Regina Munch: Tell us about the argument of White Too Long. What makes it so urgent today?
Robert P. Jones: The subtitle of the book is The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. I think when we talk about the Church and civil rights, most people think of African-American churches and the role that they played in promoting civil rights and helping to organize the civil-rights movement. But what has not received that much attention is the role that the white Church played in resisting the civil-rights movement. White Christianity and white churches have been wrapped up in and infected with white supremacy all the way back to the beginning of the country.
RM: The argument in your book goes further than saying that white Christianity was merely complicit in racism and racial injustice. You argue that white Christians and white churches actually built and reinforced white supremacy. How did they do that?
RJ: I think at best you’ll hear that the church was complicit, that it somehow got dragged along by some outside force—by Southern culture, for instance. But I think a plain reading of history doesn’t support that. What you see is white Christian churches serving as hubs of white supremacy, just as the African-American churches were serving as hubs for civil-rights organizing. The first Confederate battle flags, for example, were sewn by women organizing through churches.
But even more important than that is the legitimizing factor that white Christianity played. It baptized a worldview of white supremacy. By “white supremacy,” I don’t only mean people in sheets burning crosses, but a worldview in which whites were literally superior to African Americans, and anyone whose skin was darker than theirs or who didn’t originate in Western Europe. There was a belief in a divinely ordained world where whites were, by God’s design, meant to be at the top of the social, political, and cultural pyramid. There’s no greater source of legitimacy than to say something was dictated and handed down by God and supported by the Bible, and this is exactly the role that white Christian churches, both Protestant and Catholic, played.
RM: You talk about the type of relationship with God that’s encouraged in Evangelical Christianity, a very individualist way of thinking about one’s salvation. What does that have to do with white supremacy?
RJ: One of the consequences of the emphasis on a personal relationship with Jesus is that it is so hyper-individualistic—an internal, psychological, and emotional kind of connection to God. When the beginning and the end of religion is seen in that kind of relationship, what gets screened out are social injustices and systemic injustices, particularly around race. It becomes a way for white Evangelicals in particular to feel very comfortable with their own personal religion in a way that’s very disconnected from any claims about inequality or injustice by their African-American brothers and sisters. It falls on deaf ears because it’s considered outside the realm of what’s most central to being Christian.
RM: This is a very personal book. You grew up in a church that was part of the Southern Baptist Convention. What was it like to grow up in that church, and how did your view of it change as you grew older?
RJ: I grew up for the most part in Jackson, Mississippi, as a Southern Baptist. Our denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, was founded in 1845, literally over the issue of slavery. There was a dispute between Northern and Southern Baptists over whether a member of the clergy could legitimately own slaves, and whether that was compatible with Christianity. The Southern churches took the position that it was, and when their Northern Baptist brethren disagreed with them, they split to form their own convention so that they could hold on to the idea that slavery, white supremacy, and Christianity were compatible. By the middle of the twentieth century, that denomination was the largest Protestant denomination in the country. It really does mark American Protestantism.
I didn’t find that out until I was in seminary in my early twenties. I was at church all the time—five days a week, for worship services a couple of times on Sunday, and then all kinds of church activities like youth group—and I had never heard this. I felt a little betrayed, actually, by not getting a serious understanding of our history—hearing zero sermons on racial justice, white Christianity’s complicity, or this entanglement of white supremacy in our history.