By Robert P Jones and Reviewed by Myles Werntz
It is no secret (and impossible, frankly, to say otherwise) that American Christianity has broadly taken the shape that it has because of race. This is not a monocausal argument for American church history which would undermine other factors such as common sense realism, pragmatism, endless frontiers, separatist impulses among Protestants, or the complex relationship between civic republican and Christian virtue.
But at every turn, race has haunted what American Christianity has become, both with respect to where it has flourished and declined. It was race which materially propelled new denominations into being through the division of Baptist, Presbyterian, and Methodist denominations. It was race which gave shape to what theological education institutions exist today, for it was the denial of education to former slaves that occasioned the rise of institutions such as Shaw Divinity School. It was race which led Black Baptists to promote missions to Africa long before their white counterparts, race which led to historical divisions among American Christians. Whatever else we can say about American Christianity’s history, it has unquestionably existed under the sign of race.
It is not as if any of this is now a surprise. There have been no shortage of books detailing this history, or prophets singing out jeremiads about American Christianity’s racial problem, for before there was an America, there have been voices making their signs against Christianity’s seemingly insoluble problem of race. From the days of Bartolome de las Casas through Frederick Douglass and W. E. B. Dubois and James Cone and Jemar Tisby, the history has been amply documented. What more can there be to say?
Enter White Too Long by Robert P. Jones. Jones, CEO and Founder of the Public Religion and Research Institute, approaches the question of American Christianity’s relationship to racism partly through historical reconstruction, but partly through sociological surveys, to offer not just a theological or historical account, but one rooted in the attestations of self-identified white Christians. He begins the book with a broad narrative account of the co-existence and cooptation of white supremacy by Christians from America’s founding to the present, offering detailed accounts of how this relationship unfolded through the Southern Baptist Convention (the denomination of Jones’ youth), in the construction of Lost Cause mythology in the South, and in Charleston and Richmond.
Jones describes the ways in which white supremacist ideology was propagated through an amalgam of Christian virtue and a belief in the divinely ordered subjugation of black people, and the ways in which it supported this ideology through church practices, church architecture, and sponsoring of Confederate monuments. At this point in the book, Jones’ story is relatively familiar. White, Southern evangelicals have been blind to the sins of racism, and this continues to cast a shadow over the movement today.
But this is where Jones’ story gets not just interesting, but damning: what was most explicitly seen in slave owners who founded the largest seminary in the Southern Baptist Convention (a story which Jones tells over the course of two chapters) is actually the ubiquitous story of all white American Christianity, without remainder.
At this point, traditionally more progressive white denominations distance themselves from evangelicalism, pointing toward their efforts in racial justice or their public social stands. But Jones’ case, built on sociological surveys of self-identified white Christians across demographic, educational and geographical differences, is that there is almost no statistical difference between the racial attitudes of evangelicals, mainline denominations, or Catholics on this count. The diversity of self-identification of denominations is not accounted for here, but this is beside the point–if the racist attitudes are as prevalent as Jones’ work shows, the racial diversity within a congregation is due to agreement on theological principles, not racial acceptance by white Christians.
In a shocking twist to the normal plot, when more of these forms of Christianity are prevalent, the index of racist attitudes increases, making the South’s Christian racism stronger among evangelicals, but New England’s Christian racism strongest among Catholics. Geography continues to shape racist attitudes, as Jones shows how the number of slaves historically in an area indexes to the prevalence of white racist attitudes, but the damage is universal across traditions, regardless of geographical relationships to slavery.
Nearly twenty years ago, in their landmark book Divided by Faith, Christian Smith and Michael O. Emerson made the case that evangelical theology, with its attention to the individual and salvation as an effacing of personal guilt, was particularly unable to see racism or grasp how a person could be culpable for historical harms. Such a study set off a wave of works which allowed for evangelicals, then, to be the poster children for racism, but Jones’ work shows this to be a distraction.
The upshot of his argument is nothing short of devastating: not only are non-evangelicals empirically only slightly less racist than other white Christians, but self-identified racist attitudes of Christians of all varieties are significantly higher than non-religious persons. In one of the most damning findings, racial attitudes among black Christians are far closer to non-religious persons than they are white Christians, regardless of denomination.
