Commentary

Last week, President Donald Trump announced via Twitter his intent to bar transgender people from serving in the military — a move reportedly heavily influenced by the Family Research Council, a conservative evangelical lobbying organization. The Public Religion Research Institute reports that 21 percent of Americans have a close friend or family member who is transgender — a number that has nearly doubled in the past six years — and 62 percent of Americans say transgender people face a lot of discrimination in the country today. This snapshot captures the dynamics of the Trump era: the anxieties of religious conservatives within a cultural and religious landscape that is dramatically shifting.

Robert P. Jones’ latest book, The End of White Christian America, is perfectly positioned to explain this era of American Christianity. It presents research that has massive implications for how we think about the future of Christianity and the future of the entire country. Drawing from his work at PRRI, Jones examines the numerical decline and waning cultural influence of white Christians in the U.S. He explores the anxieties of white Christians and the ways in which they are responding to a shifting national landscape. The book has proven to be powerfully insightful and timely, especially in light of President Donald Trump’s election and his overwhelming white evangelical support.

We recently spoke to Jones about his latest book, which was recently released in paperback. The interview included below has been lightly edited for clarity.

Camacho: In your book, you look at both white evangelicals and white mainline Protestants together under the umbrella “White Christian America.” Why did you decide to look at both groups together? What do we learn when we see them as parts of one dynasty?

Jones: This book mostly focuses on the last 100 years of the white Protestant legacy in this country. As I read this history, it is a family dispute between what came to be known as the mainline Protestant world anchored geographically in the Northeast and the Midwest, and what came to be known as the evangelical wing of Protestantism geographically anchored more in the South. Notably, these factions harken back to the most defining events our country’s history: the Civil War. That religious and geographical division stems from one of our country’s biggest conflicts, which has defined us through this day in terms of culture and race. I want to tell that story and draw this family tree of what has essentially been an ongoing family dispute inside the white Protestant world about what it means to be church and what it means to be American. They have put together two really different and overtly competing visions over the last 100 years.

Camacho: It looks like we are seeing the resurgence of the religious right with Trump’s evangelical base. Yet, you interpret Trump’s unlikely victory as the “death rattle of White Christian America.” According to your research, key long-term trends indicate that the decline of White Christian America is continuing unabated. But do you think that somebody like Trump, and his administration, could actually politically engineer a change of course? For example, I’m thinking about immigration policies and an informal ban on Muslims. It seems that there is an effort to reverse demographic trends.

Jones: Can they turn the tide back just by sheer power? It’s a real question. …

Here’s my take: I don’t see anything that would do more than delay the inevitable. I think you can exert all kinds of power and you can delay things but, in the meantime, these changes continue. Putting all white non-Hispanic Christians together at the beginning of Obama’s administration in 2008, they made up 54 percent of the country. So just two election cycles ago, the country was majority white and Christian. When I wrote the book, I was using 2014 data and that number had dropped from 54 percent to 47 percent. Since the original book came out, we now have 2015 and 2016 data. That number has dropped again to 45 percent in 2015, and again to 43 percent in 2016. These numbers continue to fall. And it’s because the underlying engines of that change are continuing.

I talk about the underlying engines as the three Ds: demographic changes that are due mostly to immigration patterns since the 1960s; declining birth rates among whites relative to the non-white population; and [religious] disaffiliation. There’s an internal engine in the churches — mostly young people leaving white Christian churches in large numbers is really turbo-charging these changes. Nothing that the Trump administration could do is going to be able to affect that underlying engine and these changes. So what we’ll begin to see is that the gap between where the country is and where many policies are is going to get bigger and bigger over time. And I think that can only go on for a limited amount of time. … I do think the Trump administration is propping up the power of White Christian America but it may be the equivalent of putting it on life support and keeping it alive even as its vitality continues to ebb.

Camacho: As white Christians decline in numbers and in cultural capital, how will that change power dynamics within Christianity? For example, I think about the influence of white evangelicals in Latin America and African countries. We may see Christianity changing but I don’t think that always translates into a change of power. What do you think will be the relationship between numerical decline and the actual power white Christians in America have had not just within the nation but also in shaping the ways non-white Christians have entered and have been taught the faith?

Jones: There’s no doubt that a control of institutions translate into power. I don’t want to underplay the significance of that. We certainly have plenty of examples in the colonial context of small minorities wielding great power. But it’s notable in the U.S., particularly thinking of the evangelical world, to pay attention to the fact that those institutions of power are themselves declining.

For example, look at Focus on the Family, James Dobson’s big empire. If you go back just as recently as George W. Bush’s administration in 2004, it was a huge enterprise. They have laid off more than half of their staff since 2004. In its heyday, it was a place that had its own zip code, had a bigger reach than NPR on radio, and had a bigger print subscription than the New York Times. That’s the kind of entity it was. It’s a shadow of that today. It’s just not that kind of political force today.

The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest white evangelical denomination in the country, has now posted 10 straight years of a decline in membership. So I think that’s notable as well.

