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Is curtain call imminent for White Christian America?


The End of White Christian America

By Robert P. Jones

Simon & Schuster

309 pages, $28

By Michael D. Langan

The title of this book is freighted with fear. Is it legitimate?

In purely theological terms, many would read the title and say, “So what if White Christian America ends? That’s not the end of the world.”

Remember how often wars, political and social tumult came and went over centuries to ancient Israel. Despite their trials, “God’s people,” wherever they are, carry on.

Nevertheless, the demise of white Christian America (WCA), if true, is a serious question for American democracy and its ideals. That is, if one looks at the phenomenon in purely political and social terms, as does Robert P. Jones, the founding CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and a scholar on religion and politics.

Jones’ assessments, based upon polling, indicate that white Protestant Christians losing their majority will profoundly alter the politics and social values of the United States.

Here is his argument, written in obituary-form at the front of his new book: “The cultural and political edifice built primarily by white Protestant Christians (WPC) – set the tone for our national policy and shaped American ideals. But in recent decades, new immigration patterns, changing birth rates, and religious disaffiliation have transformed the U.S. When Barack Obama was running for president in 2008, white Christians still comprised a majority (54 percent) of the country. But today, white Christians make up less than half of the country.”

Jones’s obit for WPC concludes this way: “Late in its life, WPC also struggled to adequately address issues such as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, which were of particular importance to its younger members, as well as to younger Americans overall … Plans for a public memorial service have not yet been announced.”

Consider the importance of the starting point of Jones’ book: As the WCA dies, its benefits to America’s democracy will be missed. Jones lays out the changes.

As our author puts it, the WCA’s long life produced a dizzying array of institutions, from churches to hospitals, social service and civic organizations such as the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and the YMCA. Beyond this, the WCA also helped incubate and promote the missions of countless independent nongovernmental organizations such as AAA, drug treatment centers, and other self-help groups that met in its facilities and were staffed with its members.

For certain, the decline of these institutions, begun and sustained by a White Christian America that no longer sits astride American life, will cause serious harm to our country’s fabric of cohesion and generosity.

No one would contend that these transformational changes, if they occur as predicted, will not have major impacts. Jones lays out what he thinks some of them may be. For example, he surmises that:

• Values voters may become “nostalgia voters” supporting Donald Trump.

• The shrinking white Christian voter pool will largely impact the Republican Party that relies on this group.

• Jones suggests that the death of white Christian Americans may “make room for a new political playbook that could reform the democratic process.” (Other analysts sense more doom more than reform. If anything, the death of WCA could make materially worse what is left of the democratic process.)

Other critics claim that telling conservative Christians to “change or die” isn’t much of a choice. They don’t see many Christians modifying their religious beliefs that they premise upon biblical understanding on the strength of political polling trends. And not all of WCA is gone. “It is survived by two principal branches of descendants” Jones intones, “a mainline Protestant family residing primarily in the Northeast and upper Midwest and an evangelical Protestant family living mostly in the South.”

Jones gives an interesting account of WCA in the construction and decline of its churches, in a chapter subtitled “White Christian America’s Life in Architecture.” The building began with the United Methodist Building on Capitol Hill (Washington, D.C., 1923), followed by the Interchurch Center (New York City, 1960) with President Dwight Eisenhower doing the cornerstone laying with the phrase, “a prime support of our faith – the Truth that sets men free.”

In 1980, to represent White Evangelical Protestant resurgence, the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif., was constructed with the Rev. Robert Schuller, the TV evangelist whose “Hour of Power” service was heard on TV and radio across the country and “tied Christian worship to culture, a shopping center for God.”

Later in the 20th century and 21st, these monuments to Protestant power ultimately morphed into memorials to a White Christian America that never realized its aspirations, Jones writes.

This book, dealing with WCA loss, is the subject of an exploration by the Brookings Institute’s Governance Studies on July 11, 2016. Brookings is hosting a program featuring Jones and Brookings Senior Fellows William A. Galston and E.J. Dionne Jr. They will examine what it means for America to no longer be a majority white Christian nation, and its near and far-term implications.

That session will consider the implications of the book with special emphasis on the coming 2016 presidential election and more broadly, how the recent demographic and cultural changes will shape concepts of inequality, fairness and religious freedom for future generations.

America’s social scientists and religious leaders look forward to the good fruit of “any new political playbook that could reform the democratic process,” as our author writes.

Will new democratic entities required to cope with a racial, religious and cultural landscape that has changed around them produce altruistic results as did White Christian America over the last hundred years?

Perhaps, perhaps not. Outguessing the spirit of America’s altruism is a chancy business.

More recently formed racial, religious, and social groups may have a hard time escaping the euphoria of their newly found freedoms. It will depend upon how much altruism is left in their sails to go in directions to help those in need, but who don’t agree with them.

Michael D. Langan is a frequent reviewer of books for The Buffalo News. In a varied career, he was a vice president of Canisius College and headmaster of Nardin Academy.