Robert P. Jones wrote his book in 2016. He’s the founder of the Public Religion Research Institute, and holds a PhD in religion from Emory and an MDiv from Southwestern. He’s a clever and engaging writer, and opens with an obituary for “White Christian America” (“WCA”). In this “eulogy,” he explained that WCA had been ill for some time, but the disease became terminal after the 2004 presidential election:1
The cause of death was determined to be a combination of environmental and internal factors—complications stemming from major demographic changes in the country, along with religious disaffiliation as many of its younger members began to doubt WCA’s continued relevance in a shifting cultural environment.
Jones writes from a progressive Christian perspective, and he sheds few tears at the death of WCA. His thesis is that a particular cultural era has ended in America; an era largely shaped and defined by WCA.2
What is WCA?
This is the million-dollar question, but (for me, at least) the biggest initial stumbling-block is that Jones decided to use a framework that generalizes Christians of various theological stripes by the color of their skin.3 It’s these white Protestants, Jones argues, who have lost their grip on the culture and are fast fading into obscurity.
After about two months of reflection, I’ve decided that Jones wasn’t trying to broad-brush Christianity by skin color. Instead, he uses WCA as an update on the old “WASP” label; it’s a shorthand for a particular expression of cultural Christianity.4
In its heyday, a set of linked institutions reinforced White Christian America’s worldview across generations: the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), the Boy Scouts, the Masonic Lodge, and the local country club with limits or even outright bans on membership for Catholics, Jews, and ethnic minorities. White Christian America had its golden age in the 1950s, after the hardships and victories of World War II and before the cultural upheavals of the 1960s. June Cleaver was its mother, Andy Griffith was its sheriff, Norman Rockwell was its artist, and Billy Graham and Norman Vincent Peale were its ministers.
America has long been dominated by complementary religious visions, and although these visions had different theological content, they shared a belief in American exceptionalism. It’s white Protestants who had the cultural cachet to shape and influence American society in their respective ecclesiastical orbits. But, Jones argued, that time has now passed. He observed,5
There are, to be sure, pockets of the country where the spirit of White Christian America still seems alive and well—like midwestern and southern exurbs, where lively megachurches have followed the outmigration of whites from cities, and rural communities, where churches and pastors continue to have vital social roles. But even within these reassuringly insular settings, it’s no longer possible to believe that White Christian America sets the tone for the country’s culture as a whole. And that realization—both for those inside and outside WCA’s domain—marks something genuinely new in American life.
Jones builds his introductory chapter around three grand buildings that act as foils to tell his story:
- The United Methodist Building in Washington D.C., which opened in 1923 (white, mainline optimism)
- The Interchurch Center in New York City, which opened in 1960 (white, mainline ecumenicism)
- The Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, CA, which opened in 1980 (white evangelical protestant resurgence).
At each building’s opening ceremony, white Protestant leaders spoke in prophetic tones about the indispensable place of Christianity in upholding America’s moral and political health. Today, though, all of these buildings have a different purpose from their founders’ ambitions. Each edifice has adapted—or even been transformed—to reflect the realities of a swiftly changing country. Indeed, through the life of these buildings, we can see the decline of white Protestant dominance amid the steady diversification of the American religious landscape.
An era has ended forever. America’s religious landscape will never again be dominated by white Protestants. It isn’t so much that the color of American Christianity has changed (though it has). Rather, it’s that an America-centric civil religion has passed from the scene and it will never return.
Jones has few solutions to offer a confessional evangelical. But, his description of the problem is invaluable. America is not what it once was, and Christians cannot operate as they once did – as if Ronald Reagan were still in the White House. Jones frames the spectrum of responses to this reality by drawing parallels to one psychiatrist’s description of the five stages of grief at impending death: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Jones argues (and I agree) that while mainline Protestants have long since adapted to the changed operating environment, white evangelicals have not.7
We see the spectrum of responses in our churches. Denial and anger are common, especially among the older demographic who remember a different America; one characterized by Ronald Reagan and the Moral Majority. It was, to paraphrase George Marsden, a dime-store civil religion – but it was real.
Throughout their history, white evangelicals have developed a rich lexicon of apocalyptic anger. Evangelical sermons and hymns are infused with martial imagery, and nostalgic “re-” words like “reclaim,” “restore,” “renew,” “repent,” and “revive” are staple fare. This vocabulary originates in the evangelical theological emphasis on human sin and divine judgment, but it’s bolstered socially by evangelicals’ self-perception as an outgunned minority struggling valiantly against outside powers.8
We see this in our churches in intense suspicion about Muslims, immigrants, and the sexual revolution. Pastors thunder forth with bombast about “America turning its back on God!” In these circles, there is little more than lip-service on bringing Christianity’s substantial theological weapons to bear to win these individuals to Christ. Rather, there is a pervasive fear of “them” and visceral anger that “America is under attack.”