It is the ubiquity of his findings that is most stunning. The ways in which evangelical theology as individually calibrated contribute to this are well-known, but what Jones wants us to come to terms with is that white Christian formation—and indeed, preservation—of racism takes many forms. The histories of Black Catholics and of alt-right movements within Catholicism, of Presbyterian support of segregation, and of the A.M.E. churches are not only historical markers, but invitations to consider the ways in which these theologies too have sustained racism in their own unique ways.
Jones’ previous book, The End of White Christian America, offered a precursor to his newest book, by detailing the ways in which the consensus of American Christian political power was coming to end. The title of his book was meant to be purely descriptive; as a matter of demographics and sociological data, Jones plainly demonstrated in 2016 that by 2028—at the latest—white Christians would no longer comprise a majority of the voting bloc. What was ventured in that volume—a sociologist’s argument about voting patterns and political engagement—was a simple thesis: white Christian voting power has been in decline for nearly thirty years, and the tipping point is coming soon.
With the election of Donald J. Trump, Jones’ thesis seemed to be in jeopardy. Perhaps he had underestimated the prowess of one sector of American Christianity: evangelicals, who had been backed into a corner and reluctantly voted defensively for Trump. Jones, in the epilogue to White Christian America, stood by his thesis, that Trump’s election was the last gasp of a demographic decline, and not a reversal of it. With this new book, however, a more horrifying possibility emerges: Jones was still right about the decline about Christian participation, and the reason that Trump succeeded was not because Christians ignored the racist rhetoric, but because the more pagan advocates of Trumpist racism cohered with Christian formation across the board.
Jones’ singular focus on the ways in which attitudes of racial superiority are not only preserved but upheld intertwined with how American Christian churches tell their own history leads him to overstatements at times. At times, he reads, for example, the uplifting of Antebellum values as the preservation of white supremacy, not as an incidental value. And at times, in the desire to surface racism within denominational histories, Jones’ story veers toward the monocausal. But his work neither rises nor falls on the history so much as it does the sociological surveys. And the surveys, the self-attestations, tell a less avoidable story.
The last five months of pandemic and isolation have yielded two crises for Christians: an increased demand for racial justice, and a relative absence from the church. At just the time when Christians are in need of time, space, and presence to process monumental changes, we are unable to do so. It is with some eeriness, then, that Jones’ conclusion—that white churches across theological divides tend to sustain racist attitudes—comes during this time when churches are largely not meeting. For if Jones’ survey evidence is correct, white churches meeting in a time of racial protests may have in fact muted the effects of the protests. But in the absence of church gatherings—if in fact church gathering has contributed to and not mitigated racist attitudes—Christians have an unintended opportunity to hear the voice of racial protest anew.
This absence of church gathering which will, according to Jones’ work, empirically decrease the deformation which occurs on issues of race. But simply removing Christians from the site of deformation on race does not itself solve the problem. The argument, which I and others have made, is that in the absence of church formation, some other voice of moral formation will fill that need, whether social media, popular culture, or individual intuition. And so we are left with this in the wake of Jones’ work: white Christians will be formed badly according to race, but apparently going or not-going to church makes no difference on that score. So what is there to do?
Let us begin with what will not help. First, I will assume, for the sake of argument, that Jones’ statistical work is largely correct, given that the data is self-supported and vetted by other sociologists. One need only turn to the New Testament to see the prevalence of in-group thinking with respect to cultural bias, and the ways in which Paul’s churches struggled with perpetuating bias not merely in the form of ideas but in structural inequities. And so it will do no good to simply ignore Jones’ data. It does no good to point anecdotally to this church or that church, or to this congregation as a counter-example, for Jones is interested in vast trends, not inspiring outliers.
Secondly, it may do limited good to offer an account of multi-cultural churches on the whole as a plausible solution. While multi-ethnic churches account for now 19% of all churches, leadership of those churches, according to work by Michael Emerson, is still over 70% white in those churches. Korie Edwards, in her 2008 work, The Elusive Dream: The Power of Race in Interracial Churches concluded similarly that attitudes on race among multi-ethnic churches did not materially differ among white congregants of those churches.
