THE ELECTION OF DONALD J. TRUMP as president of the United States brought to the forefront a politicized form of Christianity that combines white evangelicalism, white nationalism, and the prosperity gospel. However, as CEO and founder of the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) Robert P. Jones notes in his new book, White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity, these beliefs have been present in America since the beginning. Drawing upon PRRI’s comprehensive public opinion surveys and historical analysis, along with his personal experience growing up Southern Baptist in Mississippi, Jones delivers a groundbreaking study of Christianity in the US. In unpacking this history, Jones offers insights that can help humanists and other nonreligious individuals understand this complex history and the role they can play in moving the conversation on race forward.
Becky Garrison: Your new book is called White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. The subtitle suggests it’s the white supremacy in American Christianity that needs to go. But the main title is a bit more radical. What exactly does it mean?
Robert P. Jones: The book title was inspired by James Baldwin, from a New York Times op-ed he wrote in early 1969 following the murders of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. Here’s the full quote:
I will flatly say that the bulk of this country’s white population impresses me, and has so impressed me for a very long time, as being beyond any conceivable hope of moral rehabilitation. They have been white, if I may so put it, too long; they have been married to the lie of white supremacy too long; the effect on their personalities, their lives, their grasp of reality, has been as devastating as the lava which so memorably immobilized the citizens of Pompeii. They are unable to conceive that their version of reality, which they want me to accept, is an insult to my history and a parody of theirs and an intolerable violation of myself.
So, yes, the problem is that American Christianity needs to excise itself from white supremacy—the practices and teachings that reveal a commitment to the idea that white lives are more valuable than Black lives—but that can only happen if Christians do the rigorous work of disentangling which parts of their religion are about being white and which parts are about being Christian. Given our history, this is no small task.
Garrison: PRRI’s 2017 report “America’s Changing Religious Identity” and your first book The End of White Christian America (2016) point to the decline if not the demise of white Christianity. What do you see as the value of now examining the legacy of white supremacy in American Christianity?
Jones: In the first book, I looked at data showing that from 2008 to 2014 the country had gone from being 54 percent to 47 percent white and Christian. That number today is 42 percent, so it’s even dropped another five percentage points. Indeed, we are now at a very different place in the country compared to when the vast majority of white Americans identified as Christian. Having said all that, white Christians remain a significant factor in American politics, especially given the fact that 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election. Also, Christianity served as the cultural force that really shaped so many of our institutions and our policies. The legacy of that movement continues to be very much with us today.
Garrison: Why do you say that white supremacy became embedded in the DNA of American Christianity?
Jones: Looking back at American history, white Christian churches were in fact biracial churches, in that both whites and Blacks worshipped together. However, the reality was that slave owners were bringing enslaved people to church with them. Whites would sit in the front and enslaved people would sit in the back or in specially constructed balconies. The sermons, prayers, and liturgies were all by definition and design constructed to be compatible with a worldview in which it was okay for whites to own Black Americans.
Garrison: As you note in your book, even those Christians who didn’t speak out in favor of slavery still supported the enslavement of Black people.
I think it was a combination of outright justification and silence that was the one-two punch of white Christianity. When you go back to the abolitionist debates in the 1800s, those white Christians who were defending the practice of slavery actually felt they had the Bible on their side. Many more white Christians were simply silent. Even after slavery ended, the institution of Jim Crow laws, which were widely legitimized and defended by white Christian leaders, reinforced this very clearly constructed society that valued and protected the lives of white people at the expense of Black people.
Garrison: How was this book personal for you?
Jones: In my day job, I am the CEO at PRRI where I wear my sociologist hat. At PRRI we try to measure demographic change and public opinion around a whole range of issues. But as I began to think about writing White Too Long, I realized this was going to be a book about truth-telling in terms of current public opinion around race and white Christianity. The most authentic way to write this book was to include my own story as a white Christian.
“In question after question, religiously unaffiliated white Americans hold less racist views than white Christians do.”