Bargaining is the stage at which Christians hope to reach an accommodation; an armistice of sorts. In practical terms, it usually manifests itself as a series of desperate moves intended to showcase WCA hegemony in an attempt to force a ceasefire. Jones highlights numerous cases, all in the South, where Republican legislators have attempted to introduce bills to make the Bible the “official state book.”9 He also notes Mississippi’s decision to add “in God we trust” to the State seal.10 Jones observed,11
The need to forcefully elevate their Christian status reflects white Christian lawmakers’ fear that for an increasing number of citizens the Bible and God are no longer a guiding cultural force. These efforts amount to little more than bargaining beside the deathbed of White Christian America.
Jones showcases two theologians who epitomize the depression and acceptance stages in WCA. The first is Stanley Hauerwas, whose 1989 book Resident Aliens was a clarion call to a mainline constituency to forsake civil religion and embrace its status as a colony of outsiders in a hostile world. This is one of the most profound books on ecclesiology I have ever read. Hauerwas wrote:
[W]e believe that things have changed for the church residing in America and that faithfulness to Christ demands that we either change or else go the way of all compromised forms of the Christian faith12 … A tired old world has ended, an exciting new one is awaiting recognition. This book is about a renewed sense of what it means to be Christian, more precisely, of what it means to be pastors who care for Christians, in a distinctly changed world.13
The other book is Onward, published by Russell Moore in 2015, who is at his best when critiquing the civil religion of the American South. “The shaking of American culture is no sign that God has given up on American Christianity. In fact, it may be a sign that God is rescuing American Christianity from itself.”14
It’s in his last chapter where Jones’ analysis mercilessly rips the security blanket off our evangelical consciences and forces us to realize that America has changed. This chapter has some of Jones’ best writing and his most apt illustrations:
Today, White Christian America’s faded cultural map is increasingly inaccurate. Like retirees setting out on a trip with their 1950s AAA road atlas, the graying descendants of WCA find themselves frequently pulling off the road in disbelief and frustration as they encounter new routes and cities that are not on their map. The slow death of WCA has left many with a haunting sense of dislocation.15
What a picture! What pastor has not experienced this whirlwind sense of dislocation, as if he were a latter-day Rip Van Winkle and had awoken in another era? What Christian over age 65 has not felt the same – and said so at prayer meetings?
Today, confronted with a range of shifts—from changing neighborhoods to gay marriage attitudes—the descendants of White Christian America are confronted with a diversity-and-youth-driven country that seems alien to their sense of what it means to be American.16
“Christian America” was a reality for so long, but it isn’t a reality any longer. To be “American” is not to be a Christian – certainly not a Republican.
Confronted with the psychic discomfort that results from a lack of cultural confidence and security, the greatest threat to White Christian America’s descendants is the siren song of nostalgia. Faced with an unfamiliar cultural landscape, today’s white mainline Protestants may find it easier to skip excursions altogether, preferring instead to huddle in their homes and churches around yellowing photo albums of journeys past.17
Who has not sat back, trying to recapture a little of the glory of those days from long ago? But, as the song goes, time slips away and leaves you with nothing but boring stories …
Jones sees a bright future, but a different one. His progressive theology allows him to see hope in LGBTQ inclusion and a particular expression of racial reconciliation. “The death of White Christian America marks the end of an era in the nation’s life. For many, it is a cause for considerable grief; for others, relief or even celebration. But this much is clear: in the soil fertilized by White Christian America’s remains, new life is taking root.”18
For evangelicals, Jones’ book is a sober warning. It forces us to confront a rapidly changing America. Those of us who minister in secular contexts already understand this. What will we do? How should we re-calibrate our perspective, emphasis and expectations to exegete our culture as it is, not as it was during the Carter administration? Jones has few relevant answers to offer, but he sure pinpoints the problem. Along the way, he points us to two men who do have some answers – Hauerwas and Moore. Hauerwas noted:19
A few may still believe that by electing a few “Christian” senators, passing a few new laws, and tinkering with the federal budget we can form a “Christian” culture, or at least one that is a bit more just. But most people know this view to be touchingly anachronistic. All sorts of Christians are waking up and realizing that it is no longer “our world”—if it ever was.
Indeed. What will we do about it?
1 Jones, White Christian America, 1.
2 Jones spends considerable time discussing politics, family and race in WCA as a means to prove that WCA is, indeed, dead and gone. I chose to not discuss that in this review and restricted myself to his main thesis – WCA is dead and Christians are facing a new world.
3 Ibid, 31. “Throughout the book, I use the term White Christian America to describe the domain of white Protestants in America. In the twentieth century, White Christian America developed along two main branches: a more liberal mainline Protestant America headquartered in New England and the upper Midwest/Great Lakes region and a more conservative evangelical Protestant America anchored in the South and lower Midwest/Ozark Mountains region.”
4 Ibid, 38-39.
5 Ibid, 39-40.
6 Ibid, 7-8.
7 Ibid, 198.
8 Ibid, 203.
9 Ibid, 208-209.
10 Ibid, 209.
11 Ibid, 212.
12 Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, Resident Aliens, revised ed. (Nashville: Abingdon, 2014), 15.
13 Ibid, 14.
14 Russell Moore, Onward (Nashville: B&H, 2015), 7.
15 Jones, White Christian America, 229.
16 Ibid, 229-230.
17 Ibid, 230.
18 Ibid, 240.
19 Resident Aliens, 16-17.