"The reports of my recent death have been greatly exaggerated."
- attributed to Mark Twain
I just finished reading the book, The End of White Christian America by Robert P. Jones. As I am a Christian who happens to be white and American, I felt I needed to be informed concerning the demise of a group of which I am apparently a member. The book has enthusiastic blurbs on the jacket by a number of men whom I respect.
Robert Jones, we are told, "is the founding CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and a leading scholar and commentator on religion and politics." He informs us that he was raised in White Christian America (henceforth to be referred to as WCA) and comes from a long line of Georgia Baptists, though he does not claim to share their faith.
I have been concerned for many years about the politically rightward drift of many of my fellow Christians, especially of those in leadership roles. My concern involves the association by many, of these three terms as describing themselves: white, Christian and American; for some the words are practically synonymous. So I wanted to see if this author could offer some encouragement. Before I make further comments on the arguments presented, I must say I appreciate the data given.
The book begins with an obituary for WCA. WCA is, as presented in this book, White Protestant American Christianity, which the author tells us, can be divided into two groups: Mainline Protestantism and Evangelical Protestantism. He starts with the stories of three buildings which he apparently considers allegories for the history of the decline of WCA: the United Methodist building in Washington, DC (ca. 1923), the Interchurch Center in New York City (ca. 1960) and Robert Schuller's Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, CA (ca. 1980). The decline of these three began almost as soon as they were built.
The author tells us that his story does not deal with the distinctions between the sub-groups, but deals with WCA as a "single dynasty." "The key question here is not why one white Protestant subgroup is faring worse than another, but why white Protestantism as a whole - arguably the most powerful cultural force in the history of our country - has faded. This is a story of theology and culture, but it is also a story of powerful demographic changes." (page 40)
Chapter 2: "Vital Signs ... " is the most informative with charts and graphs to back up its claims; this data makes a clear case that WCA is declining in number. Though Mainline Protestantism was the first to decline from its position of power, Evangelical Protestantism is now beginning to decline - at least as a percentage of the American population.
Then follows Chapter 3: "Politics: The End of White Christian Strategy; Chapter 4: Family: Gay Marriage and WCA; Chapter 5: Race: Desegregating WCA. In these chapters the author presents brief histories of the actions of WCA, with criticisms for the behavior of Evangelicalism and mild praise for the behavior of Mainline Protestantism. Most of the material in these chapters has been heard before and it is here that the author clearly reveals opinions that are sometimes biased.
The 6th and final chapter is entitled "A Eulogy for WCA." In it the author uses Kubler - Ross' well-known stages of grief and applies them to WCA: "Denial and Anger," "Bargaining," "Depression and Acceptance." Though I don't believe their use was meant to be humorous, I actually found this chapter a bit amusing.
So? What to do with this book? I fear that like many books of this sort, it will be applauded by those who agree, and either condemned or ignored by those who disagree. However, I find myself in some place in between.
Mr. Jones appears to be one who is not really mourning the end of WCA. And while I agree with him in many areas, I find my major area of disagreement is that we come from two very different starting points. The author seems to judge WCA from modern, pragmatic criteria, rather than a biblical, spiritual base. His is the judgment of the "natural man" (to use Paul's term) or the man "under the sun"(to use Ecclesiastes' term). So the following are my views on WCA:
- First, I agree that these three have been identified too closely by many of my Christian brothers and sisters. We have failed to get out of our cultural shell and to judge our culture from a truly biblical worldview.
- The political adventures of many prominent Evangelicals have brought shame on the Name of the Lord. Sadly this is becoming more and more evident in this election season. What this book brought out is the idea that (perhaps) this is a last-ditch effort to recover an influence that is rapidly slipping away.
- The issue of race has been a burden of mine for a long time. White Christians judge their brothers and sisters from their own WCA perspective and fail to deal with the blatant racism that permeates not only our politics, but our churches themselves. The chapter on race points out many of these faults, criticizes and praises some, but seems to be brought more from an outside perspective.
- The issue of the church's dealings with the LGBT community is not as clear-cut as that of race, in spite of the claims made in this book. With the race issue efforts can and must be made to clear away non-biblical traditions; but with the issue of sexual orientation, we cannot clear away biblical teachings to just get along. We must learn to love those who are different, but we cannot endorse certain behaviors.
- The book did not (I feel) deal enough with the "America" part. There is much more that needs to be said about the identification of Christianity with the super patriotism that is being over-emphasized by many today.
So is WCA dying? I suppose so. But Christianity is not! I believe we need to shed WCA's trappings and live a purer Christianity - one that identifies with those of other ethnic and national groups. Perhaps the information in this book will lead to a Christianity that is cleaner, purer and less encumbered with wrong standards and goals.