The roots from both sides of my family tree reach back through the red clay of Twiggs and Bibb Counties, Georgia, into the mid-1700s. The 1815 family Bible on the top shelf of the bookcase in our home library gives witness to ancestors from middle Georgia who were Baptist preachers, slave owners, and Confederate soldiers. I was born to Southern Baptist parents from this lineage who grew up in Jim Crow–era Macon, Georgia. I was baptized at the age of six at a Southern Baptist church in Texas, trained in Baptist Sunday school, and came of age as a leader in my Southern Baptist youth group in Jackson, Mississippi, where my family moved when I was seven. I received my undergraduate degree from Mississippi College—a Southern Baptist college from which my father, mother, and brother all hold degrees—and went on to complete a Master of Divinity degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.
Garrison: One of the contemporary examples you explore of the link between white supremacy and the white church is the story of Dylann Roof.
Jones: In doing research for this book, I analyzed Roof’s journal, which was admitted as evidence at his trial for the mass murder of worshippers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. In this journal, he was writing a white supremacist manifesto, and he was doodling in the margins. One of the most remarkable drawings was a full-page sketch of an obviously white Jesus along with more than a dozen crosses sketched throughout the journal. I think the images, seen as incidental to many folks, were central to his worldview. He wasn’t just a white supremacist; he was a white Christian supremacist.
Of course, you can dismiss Roof as just an outlier. But I think we have to take seriously how comfortably and easily he was able to marshal resources from his Christian faith to support and be compatible with this white supremacist attitude and his goal to murder people with the aim of starting a race war in this country.
Garrison: And as you point out, Roof didn’t come from a conservative evangelical background. He was a member in good standing of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which is a mainline Protestant denomination. That means his Sunday school education took place in a seemingly liberal mainline church.
Jones: That’s true. I think his faith might have gotten more attention if had he been from an evangelical church in the deep South. Even though he was raised in a liberal church tradition, it’s very clear from those journals that his vision of himself as a white Christian was very much integrated into his vision of a white supremacist America. Those two things sat fairly comfortably side by side in his psyche.
I put this story in the book as I do because it’s an illustration of how even the more liberal or progressive wings of white Protestantism, even those outside the South, have not escaped this legacy of white supremacy. Also, I don’t think the progressive church has done enough to purge this from its ranks and to create a kind of Christianity where such a link between the conceptualization of Jesus as someone who is white or Caucasian and white supremacy would be deeply problematic.
We often hear the phrase “radical Islamic terrorists,” particularly on the Republican side of politics. But we’ve got to be able to talk about the reality of white Christian terrorism as well.
Garrison: Is there any connection between church attendance and white supremacist attitudes?
Jones: The one notable thing that I found there is that attending church more frequently does not in fact make white Christians less racist. In fact, the data suggests the opposite of that is true. The connection between holding more racist views and white Christian identity is actually stronger among white evangelicals who attend church frequently than it is among those who attend less frequently.
Garrison: What is the “racism index” you refer to in the book?
Jones: One of the tricky things about measuring racial attitudes in public opinion surveys is that if you rely on one or two questions, the answers people give may not be broadly representative of their views. One of the ways I try to protect against that potential skew is by using a broad set of fifteen different questions on racial attitudes. These questions focus on issues of structural racism and touch on Confederate symbols; racial inequality and African-American economic mobility; racial inequality and the treatment of African Americans in the criminal justice system; and perceptions of race, racism, and racial discrimination. I then combine the responses to all fifteen questions into a single composite measure.
Garrison: For those who place the blame of Christian white supremacy on Southern evangelicals, how are white mainline Protestants and white Catholics also complicit in this regard?
Jones: Basically, what we ended up finding was a very clear pattern whereby all three of the major white Christian subgroups—evangelical, mainline, and Catholic—cluster fairly closely together and score fairly high on the racism index. Southern evangelicals have higher scores than other white Christians, but it’s really only a matter of degree not a kind. Evangelicals were more extreme in their views, but all three groups were fairly consistent in holding racist views.
Garrison: How did unaffiliated white Americans score on the racism index?
