The Sun Sets On White Christian America
For most of the country’s history, white Christian America—the cultural and political edifice built primarily by white Protestant Christians—set the tone for our national conversations and shaped American ideals. But today, many white Christian Americans feel profoundly anxious as their numbers and influence are waning. The two primary branches of their family tree, white mainline and white evangelical Protestants, offer competing narratives about their decline. White mainline Protestants blame evangelical Protestants for turning off the younger generation with their anti-gay rhetoric and tendency to conflate Christianity with conservative, nationalist politics. White evangelical Protestants, on the other hand, blame mainline Protestants for undermining Christianity because of their willingness to sell out traditional beliefs to accommodate contemporary culture.
The key question 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 the United States—has faded. The answer is, in part, a matter of powerful demographic changes.
The American demographic, cultural, and religious landscape is being remade. These transformations have been swift and dramatic, occurring largely within the last four decades. Many white Americans have sensed these changes taking place all around them, and there has been some media coverage of the demographic piece of the puzzle. But while the country’s shifting racial dynamics alone are certainly a source of apprehension for many white Americans, it is the disappearance of white Christian America that is driving their strong, sometimes apocalyptic reactions. Falling numbers and the marginalization of a once-dominant racial and religious identity—one that has been central not just to white Christians themselves but to the national mythos—threatens white Christians’ understanding of America itself.
Whether one is sympathetic or unsympathetic to white Christian America’s demise, it would be foolish to ignore its descendants, who survive in significant numbers. There is much at stake for the country in whether these survivors retreat into disengaged enclaves, fight on as a beleaguered minority in an attempt to preserve their social values, or find a way to integrate into the new American cultural landscape.
Read the whole thing. I strongly encourage you to, because there’s a wealth of fascinating demographic information in the article.
I have no doubt that Jones describes a real phenomenon among many white Christians, but he doesn’t speak for me, and I need to say why. He writes that
It’s impossible to grasp the depth of many white Americans’ anxieties and fears—or comprehend recent phenomena like the rise of the Tea Party or Donald Trump in American politics, the zealous tone of the final battles over gay rights, or the racial tensions that have spiked over the last few years—without understanding that, along with its population, America’s religious and cultural landscape is being fundamentally altered.
The problem with this is assuming that “white Christian America,” as defined by demographic data, is the same thing as the Christian faith as held by all white people. It’s not. Me, I don’t care that the religious influence of white Christians is declining. I care that the influence of orthodox Christianity is declining.
I know white Christians who profess views that I find antithetical to small-o orthodox Christianity, and Arabs, Asians, and African-Americans who hold to a faith I recognize as authentically Christian. I prefer to stand every single time with non-white Christians who stand for the Gospel than with Christians of my own race and cultural tribe who do not.
When Jones writes of the possibility that white Christians will “retreat into disengaged enclaves,” I think: “Oh, here we go. Somebody’s going to think, ‘Ah ha! That’s the Benedict Option!'” If so, they couldn’t possibly be more wrong, and that for a couple of reasons.
First, judging by activity online and in some Catholic social media this week, I have to say once again that the Benedict Option is not “head for the hills!” It might be, if you feel called to that, but for most of us it won’t be, can’t be, and shouldn’t be. But we still have to find a way to live out authentically Christian lives, lives of flourishing and fidelity, in a post-Christian culture. How do we do that? We do as Jesus did: retreat into more contemplative settings to build ourselves up so that we will have the strength to live in the world faithfully bearing witness. At this conference I’ve been at this week, Christian academics, progressives and conservatives from both religious and secular universities, have been talking about how little anybody they deal with — other professors or their students — knows about the Bible, or the basic Christian story. The sort of stories that were not long ago basic knowledge in American life no longer are — scandalously, not even among young Christians. You must read Robert Louis Wilken on this topic, on the loss of cultural memory among contemporary Christians. Excerpt:
In my lifetime we have witnessed the collapse of Christian civilization. At first the process of disintegration was slow, a gradual and persistent attrition, but today it has moved into overdrive, and what is more troubling, it has become deliberate and intentional, not only promoted by the cultured despisers of Christianity but often aided and abetted by Christians themselves.
Do I mourn the loss of cultural influence by “white Christians” who may identify as Christian, but who have allowed and do allow the faith to wither because they have ignored or dismissed Christian culture, or fidelity to the faith as handed down to us in the Great Tradition? Certainly not. I would rather live in a truly Christian culture that was dominated by (say) Latino Christians than live in a secular culture dominated by whites.
The Benedict Option is my term for a variety of practices those Christians who wish to hold on to the small-o orthodox version of their faith must do — not can do, but must do — if we are going to endure through what’s to come, and ensure our presence in some faraway future in which people are ready again to hear the Gospel. If the people drawn to the Benedict Option are white, fine. If they’re black, great. If they’re Asian, Arab, whatever, it’s all good. The historic faith is what unites us, and must unite us.
The thing white Christians, and every serious Christian, should really care about is not which ethnic tribe and remnants of their tribal religion is dominating American culture, but the extent to which Christianity itself is making a difference in the direction of the broader culture.