Robert P. Jones, director of the Public Religion Research Institute, draws on polling and statistics to interpret faith and culture in the United States. In books such as The End of White Christian America (Simon & Schuster, 2016) Jones both crunches the numbers and interprets what demographic shifts might mean for the future.
His latest book, White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity, (S&S, Aug.) focus on the legacy of structural racism in American Christianity. Drawing from U.S. history, statistical research, and his own upbringing in Mississippi, Jones explains in stark relief the ways in which white supremacy has defined white Christianity.
PW spoke with Jones about what his research tells us about race and religion in our current historical moment.
(This conversation has been edited for clarity and length)
In what ways has white supremacy marked American Christianity?
All white Christians, including evangelicals, mainline Protestants, Catholics, and the Orthodox, must reckon with the fact that to be baptized into our religions often means that we’re being baptized into a religion that has white supremacy in its DNA. Take for example the actions of white supremacist terrorist Dylan Roof, who shockingly saw no contradiction between his violence and his Christianity That disturbing reality needs to be taken seriously and reckoned with, because so much of white Christianity in this nation developed in a way to bolster white supremacy.
What explains the evangelical enthusiasm for Donald Trump?
First thing is that we need to expand the lens. White evangelicals seem hypocritical as “values voters,” but it’s worth remembering that 64% of white Catholics voted for him, and that 57% of mainline Protestants, who are supposedly more liberal, voted for him as well. His attraction for those voters is based in nostalgia, since Trump is appealing to a demographic past, to what seems to his supporters as a lost world of white Christian dominance. Those voters have shifted the political goalposts from values to nostalgia and, for them, the end is more important than the means.
What role has Christianity played in memorialized displays of white supremacy?
You see this with the long endurance of “Lost Cause” mythology, no more so than in the prevalence of Confederate memorials. It’s important to remember that those markers often date from much later than the Civil War, and that they were placed to reaffirm white dominance. This memorializing was done with the explicit support of white Christians, who figuratively baptized those Confederate statues in Christian symbolism.
You argue that white supremacy isn’t just damaging to minorities, but white people as well. What do you mean by that?
When the pastor of a white Baptist church in Macon, GA, preached about the church’s historical role in slavery—including evidence that slaves were sold to pay for church expenses—there were audible gasps coming from the pews, for example. The story white Christians often tell themselves is that “we’re good people who do good things.” And there’s truth to that, but it isn’t the whole story.
What gives you hope for the future beyond anti-racist statements from church leaders?
What’s in part required are community solutions, conceived of by Black and by white Christians [who have] actually done their homework. The good news is these sorts of things are happening, and you’re beginning to see change at the grassroots level. I’m pleasantly surprised to see Confederate memorials coming down and the elimination of the Confederate symbol from the Mississippi state flag. The Mississippi Baptist Convention was one of the groups advocating for the latter change, which would have been unthinkable even a few years ago. I don’t pretend that everything is going to instantly change, but right now there is a crack in the dam. There’s no going back.