An author’s eulogy for ‘White Christian America’

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HARI SREENIVASAN: Now to the latest addition to the “NewsHour” Bookshelf.

Religion has played a significant role in American culture and politics for more than 200 years. But the country’s demographics are rapidly changing.

That is the thesis put forward by Robert Jones in his new book, “The End of White Christian America.”

Judy Woodruff sat down with him recently.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Robert Jones, welcome to the program.

So, provocative title, “The End of White Christian America.” But you say in the book what you’re really asking is why white Protestant America has experienced such a dramatic decline.

Why did you want to tackle that question?

ROBERT JONES, Author, “The End of White Christian America”: Well, thanks for having me.

You know, when I was looking at the data, I realized that we had really crossed this very significant threshold in American culture. And that is that we had moved, just in the last eight years, from being a majority white Christian country, 54 percent in 2008, when Barack Obama was running for president the first time, to being a minority white Christian country.

Today, we are 45 percent white and Christian. Now, when I use the term white Christian America, I am really referring to this cultural and institutional world built primarily by Protestants. So, if you think about the cultural center of the U.S. being a kind of Waspy, white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant culture, that’s the culture that I’m talking about and that has really faded from the center of American culture.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you talk — excuse me — and you talk about how influential, how powerful it’s been in the history of this country.

ROBERT JONES: Yes, absolutely.

I mean, one of the books when I was doing the historical research put it this way, from an historian, said, if you were in charge of something big and important in the middle of the 20th century, chances are, you were white, you were Protestant, and you were male.

And that really held sway all the way up through the latter part of the 20th century.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And then what started happening in the — you say roughly in the ’60s, 1970s and beyond?

ROBERT JONES: Yes, we started seeing some of the shift with the kind of cultural revolution in the 1960s, but we really see it seize demographically in the 1990s.

And so just a couple of examples. In the 1990s, for example, nine in 10 Americans claimed a religious affiliation. So, less than one in 10 said they claimed no religious affiliation at all.

Today, that number is 23 percent, and among young people, it’s 34 percent. So, we have seen this kind of move away from particularly white Christian churches really since the 1990s to the present.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, that’s the — and that’s a change from previous generations, that may have moved away from churches for a time during their 20s, but came back to establishment religion. And you’re saying that didn’t happen — hasn’t happened.

ROBERT JONES: That’s right. That’s a really critical thing, that every generation has been less affiliated in their 20s.

What’s different about this generation is that it’s much more unaffiliated than any previous generation. So, if you compare them to the baby boomers, for example, this generation, even if a proportion of them comes back, they will still be the most unaffiliated generation that the country has ever seen.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, Robert Jones, you also write, of course, about the birth rate being lower among white Protestants and about the phenomenon of immigration.

ROBERT JONES: Yes, that’s right.

There is an internal factor. That is this kind of disaffiliation, but the external factors are important here as well, that it is rising numbers of Latinos immigrating particularly from Mexico, and lower birth rates among whites compared to non-whites as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so what are the consequences of this?

ROBERT JONES: Yes.

Well, I think it’s very important to understand the heat that we’re seeing in our politics today. One of the things that I — that put me to writing the book is, it always seemed to me that, even when there were controversial issues, the rhetoric, the apocalyptic rhetoric, the visceral nature of the rhetoric always outstripped the actual issues we were talking about.

And what I think is going on is that many — the anxieties that many particularly white conservative Christians are feeling is being driven by this real sense of loss and grief of this cultural world that they and their ancestors built and that used to hold sway in the center of American culture, and is now really passing from the scene.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You’re explaining part of what’s going on in the support for Donald Trump.

ROBERT JONES: That’s right.

I should say that this book was written and closed before Donald Trump really ascended into the — you know, to be the nominee for the Republican presidency.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Which is what makes it even more fascinating.

Why is it important that we understand this?

ROBERT JONES: Yes.

Well, one way of putting it is that I think that we’re at a moment where we really are having to come to terms with the passing of this era. It is really a cultural era.

And I think, to understand Trump supporters and the grief, the anger that we see from them and why he’s been able to appeal to them, really, his appeal to him has not been that he’s one of them. His appeal to them has been this — to appeal to the sense of nostalgia and loss and grief.

And when he says make America great again, he’s saying, I’m going to restore power to the Christian churches, says things like, I’m — we can be — we’re going to say merry Christmas again in this country. We’re not going to be saying happy holidays.

Those are all about kind of big cultural shifts that I think are driving a lot of anxiety among conservative white Christians today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you make the point clearly really throughout the book, and especially at the end, that this is really — the country is really moving on from this to something else, and that there is no going back.

ROBERT JONES: That’s right.

So, I begin the book with an obituary for white Christian America, and I end the book with a eulogy. And what I hope I’m doing at the end is sort of thinking about presiding over this very complicated loss and death in American culture, with some people who are grieving, but some people who are very much ready to move on and ready to say good riddance to this era.

But I think the real challenge for us is to figure out how we tell a story about who America is and where we’re going as a country that is sort of faithful to its past, but makes room, I think, for the new demographics and the new place that the country is going.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And to understand that this is so much of — that this is a big part of what’s behind it.

ROBERT JONES: Absolutely.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Robert Jones, the book is “The End of White Christian America.”

Thank you very much.

ROBERT JONES: Oh, thank you.

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