The End of White Christian America, Three Years On

End of White Christian AmericaThe End of White Christian America, by Robert P. Jones. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016. 309 pages. [With a new afterword covering the 2016 election.]  ISBN 9781501122323, available at Sacred Heart University Library.

Jones’ book garnered considerable attention in the religious media in 2016. Reading it three years later, one cannot help but ask frequently, “What about?” some event since 2016, because the book preparation and publication date precluded any coverage of the interminably long, bitter 2015-2016 election cycle. Since November 2016, so many “what abouts?” arise, even over Jones’ basic contention that a carefully-defined “White Christian America” (WCA) is dying or has died.  The “new afterword covering the 2016 election” is identical with the article, “T—— Can’t Reverse the Decline of White Christian America,” The Atlantic, July 4, 2017.  (I em-dash the name to try to discourage trolls from spamming this post.)

Jones’ sticks consistently to a concept of white protestant Christian America, its churches, web of associations, and cultural agenda (abbreviated WCA). He is clear when this infrastructure of influence extends to cover Eastern Orthodox (which he glibly labels “Greek Orthodox” although assorted Greek, Russian and other derivations and jurisdictions are a huge question in those communities). Jones maintains a boundary between Christians of white, European descent, and African American Christians, because of the heritage of slavery and Jim Crow entwined with the churches, but he gives little attention to the growing Asian presence in the mainline WCA churches, or growth of other ethnically-based Christian churches (Afro-Caribbean, for example).

Jones efficiently traces the distinctions between the two historical descendants of pre-1920 WCA: mainline, ecumenically-oriented churches, and evangelical churches. I believe he fails to consider fully, however, just how porous those distinctions can be, or the significant differences between what has been called “soft-core” versus “hard-core” evangelicalism –the latter more doctrinally oriented and fundamentalist, the former more experiential and open to individuals who move in and out of a community (seen in the rise of name-brand groups such as The Vineyard). Particular communities, in fact have changed position within WCA with some difficulty, yet irreversibly. Why and how?

For example, Hope College in Michigan was a mainline college with a Reformed  with a heritage in the  Reformed Church in America (the less-enclosed of the Dutch Protestant denominations) through the 1970s. It liked to remember its association with Robert Schuller ’47 (his son was a class mate there, ’76), and the Science Center (!) was named after Norman Vincent Peale. But it went more evangelical in the 1980s-1990s, under the leadership of Gordon van Wylen; by the 1990s the College had moved clearly and definitely in an evangelical direction under the direction of Chaplain Ben Patterson and a milquetoast senior college leadership.  (See James Kennedy’s Can Hope Endure, 2005.) To this day it is contrary college policy to “by statement, practice, or intimation . . .  to promote a vision of human sexuality that is contrary to this [fundamentalist] understanding of biblical teaching.” Jones identifies opposition to gay and lesbian rights as one of the binding commitments that evangelical Christians must maintain without compromise in order to show their bona fides –and the problems this will bring with a younger generation of Americans. Numerous alumni/ae have repudiated this position, or simply dropped any sense of allegiance or support, while support has increased from evangelicals. The cost of changing official policy for the college, given its choices, would probably be prohibitive.

By contrast, Princeton Theological Seminary moved in the opposite direction. Beginning from an incohate, majority position in the 1970s, the Seminary fully mirrored the protracted and heated conversations and conflicts that coursed through the Presbyterian General Assembly, especially after the union of the (northern) UPCUSA and the (southern) PCUS in 1983. Under the long presidency of Thomas Gillespie (1983-2004) the Seminary maintained the (PCUSA) Presbyterian Church’s official line of “acceptance or members but without ordination” despite the evident hypocrisy of this decision with in its own community. Any discussion or criticism of these policies was resisted and tamped down upon (as I discovered 1992-1996 during the course work and examinations for Ph.D.) These hypocrisies culminated with the death of the community’s beloved and celebrated musician David Weadon in 1996, from HIV-related causes, who died afraid to reveal his illness for fear of his job and health coverage. Thomas Gillespie did express remorse and a change of heart, too late for David, of course. In 2011 the PCUSA finally voted to allow the ordinations of gay and lesbian persons. The Seminary now hosts a chapter of BGLASS (Bisexual, Lesbian, and Straight Supporters) and formally hosts discussions of gay and lesbian issues in an affirming manner in its Center for Theology, Women, and Gender. From a position squarely in the evangelical opposition to gay and lesbian rights, the Seminary has moved to the center in tandem with its historic denominational alliance.

