White Christianity is dying in America, leaving its members caught up in various stages of the grieving process. The slow death reflects a profound demographic change over two generations. While nearly seven in ten American seniors describe themselves as white Christians, fewer than three in ten young adults—29 percent—fall under this designation; and so for the first time in our nation’s history, white Christians are a minority, constituting just 46 percent of our overall population, according to the Pew Research Center.
In The End of White Christian America, Robert P. Jones captures people moving from denial to acceptance of the passing of the nation’s long-dominant religious group. How to mourn—and how to go on? The book opens with an obituary for the deceased and an accounting of their remaining assets—including a collection of monumental buildings. The United Methodist Building in Washington, D.C., reflects the death of White Mainline Protestant optimism. For decades its prominent location represented “vested and powerful faith traditions within white Protestant Christianity,” but occupants now represent “a wide array” of religious organizations. The Methodists have rebranded the building as “an inclusive religious voice for justice.” In Southern California, the Crystal Cathedral—bankrupt in 2010, sold two years later—embodies the recent struggles of White Evangelical Protestantism. And the imposing Interchurch Center on Riverside Drive in New York City, dedicated by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1959, and a place where many major Christian organizations once shared tenancy, represents the lost fervor of mid-twentieth-century Christian ecumenism. Jones takes the 2013 departure of the National Council of Churches from its spacious offices in the building as symbolic of his narrative of decline. (He neglects to mention the somewhat less spacious offices Commonweal has occupied there since 1997.)
Jones’s narrative of decline, principally of white mainline Protestants and white Evangelicals, is capably told and bolstered by plentiful sociological data, especially from the Public Religion Research Institute (of which he is the CEO). The book’s most original and compelling contribution comes in its final analysis, “A Eulogy for White Christian America,” which serves as a timely reflection on the classic “stages of grief” popularized by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, and constitutes an artful and accessible psychoanalysis of contemporary American Christianity. Jones uses the tenures of two successive leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the hard-liner Richard Land (1988–2013) and the more accommodating Russell Moore (2013–present), to frame the stages of grief. There are others he could have picked for the role of “denier-in-chief” concerning the state of American Christianity—Ralph Reed and Mike Huckabee come to mind—but Land practiced “a particularly extreme form of denial,” countering the statistical reality of decline with deflection and nostalgia.
As Kübler-Ross noted, denial in the face of death often leads to anger—a mode that “comes naturally to white evangelicals,” Jones asserts, who “have developed a rich lexicon of apocalyptic anger...and nostalgic ‘re-’ words like ‘reclaim,’ ‘restore,’ ‘renew,’ ‘repent,’ and ‘revive.’” But Jones may have written his book a few months too soon to catch the apotheosis of White Protestant anger. The campaign of President Donald Trump whipped up new levels of rage among some white Christians, who grieved their loss of power in ritual displays of group bellicosity at Trump rallies around the country. About those in grief, Kübler-Ross described “anger displaced in all directions and projected onto the environment at times almost at random.” Whether about the raucous cries of “Lock her up!” or the assaults on hecklers, that could be an apt description of many a Trump rally.