Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The End of White Christian America, by Robert P. Jones

Demographer of religion Robert P. Jones has bad news for White Christian America (WCA).  Few will be surprised at his news, that the heyday of WCA's influential role in United States society and politics is over.  The End of White Christian America is Jones's retrospective and obituary.  Jones quotes E.J. Dionne, who said "white Protestantism served as 'the civic and moral glue that held American public life together' for most of the United States' history." 

I'll be up front about this: I am a White Christian American.  So I have a vested interest in the state of WCA.  Further, as Dionne points out, all Americans, regardless of race, immigration status, national origin, or religious preference have benefited from the moral and cultural milieu which has made the United States the beacon of hope to the rest of the world.  Economics may be the primary reason people want to immigrate to the U.S., but it's much more than that.  And WCA has played a leading role in creating this atmosphere.

Jones traces the decline of WCA by examining ecclesiastical and political trends.  For most of our history, Protestants have dominated the landscape, both spiritually and by the physical presence marked by steeples on the skylines of our cities and churches adjacent to the town squares.  Noting the histories of the United Methodist building in Washington, D.C., the Interchurch Center in New York City, and the Crystal Cathedral in Orange County, California, Jones shows the waxing and waning of movements in WCA.  Hopes for a "Christian Century" and the power of the "Moral Majority" dwindled with each generation.  Now we are arriving at a time when WCA no longer has a demographic advantage, either in terms of church attendance or political majority.

As a demographer, Jones has various ways to demonstrate this reality.  A couple of notes:

  • Today, young adults (ages 18-29) are less than half as likely to be white Christians as seniors (age 65 and older).
  • By the 2024 presidential election, even if the GOP nominee could secure every single white Christian vote, these votes would land 3 points short of a national majority.

Christians might cynically mourn the loss of political power in the country.  Conservative religious voters will no longer be the sought after swing vote, as they were in the 1980s and 1990s.  More important than that, though, is the very real loss of a Christian presence in culture.  Many hospitals, universities, and major charitable institution and movements were founded directly or indirectly out of Christian motives.  What happens to the ongoing influence of these institutions as their Christian foundations are slowly chipped away.  (Hint: we already see it in universities that were founded as Christian schools.  They not only neglect but completely reject their Christian moorings.

Most importantly for Christians, though, especially those Christians considered more evangelical, is the impact on the Kingdom of God.  Churches are never perfect.  Jones points out one big area of WCA blindness: racism.  But one thing churches always are is the body of Christ.  Christians, through the church, represent Jesus in this life, on this earth, and are called to bring the message of his saving grace to the world.  Christians can do that, no matter whether they are in a political majority or not, but Christians should be very concerned about the lack of growth in the church in recent years.  Christians are not teaching their children to continue to life committed to Jesus into adulthood, and are not bringing their friends and neighbors into the Christian fold.  The consequence are eternal and far more significant than who we back for any given election.

Jones doesn't have a lot of good news for WCA.  But American Christians will be challenged to remember that their first commitment is to Jesus, not to politics, parties, or institutions.  Christians better face the new reality and focus on the gospel and not on party platforms.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

2016 Reading Challenge: A book about church history

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