Jones: Conversely, white religiously unaffiliated Americans scored fairly low on this index. If you start looking at the differences between white Christians of any kind and white religiously unaffiliated folks in America, you see enormous differences. In question after question, religiously unaffiliated white Americans hold less racist views than white Christians do. Some may say that’s because the former tend to be younger and they’re more likely to live in urban areas, have a college degree, and less likely to be Republican. But even when I put in controls for factors like partisanship, education level, and geography, these patterns still stand up. What that tells you is that, among whites, there is something about Christian identity that is actually shaping these attitudes. You don’t see this pattern among whites who are religiously unaffiliated.
Those who are unaffiliated are more likely to sympathize and identify with the key issues raised by groups such as Black Lives Matter. For example, white Christians of all kinds are about twice as likely as religiously unaffiliated whites to say that the killing of African-American men by police are isolated incidences, and that they have nothing to do with each other. They don’t see the connection of these killings as part of a pattern of how police treat African Americans. The data suggests their kind of Christianity and their racial identity hinder them from seeing structural injustice. It’s notable that white Catholics and white mainline Protestants largely share in this worldview despite having different histories and geographic locations than white evangelicals.
Garrison: Can you explain the finding in a 2018 PRRI survey that eight in ten white Christians overall—specifically 85 percent of white evangelicals, 85 percent of white mainline Protestants, and 80 percent of white Catholics—said that Confederate monuments were more a source of Southern pride than a symbol of racism? These numbers may have gone down some with the recent consciousness-raising brought on by the death of George Floyd and others, but in that survey these views were shared by only 54 percent of religiously unaffiliated whites and a mere 24 percent of their fellow African-American Protestants.
Jones: Regarding very painful issues like Confederate symbols and monuments to Confederate leaders like Robert E. Lee or Jefferson Davis, the answer is that religiously unaffiliated whites are closer in their beliefs to African-American Protestants than their fellow white Christians. I think this finding should be deeply troubling for white Christians. This discrepancy should be a call for deep soul searching as to why they are so far away from their African-American Christian brothers and sisters on a question like this.
Garrison: Any thoughts on how white Christian churches could become more inclusive?
Jones: The problem with multiracial churches is that they’ve often been white churches trying to incorporate non-white members while the leadership still looks very white. There has to be some intentionality about incorporating people of color at the top. The inclusion of non-white leaders then signals a church’s intention to be an actual multiracial organization and not just a white organization trying to be less white.
Garrison: The same could be said about some humanist and atheist organizations that also remain very white.
“We may just be at a point where humanist
organizations have some catching up to do to reach out to communities that are out there but haven’t been incorporated into the institutional frameworks.”
Jones: The religiously unaffiliated are certainly becoming more racially diverse. We’re still early on in terms of our sociological understanding of this growing and changing group, which has quadrupled in size over the last few decades. But the potential is there. For example, second and third-generation Latinos are less Catholic than their parents and grandparents. Some of them are converting to Protestantism, but others are joining the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated. But most haven’t been incorporated into the institutional structures of humanist organizations. There’s often a lag I think between the institutional framework of an organization and the actual population. So, we may just be at a point where humanist organizations have some catching up to do to reach out to communities that are out there but haven’t been incorporated into the institutional frameworks.
Garrison: How do you see religiously unaffiliated whites joining forces with African-American Protestants, as your statistics demonstrate they have some common ground despite their difference or religious opinions?
Jones: I think the best way of understanding partisan polarization is along the lines of race and religion. For example, the Republican Party is 70 percent white and Christian in comparison to the Democratic Party which is only about 30 percent white and Christian. If we continue down this path, we could be looking at a Republican Party that’s essentially a party of white Christians, and a Democratic Party that includes everybody else. In some ways, the partisan sorting is itself bringing together religiously unaffiliated whites with African Americans under the broader banner of Democratic Party politics and support for Democratic candidates.
Garrison: What would you say is the value of your new book to a humanist?
Jones: Whether you’re religious or not, this book is a way of understanding how we arrived at this moment in our history. It’s not a story that white Christians have been wanting to tell about themselves because it’s a pretty ugly history. The role that white Christians have played in the troubling racial dynamics in the country has shaped the entire American story. This book casts some new light on this history, helps explain how we got to the current moment of reckoning over issues of racial justice, and hopefully illuminates at least the beginnings of new way forward.