Jones’ book suggests that such institutional shifts are rare, but I believe that they are more common than he realizes, because they reflect the changing concerns of individual white protestant Christians as well. Evangelical churches have (historically) surely seen their share of former or lapsed members of mainline churches who have undergone some kind of conversion or new-life experience and join an evangelical congregation. The traffic certainly moves in the other direction as well: numerous evangelical Christians have moved out of Evangelical churches in response to changing understandings of scripture, history, cultural and religious political connections, and geographies. Very little work has been done on cross-overs. In 1993 Benton Johnson, Dean Hoge, and Donald Luidens tried to examine the famous claim by Dean Kelley (1972) that conservative churches were growing (and liberal churches declining) because the more liberalizing denominations were weak: low commitment, and moral and theological commitments too fuzzy to mobilize members’ energies. In their 1989 study of 500 Presbyterian baby-boomer confirmands (in other words, confirmed around age 14 between roughly 1960 and 1980) found that they did not, in general leave the Presbyterian church because they sought doctrinal and moral orthodoxy in conservative churches. Some remained in mainline churches, and many left, but not for Dean Kelley’s supposed reasons.

Jones’ book examines WCA responses to three general topics: political involvement, gay and lesbian rights, and racial tensions and histories. Since his preparation (late 2015) and publication in 2016, much has happened that actually confirms his historical narratives of change, decline, and acceptance. As he wrote in The Atlantic in July 2017, the emphases and apparent desires of the present Presidential administration will not reverse WCA decline –indeed, the present leadership may be the death-rattle of WCA rather than its rejuvenation. One of the benefits of reading Jones’ book now (2019) is that it contextualizes numerous deeply divisive conflicts of the past 26 months in what went before: the world did not begin anew in November 2016. The politics of nostalgia and fear have proven very powerful, and the traditional evangelical narrative of persecution has found a weird new life in the face of public anti-Semitism. Ironically some of the mainline churches have found a new voice for social inclusion in an era marked by rising hate speech, acts of violence, anti-semitism, and anti-immigrant rhetoric and actions.

John Fea’s book Believe Me: the Evangelical Road to D—T— develops the narrative of persecution, nostalgia, and fear, which will wind up at the dead end that looms for the “court evangelicals” and possibly for evangelicalism as a whole. The signs of coming trouble and a profound day of reckoning are unmistakable. Young evangelicals problematize or flee the label: the Princeton Evangelical Fellowship, continuing from 1931, changed its name to Princeton Christian Fellowship because of the narrow and overly partisan meanings that have gathered around the term “evangelical.” (The Princeton Fellowship pre-dated the use of the term “evangelical” by the National Association of Evangelicals by a decade.) David Gushee, formerly an evangelical (still very much a professor at Mercer University) has written Still Christian: Following Jesus Out of American Evangelicalism (2017) in a similar spirit.

Three years later, Jones’ book still resonates broadly with the continuing decline of WCA. The mainline denominations still struggle with the realities of decline, some rather badly. Many do nothing meaningful whatsoever about preparing or adapting present and future clergy to the reality of ministry as a part-time job. The evangelical wing of WCA has in large part completely mortgaged its moral and cultural standing to the current incumbent of the White House. One shudders to think of the court evangelicals’ fall when that person is either impeached, not re-elected, or even retires after eight years. Currently 72 years old, in any case he won’t be around forever. What then? Who will write this story then, and what will the next social form of evangelicalism look like?

Three years later, Jones’ book could also benefit from some examination of the end of white, Catholic America as well. The changing composition of Catholicism can mask for a while the dramatic departure of white Catholics, many deeply angry and hurt by the continuing pedophile scandals and insider infighting regarding positions associated with the current Pontiff. White Catholic America (the other WCA?) replicated white, protestant, Christian America’s web of institutions in the earlier 20th century to a remarkable degree. Those are also coming apart, for somewhat different but related reasons. In some states, the cultural power of the Catholic Church, once palpable, has dissipated almost completely. This would be a fascinating companion study that could probe much deeper the realities described by David Masci and Gregory A. Smith in October 2018. Personally speaking, I sometimes feel that I work on a campus filled with pissed-off Catholics.  They are not happy, and for that Church the day of reckoning approaches, as well.

Jones’ final chapter, a “eulogy,” organizes a lot of material on the frame of Kübler-Ross’ theory of the stages of grief, from denial and anger to acceptance.  This is a dubious scheme insofar as many pastoral and health practitioners have abandoned this scheme as unhelpful and overly schematic, but it serves Jones acceptably as a prism with which to examine topics as diverse as the Institute for Religion and Democracy (IRD), essentially a destructive and disruptive distraction, to Russell Moore’s various activities in the Southern Baptist Convention, to the panentheistic wanderings of some mainline denominational leaders (such as John Dorhauer of the United Church of Christ).  As a sociologist (and not particularly a theologian), Jones tends to locate the initiative in the churches with people, and unintentionally commit the theological mistake that doomed WCA: that this is entirely under human control. If the past decade has shown anything, it is how little is under effective human control.  Many preachers like to quote Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s famous line in Morte d’Arthur:  “The old order changeth, yielding place to new” –but few go on to the next lines:

And God fulfils Himself in many ways, 
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.

Did whatever was good in the WCA wind up corrupting the world, or vice-versa (and what does “world” mean here, anyway)?  Jones is a sociologist of religion and sticks to his domain.  Inside (or emerging from) the dying or dead WCA, churches might see their situation differently. How now will God fulfil God’s intentions for the church and for all creation?  Karl Barth’s famous rebuke of religion in the church resonates broadly.

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