Third, it will do some limited good to be introspective with respect to a denomination’s theology. In the wake of the Civil War, what Jones finds is that racist ideology was not attached to one singular element of Southern evangelicals: it simply found a different home. Prior to the Civil War, a postmillenial eschatology was prominent, emphasizing the progressive nature of the Kingdom of God. Such an eschatology exalted the South as God’s Kingdom coming to the world. But in the wake of the South’s defeat, a premillenial eschatology, emphasizing the continued decline of the world toward the Second Coming became more prominent. And so, racism became entrenched in a different way, attached to segregation as the best possible solution to stave off the continued decline of society.
Here it is helpful, however, to bring in one of the maligned aspects of Jones’ story for a rehabilitation: the altering power of friendship. In Smith and Emerson’s book, one of the elements they discuss with respect to the difficulty of overcoming racial formations is that friendships require not only affinity, but proximity; to enter into a different way of seeing race, white Christians must not only see black Christians as their own flesh and blood, but be in spaces which are not predominantly white.
Accordingly, white Christians cannot overcome Jones’ conclusions by simply repenting and resolving to do differently; we must literally undergo a metanoia which alters the spaces and social formations which we are in. For the white church to no longer be the site of racial deformation, in some cases, it would involve intentionally becoming less demographically white. This may take the form of replanting churches, of shared racial leadership in churches, of white Christians joining congregations where they are not the majority race, listening, participating, and waiting to be included.
Jones’ argument about the prevalence of racism rests on the power of social formation: white Christians are more likely to be racist than other Americans, regardless of denomination, in no small part because of the frequency of white Christians being around predominately other white Christians. This “reckoning”, as Jones puts it, cannot be a matter of knowledge, whether in recounting of histories or the accumulation of data surrounding racism’s present legacies.
In one respect, Jones’ work is no different, in the translation of anecdotal evidence into sociological statistics. But where Jones’ approach is intimately sobering is in the totalizing grasp of the problem: no iteration of white Christianity escapes the problem, and not just at a historical level. The only questions to be asked now are “in what ways does our tradition reproduce the problem?” and “where can I be saved from this sin which so easily entangles?” If Jones’ assessment holds up, the salvation of white churches will only lie in new spaces of friendship, spaces which will entail the dismantling of the present ones.
What seems to be the logical conclusion of Jones’ findings is more structurally plausible in places like Abilene, where I live, where whites are approximately 70% of the population, such that white Christians disaggregating would be possible. But what of places where the white population is nearly homogenous? It is here that Jones’ argument is less clear, but ultimately what is needed–as indicated by the role of friendship–is a return to church not purely as a site of doctrinal instruction but of virtue formation married to structural changes. In other words, it would not be enough for white Christians to move to another church if this move was not accompanied by the deeper change: virtue, which comes only through friendship, and friendship through the willingness to let another’s presence change us.
For all white Christians, the way out is not through mere doctrinal alterations, if for no other reason than alteration of doctrine only means racism will cohere in a different form. Nor is the way out pure structural change, though structural change offers a new material reality into which we offer our confessions and prayers. The way forward is the slow and intentional work of friendship, attending to who is not in the building, and what their absence is reinforcing in white Christian churches.
For true friendship, rooted in a common pursuit of the good, means that my good and yours are interlocked, such that whatever racism I harbor will come to the surface when my social and political good and the good of black Christians diverge. In that moment, I will either pursue the good with them, or I will turn away and prove my friendship to have been one of convenience and not true virtue. The truth of friendships cannot be known in advance, but proved over time, that the legacy Jones points out might be unlearned, un-supported, and unmade.
— Myles Werntz is Director of Baptist Studies and Associate Professor of Theology at Abilene Christian University, where he directs the Baptist Studies Center in the Graduate School of Theology. He is the author and editor of five books in theology and ethics, and writes broadly on Christian ethics of war and peace, immigration, ecclesiology, and discipleship.
This essay first appeared on Mere Orthodoxy: A Christian Review of Ideas (www.mereorthodoxy.com) on September, 10, 2020 and is republished here with permission.