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Last Days for White Protestants?

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Seizing upon data that reveals that white Protestants comprise less than a third of Americans—and that white Christians weigh in at just 47 percent of the population—Robert Jones proclaims the death of White Christian America. Jones, who founded and runs the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), catalogs the sins of Christianity and Country, and offers little practical advice to reverse the downturn in religion’s standing. Jones ignores the fact that Christianity is facing an overall decline in the West, and that the drop in church attendance and affiliation is not uniquely American.

Nonetheless the author deserves a serious hearing. As one would expect, the book is overtly political in tone and thrust, and its release coincided with this summer’s political conventions. What makes The End of White Christian Americanoteworthy is its battery of statistics that document the rise of the religiously unaffiliated—aka “nones”—as an identifiable current.  

According to PRRI, religious nones are the single largest religious subgroup among millennials (34 percent), ahead of white Christians (30 percent), and nonwhite Christians (29 percent). Nowadays, about a quarter of all Americans lack a religious affiliation, while the latest presidential polls show that Hillary Clinton’s coalition is driven by minorities, women, college graduates, and the religiously unaffiliated. Although its title is an overstatement, The End of White Christian America is a book for our times.

To be sure, these demographic realities did not emerge suddenly. The decline of Mainline Protestantism has been on display for nearly a half-century, the question of whether anyone really cared has been ignored for nearly just as long, and these are not singularly American phenomena. Five years ago, members of the Church of England observed that the Church was “impeccably” managing itself into failure, and would no longer be “functionally extant” by 2031. The End of White Christian America does not dispel that conclusion.

Indeed, the God is Dead movement of the 1960s found its theological portal through the German-American Paul Tillich, a Lutheran, French Protestant Gabriel Vahanian, and the mainline seminaries. Looking back, the times really were a changing.  

In Jones’ telling, the eclipse of Mainline Protestantism coincided with—and partially contributed to—the rise of the Evangelical movement. Certainty was at a premium in a time of turmoil, and Bill Bright’s Campus Crusade and others found friends and converts. But diversity also meant something more than Blacks, Catholics, and Jews becoming part of America’s tapestry. It also signaled that Baptists and Pentecostals could find comfort and a place within the corridors of power and America’s boardrooms.

The old adage that folks switched denominations as they moved up the corporate ladder lost its currency as Mainline Protestantism receded, and Sunday’s sermon was replaced with a weekend walk in the woods. Over time, the U.S. Air Force Academy would emerge as an attractive destination for evangelicals, and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue would become home to two born-again Christians. In 1976, Jimmy Carter publicly professed his faith as he ran for the Oval Office, and George W. Bush’s conversion experience would become far more a help than a hindrance.

Nonetheless, even as Evangelical Christians would come to enjoy their moment of triumph, they too would be forced to confront the reality that a society that places a premium on individualism and self-actualization would have a difficult time coming to grips with Old Time Religion. Markets are godless creatures, and if New England’s Puritans ultimately succumbed to the temptations of the figuratively forbidding forest, there is no reason to assume that later generations would be different.

Rather, regular worship is now the province of married upper-income Americans, be they Republicans or Democrats, but Jones does not discuss this development. On a very real level, SMU families in Texas and their counterparts in New York’s Scarsdale suburbs have more in common than either may immediately realize. Conversely, religion has lost traction at the lower end of the income spectrum, particularly outside of the South.

All of this is transformational. As Jones correctly observes, Protestantism was part of America’s Big Bang, and the first round of migration to the New World coincided with religious developments in England itself. The American Revolution owed a particular debt of gratitude to Protestant Dissenters. Colonial Congregationalists and Presbyterians owed little allegiance to the Crown and Canterbury.

On the other hand, our country’s battles over slavery, Prohibition, civil rights, and the Vietnam War also played out within America’s churches, and those divisions have remained with us; not all wounds heal. As the Rev. Martin Luther King said, “the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” Although some mega-churches like Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston are integrated, Lakewood is the exception to the rule. The liberal United Methodist Church and United Church of Christ are also among the least diverse denominations, and their numbers are dwindling.

Still, Jones overstates the death of White Christian America. Loss of primacy of place is not the same thing as extinction. Although the author writes an “obituary” and recites a “benediction” for what he perceives as the passing of white Protestantism, he elides the fact that Christianity remains a force to be reckoned with, even in its lessened state.

Beyond that, The End of White Christian America urges churchgoers to come to terms with modernity, and to embrace diversity in the same manner as corporate America. Jones points to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and its reluctant acceptance of gays in the ranks of Boy Scouts, but he omits any reference to Mormonism’s own personal conservatism and social cohesion—which are born of the Mormon community’s homogeneity and conformity. Voluntary safety nets spring from self-identification with their beneficiaries.

As New York University’s Jonathan Haidt has repeatedly observed, diversity and cohesion seldom go hand-in-hand. In an America where Christianity stands diminished, there is little on the horizon that appears capable of taking its place. From the vantage points of 21st-century America, and two millennia of history, there is no clear solution or replacement in sight.

Lloyd Green is the managing member of Ospreylytics, LLC, a research and analytics firm, was opposition research counsel to George H.W. Bush’s 1988 campaign, and served in the Department of Justice between 1990 and 1992.

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