Maybe another example of this is the same-sex marriage debate. This is the debate in which the conservative white Christian world pushed all of their chips onto the table. They were all in to defeat the legalization of same-sex marriage in the country. And even in 2004 and 2005, when it was clear that attitudes were beginning to shift fairly dramatically, they were putting out the call that this was their last stand. At the end of the day, they lost this battle not only in the legal courts but in the court of public opinion as well. Just two election cycles ago in 2008, only 4 in 10 Americans supported same-sex marriage and Barack Obama himself was not publicly in support. But by the time we get to our 2016 election, 6 in 10 Americans supported same-sex marriage — a swing of 20 percentage points just over the last decade. And in our most recent data that we just released last month, we see for the first time a majority of young white evangelicals supporting same-sex marriage, along with a majority of young Republicans now supporting it. That’s a debate that evangelicals were fully committed to winning in the culture and just decidedly lost. I think that’s a pretty good bellwether measure of thinking about power and how the cultural influence of these groups has waned.

Camacho: You touched upon shifting evangelical views on same-sex marriage. What about attitudes on racial inequality and discrimination? Are evangelical views on race shifting rapidly as well?

Jones: The short answer to that is no. I think the Black Lives Matter movement has put this in fairly sharp relief. We asked a straight-forward question about a year ago about whether you think that the recent killings of unarmed black men by police are part of a broader pattern of how police treat African Americans or are they just isolated incidents. What we find is 85 percent of African Americans say this is absolutely part of a broader pattern of how police treat African Americans. When we look at white Americans, only 44 percent agree with that statement. And here’s the kicker: When we add evangelical religion into the mix, the gap gets bigger. Only about 3 in 10 white evangelicals say it’s part of a broader pattern. Basically 2 to 1, white evangelicals are saying that these are isolated incidents with no link between them.

What we’ve seen is in some ways a backlash, particularly in the evangelical world where they believe that discrimination against whites is as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities. They are more likely to say that whites and Christians experience discrimination today than they are likely to say that African Americans experience discrimination. I still think there is a large gap and the inklings of a real pushback. I think that’s mostly fueled by concerns about the changing demographics in the country and as white evangelicals in particular began to understand themselves no longer to be in the cultural or demographic majority, it’s creating these anxieties that we see coming out in these types of questions.

Camacho: Something I found astonishing is how white the social networks of white Christians are. About 75 percent of white Americans have completely white core social networks. But, as you show, the levels of homogeneity are even higher among white Christians: 80 percent for white evangelicals and 85 percent for white mainline Protestants.

Jones: I highlighted how big the gap was between white evangelicals and African Americans on this question about police violence. But what’s notable is that white mainline Protestants have this legacy — at least in the official institutions — of supporting the civil rights movement, and Martin Luther King Jr. was a contributing editor at the Christian Century, one of the flagship magazines of the mainline Protestant world. And yet, if we look at that same question today, white mainline Protestants are no more likely than whites overall to say that the killings of unarmed black men by police are part of a broader pattern. The only group of whites with attitudes closer to African Americans are the religiously unaffiliated. Basically, if you take white people and you subtract religion, they get closer to African Americans on this question than if religion is in the mix.

Camacho: So much attention is given to white evangelicals. But what about data on evangelicals of color? How do these groups diverge?

Jones: Their trajectories are very different in terms of their demographics. Evangelicals of color are not sharing in the decline. The decline that we’re seeing in the Protestant world is almost entirely fueled by white non-Hispanic Christians. So African-American Protestants, for the most part, are holding steady as a proportion of the population. And Latino Protestants are actually growing. So if you’re looking for a place of vitality, the Latino Protestant world is a pretty good place to look. Some of this is coming at the expense of Latino Catholics because of switching. In short, the picture that the data paints is: white decline; African-American stability; Latino growth.

Camacho: Do you see evangelicalism changing its course politically and culturally in the future?

Jones: I think we will continue to see three separate institutional structures that run along lines of race and ethnicity in the country. Will there be more connective tissue? I don’t know. So far that has been pretty difficult to do.

It’s notable that Russell Moore in the Southern Baptist Convention has been making serious efforts at bridging the gap between black and white evangelicals in particular. But they are doing it from a pretty tough legacy. The convention was founded to protected slave-owning missionaries in 1845. It staunchly defended the Confederate cause in the Civil War, resisted into Reconstruction, and supported Jim Crow. They did finally apologize for their role in supporting slavery but it was 1995 when that apology was issued; that’s not that long ago. Even when they get their first African-American president and Russell Moore was trying to put together some racial reconciliation programs, at the same time they had Richard Land going on the radio and saying some racially insensitive things about Trayvon Martin. I think many black leaders are rightly suspicious of these efforts. It’s going to be a longer road.

If you were an anthropologist from Mars who dropped down in the U.S. and knew nothing about history but all you were looking at were beliefs, behaviors, and affiliations, you would classify white evangelicals, and African-American evangelicals, and Latino evangelicals certainly as different factions.

Daniel is an Associate Web Editor at Sojourners.

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