Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Robert P. Jones and The End of White Christian America: LGBTQ Rights, White Christian America, and a Trump Presidency — Questions for Consideration

As I noted yesterday when I offered you my first installment of excerpts from Robert P. Jones' new book The End of White Christian America (NY: Simon & Schuster, 2016), this book is important for us to consider in the 2016 election cycle. As I noted, Maureen Fiedler recently reported that when she interviewed Jones for Interfaith Voices a number of days back and asked him, "When Donald Trump says he wants to 'make America great again,' is he really saying, 'Bring back white Christian America?,' " Jones replied,

YES. No hesitation… just YES. Donald Trump is the nostalgia candidate, wishing for an America that has already passed into history.

As I went on to show, Jones' book demonstrates (citing statistical studies) that the Republican base supporting Donald Trump — including some 80% of white evangelicals and half of both white Catholics and white mainline Protestants — is strongly energized by the desire to recreate an America that has passed into history, in which heterosexual white males were culturally dominant and people of color, women, and LGBTQ people kept to the places assigned them by straight white men. Though Jones' phrase "White Christian America" refers to white Protestant Christian America, which historically excluded Catholics from cultural hegemony, under the pastoral and moral leadership of the U.S. Catholic bishops in the final decades of the twentieth century, a significant number of white Catholics have aligned themselves with the conservative white evangelicals who form the base now for both the Republican party in general and the Tea Party in particular.

The excerpts I provided you yesterday from Jones' book provide his reasons for making this argument about the American political-religious sphere at this point in time. As I also noted, though Jones' book argues that the cultural dominance of White Christian America has waned, he also points out that White Christian America remains a formidable political presence in American life, particularly through its most fervent political-religious arm, conservative white evangelicals with their geographic concentration in the American South. As I noted, Jones writes, 

Although their numbers are falling, white evangelical Protestants continue to comprise 10 percent of the population nationwide and one quarter percent (25 percent) of Southerners. While their views are increasingly out of touch with mainstream opinion, their strong opposition to LGBT rights, combined with their geographic concentration, positions them to have a continued impact, at least for the near future, on these debates (p. 129).

One of the important findings of Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), which Jones founded with Daniel Cox in 2009 and on whose extensive research his book draws, is that a trend documented by Robert Putman and David Campbell in their 2010 book American Grace — the exodus of millennials from the churches due to many churches' anti-LGBTQ stances — continues to the present. Jones writes,

[I]n their landmark 2010 study of the changing religious landscape, American Grace, sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campbell noted that younger Americans who reached adulthood after 1990 were marked by two prominent, interrelated traits: they were more liberal on gay rights and had lower rates of religious affiliation . . . . 
Subsequent research from PRRI found that antigay teachings or stances by churches loom large among the specific reasons Millennials (aged 18-34) give for leaving the religion in which they were raised. Among Millennials who no longer identify with their childhood religion nearly one third (31 percent ) say that negative teachings about or treatment of gay and lesbian people were important factors in their disaffiliation from religion – roughly twice the rate (15 percent) of seniors (age 65 and older) who say the same (p. 132).

This well-documented trend presents a serious challenge to the churches, Jones points out, since it is older church members, who remain in many cases opposed to LGBTQ rights, who are the chief financial donors of churches and predominate on church boards. Jones states, 

Moreover, more than seven in ten (72 percent) Millennials agree that religious groups are estranging young people by being too judgmental about gay and lesbian issues. Seniors are the only age group among whom less than a majority (44 percent) agree. The dilemma for many churches is this: they are anchored, both financially and in terms of lay support, by older Americans, who are less likely to perceive a problem that the overwhelming majority of younger Americans say is there.  
Majorities of nearly every major religious group confirm the problem. Jewish Americans (79 percent), religiously unaffiliated Americans (74 percent), white mainline Protestants (61 percent), African American Protestants (58 percent), and Catholics (55 percent) all agree that negative, judgmental attitudes about LGBT people are creating barriers between churches and the younger generation. Indeed, the only major religious group to say that these judgments are not alienating young people are white evangelical Protestants (51 percent) (p. 133).

As Jones also indicates, faced with the fact that younger church members are leaving their churches in droves, some American Christians — notably white evangelicals — have decided to continue to stake their identity on their opposition to LGBTQ people and LGBTQ rights. In alliance with the U.S. Catholic bishops, these Christians — who form the base of Donald Trump's support — are pushing a reinterpreted model of "religious liberty" to justify their demand for the "right" to discriminate against LGBTQ people in the name of religious conviction.

Jones wrotes,

The appeal to religious liberty is one that has long resounded in the American context – starting with the First Amendment to the Constitution. But its recent adoption by conservative white Christians reflects a departure from its traditional usage in church/state separation debates. Rather than being understood as a negative liberty protecting against interference with freedom of worship, white evangelical Protestant leaders have joined forces with conservative Catholic leaders to create a sweeping new expansion of religious liberty, one that is specifically designed for the aftermath of the lost war over same-sex marriage. 
At its heart, the new doctrine of religious liberty asserts that individuals should be able to carry religious objections from their private life into their public roles as service providers, business owners, and even elected officials. Under this framework, small business owners who believe same-sex relationships are sinful on religious grounds would be legally allowed to refuse to sell products or offer services to gay and lesbian people. Such businesses might include bakers and wedding photographers, as well as bed-and-breakfast establishments, pharmacists, even pediatricians treating children of same-sex couples. The "freedom" might even extend to individuals who find the generation requirements of their jobs religious objectionable, such as elected county clerks who issue marriage licenses, or front-line service providers such as doctors who do not want to provide services to gay or lesbian couples, or social workers who refuse to place foster kids with families headed by married same-sex partners (pp. 144-5).

But as Jones concludes, in mounting this "religious liberty" crusade against LGBTQ people, conservative white evangelicals and the U.S. Catholic bishops are setting themselves at odd with mainstream American culture, which does not support the "right" of businesses or those providing various services to discriminate against targeted minority groups while citing religious conviction as the basis for the discrimination: Jones states, 

Although [Southern Baptist leader Russell] Moore and others are calling for concessions from the winners [i.e., of the culture war over marriage equality], PRRI poll numbers from just before the June 2015 Supreme Court ruling indicate that most Americans have little appetite for allowing individuals to discriminate because of personal religious beliefs. By nearly a two-to-one margin (60  percent vs. 34 percent), Americans oppose allowing  a small business owner to refuse products or services to gay and lesbian people, even if doing so violates his or her religious beliefs (p. 146). 

And, of course, this truculent stand, which has already alienated large numbers of churchgoers, especially younger ones, can only increase the exodus of people from churches that are determined to stake their identity on opposition to LGBTQ people and LGBTQ rights. Because many younger people have grown up knowing and loving gay friends and family members, they are increasingly tired of seeing them beaten up by people who claim they represent Christ to the world as they engage in this behavior.

Since adherents of such churches form the base of Donald Trump's support, an important question that all citizens should be asking as they consider their political choices in 2016 is what effect a Trump victory will have on the LGBTQ community and on LGBTQ rights — given the very strong support of white evangelicals, the Christian bloc most strongly opposed to LGBTQ rights, for Trump. It would be foolish to imagine otherwise, and anyone who cares about LGBTQ people and their rights (not to mention church members concerned about the future of churches being hollowed out by the exodus of younger adherents) would certainly be well-advised to think about these matters as he/she decides how to vote in the 1026 elections.

The graphic is from the Simon & Schuster webpage for Jones' book.

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