a piece of research comes along that reframes our understanding of religion in America. As I’ve written before, Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s American Grace was one of those. But Robert Jones work in The End of White Christian America sets an even higher bar. We will be reading about the analysis in this book for the next decade.
Robert (Robbie) Jones is the CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute. He grew up in Mississippi and earned an MDiv from Southwestern Baptist Seminary and a PhD in Religious Studies from Emory. In short, he’s an insider to the world of American religion and offers a sympathetic voice.
Jones does something rather unusual in his book. Rather than obsessing over differences between evangelicals and mainline protestants, he puts them together as two branches of the same family. He then examines the family within the backdrop of Catholicism, Mormonism, Black Protestantism, and the Religious Nones.
The book opens considering the status of major religious groups in the mid-twentieth century. It is a story of religious dominance, of a common worldview that seemed to infuse American Culture. Interestingly, he uses architecture as a way of telling that story. Edifices representing religious life that rose above the skyline eventually give way for very pragmatic economic reasons to being just another building on the horizon.
The real story is one of demography. Rather than getting caught up in arguments about the role of conservative theology versus social accommodation, Jones examines what has happened to the religious population in America. He notes, for example, that the percentage of Americans who are White Protestants fell from just over 50% in the mid 1970s to just over 30% in 2014.
Why? The standard demographic reasons: new members don’t come in fast enough to replace dying members. Some decrease in intergenerational stability (younger generations leaving the church). Birthrates that are lower than those among other groups.
Robbie’s book aligns nicely with another I read this spring: Good Faith by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons. Their book opens with data on why traditional evangelical positions are seen as irrelevant at best and extreme at worst. Some of the extreme views are no doubt due to the communication methods some evangelicals have used in defending their positions (a point David and Gabe make in their earlier books about the unchurched and the formerly churched).
But the data they report makes perfect sense when seen through the lens of Robbie’s work. To their credit, the balance of Good Faith attempts to give guidance on how evangelicals can operate within an increasingly pluralistic culture.
Robbie’s book opens with an obituary for White Christian America and ends with a eulogy. His final chapter uses Elizabeth Kubler Ross’ five stages of grief to talk about WCA. It’s easy to see in operation. There is much depression, anger, and bargaining about the decline of Christian centrality in American life. It is no surprise that those most upset about the increasing diversity are from people my generation and older.
The defense of religious freedom is an example of the shifting ground. There has been a presumption that “religious freedom” has meant the freedom to be White Christian America. This is where RFRA laws have gone off the rails because its hard to provide a constitutional justification for a particularized interpretation of whose freedom is protected (more coming in my next post). Major kudos to ERLC president Russell Moore for his robust and far-reaching defense of religious freedom in a recent public meeting.
The shifts in religious alignment have a parallel in political alignment. Thousands of words have been written this year on evangelicals voting Republican, especially for Donald Trump. The truth is that most mainline protestants have tilted Republican as well. But the demographic changes affecting American Religion are also present in our electoral maps.
While on vacation in New York City recently, I got to hear Jones present on the book. Naturally, politics was an important topic of discussion. He shared a chart that showed that White Christian voters will make up 55% of the electorate this year. They are still a majority because as a group they are more likely to vote than other groups. But in 1992, WC voters made up just under 3 in 4 voters. By the 2024 election, they will be in a numeric minority. Even with today’s numbers, it doesn’t take much of a shift in political alignment for the assumed linkage between religion and political party to be breached.
This is why evangelicals are so politically active this year. That’s not to suggest that they aren’t sincere in their concerns over Roe or Obergefell and future Supreme Court actions. Its not to suggest that they aren’t concerned about infringements on what they see as life as normal. But they sense that this is a last gasp. As Marco Rubio likes to put it, someone is out to “fundamentally transform” American society.
The challenge is that the transformation isn’t coming from Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. It’s happening in our midst as we become an increasingly pluralistic society.
One of Jones’ big findings out of his data set is that many in WCA are what he calls “nostalgia voters”. They look favorably on how things used to be (albeit selectively). This will no doubt be a major part of Trump’s meetings with evangelicals today.
But demography really is destiny. We aren’t going back to some earlier day when we all agreed on a set of taken-for-granted religious tenets. And a secular constitution doesn’t give us a backstop for that anyway.
The book isn’t perfect, as critics have suggested. By focusing on protestants, the impact of hispanic Catholics in underplayed. The role of immigrants seeing America as a mission field isn’t explored. These are fair critiques.
But I’d argue that when religious leaders and religion writers express concern about the changing nature of religion, they are looking primarily at White Protestants. (Black Evangelicals, for example, have received very little press in this election.)
While Jones addresses the Kubler-Ross stages of grief, he ends the book before we get to acceptance. I think this is an accurate read. But the coming decade will require White Christian America to figure out its place in a changing society, to find the means of prophetic and faithful witness.
It may well be that the biggest influence of White Christian America will come because they have to engage others in the broad conversations about how we live together in an increasingly complex and diverse society.