A national conversation on white supremacy and American Christianity, featuring Robert P. Jones and Adelle Banks
On June 26, BJC hosted a conversation on race and Christianity with author Robert P. Jones and journalist Adelle Banks, broadcast live from the National Press Club studios.
Click here to watch a recording of the program on BJC’s YouTube channel.
Jones, the CEO and Founder of PRRI is a leading commentator on religion, culture and politics. He is the author of the forthcoming book White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity, and The End of White Christian America, which won the 2019 Grawemeyer Award in Religion.
Banks is production editor and a national reporter for Religion News Service. In addition to reporting on topics such as Christians and Christianity and religion and race, Banks also is a photographer and occasional videographer for RNS.
After the event, we had a live discussion on our Facebook page with reactions and a continuing conversation with BJC Director of Education Charles Watson Jr. and Dr. Alphonso F. Saville IV. Click here to watch their conversation.
About the Luncheon
Since 1991, BJC has brought together friends and supporters of religious liberty for a time of fellowship and updates on the latest news out of Washington. In 2020, our luncheon was a virtual event, broadcast to homes across the country.
Q&A with Robert P. Jones, CEO and Founder of PRRI
Author of White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity
What led you to write your forthcoming book, White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity?
Every book is in its own way personal and comes from some insight that seems worth understanding and pursuing. This one came from my own need to fully understand how relationships between white and black Americans have impacted the way Christianity — especially the southern branch my family was a part of — developed and what that means for us today. This was a tough book to write, but one that I felt driven to complete as a way of coming to terms with my own faith and its place in these once again racially charged times.
When it comes to American thought regarding politics and religion, which recent trends have particularly caught your attention?
The past decade has witnessed an unprecedented transformation of the religious landscape. In 2008, the U.S. was a majority (54%) white and Christian country. By 2014, that proportion had dropped below majority to 47%. And PRRI’s latest numbers show that the country today is only 42% white and Christian — representing a drop of more than a percentage point per year over the past ten years. At the same time, the proportion of religiously unaffiliated Americans has risen to 26%; and for young people under the age of thirty, that number is 40%.
What can studying survey data tell us about our country?
We have never seen a religious transformation of this magnitude in such a short amount of time. And these shifts are contributing to increasing political polarization as our two major parties react to these trends differently. For example, seven in ten self-identified Republicans identify as white and Christian today, compared to only three in ten self-identified Democrats, and that cultural distance has gotten wider over the last decade. If these trends continue, we may find ourselves with a Republican Party that is essentially a white Christian nationalist party and a Democratic Party that is the default home of everyone else. And this kind of polarization — that welds together racial, religious, and partisan identity — left unchecked, would be a very bad thing indeed for the health of a pluralistic democracy.
What is something that people might not expect in your new book?
In most of my published writing, I’ve written from the standpoint of a sociologist, marshaling data to provide insight on major trends at the intersection of religion, culture and politics. In this book, I’ve necessarily located myself more squarely in the analysis as a white Christian; the first word in the book is “I,” and the last sentence of the book contains the word “us.” Interspersed with the history and the contemporary demographic and public opinion data are stories from my own experience with race and Christianity. Writing in the first person, in the genre of memoir, was new to me.
Do you see Christian nationalism overlapping with white nationalism?
Since President Trump’s election in 2016, there has been a lot of ink spilled on the subject of nationalism. Although it’s not always made explicit, the historical record is clear that nationalism in the U.S. has always been wrapped up with race and religion — specifically the idea of a white Protestant nation. The ideas of the superiority of whites and the superiority of Protestants are deeply embedded in American identity. We’ve never adequately dealt with that fact, but the demographic changes in the country and a president who is trading explicitly in these ideas have brought us to a new moment of reckoning.
How can we begin to respond to the legacy of white supremacy in American Christianity?
I intentionally refrained from making big pronouncements at the end of the book. The legacy of white supremacy is so ingrained in our churches, theologies and practices that there are no easy “10 step”-type programs that can just be rolled out. The first step is to face the problem squarely. As James Baldwin noted, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” I’m hopeful that the book will help us white Christians — who are accustomed to seeing ourselves as well-intentioned people who do good things — to understand that we have to relinquish the myths that still hold us captive if we hope to find a history that can set us free.
Robert P. Jones is the CEO and Founder of PRRI. He is the author of White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity (Simon & Schuster, forthcoming in the summer of 2020) and The End of White Christian America (Simon & Schuster, 2016), which won the 2019 Grawemeyer Award in Religion. Hear more from him at this year’s BJC Luncheon.
2019 Luncheon: Jonathan Merritt
Religious liberty supporters from across the country gathered under banners with the revamped BJC logo on June 21, 2019, in Birmingham, Alabama. Jonathan Merritt — bestselling author of Learning to Speak God from Scratch — urged the audience that it was their Christian obligation to speak out. “The world needs you to lead the conversation, especially in this moment,” he said. “I think it can make a difference. I think it needs to make a difference.”