Friday, June 19, 2020

PRRI's Robert P. Jones in Juneteenth Interview: Trump Presidency a "Moment of Reckoning for White Christians"

Today, for Juneteenth, CNN's religion editor Dan Burke has done an interview with Robert P. Jones, founder of Public Religion Research Institute, about his forthcoming book White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. The CNN interview is entitled "This is a moment of reckoning on race for white Christians."

What Robert P. Jones tells Dan Burke in this interview is very important for white US Christians to hear — and for those trying to decipher the inordinate influence of white Christians on the political process in the US to understand. To my way of thinking, the crux of Jones's argument is what he says when Dan Burke asks him, "But what about now, this moment?" He replies,

I see the last four years as a moment of reckoning for white Christians. The election of President Trump, who has put white supremacy front and center, has brought these issues from just barely below the surface into plain view. Charlottesville changed things. Charleston changed things. Dylan Roof was a confirmed Lutheran, who, in his journal while imprisoned has been drawing crosses and white Jesus and is completely unrepentant. 
White Christians have inherited a worldview that has Christians on top of other religions, men over women, whites over blacks. There is a top-down authoritarian structure to it.

There's much else in Jones's commentary which fleshes out this conclusion. Here are some important passages:

"White Christian churches have not just been complacent; they have not only been complicit," he writes in his book, "White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity," publishing next month. 
"Rather, as the dominant cultural power in America, they have been responsible for constructing and sustaining a project to protect white supremacy and resist black equality," he writes. "This project has framed the entire American story."

In the book Jones, CEO and founder of Public Religion Research Institute, blends church history, memoir and contemporary public opinion surveys. Together, they make a clear and compelling case for why white American Christians need to reckon with their past.
But American Christianity's past is only part of the problem. 
In survey after survey, said Jones, contemporary white Christians repeatedly deny that structural racism is a problem, that shootings of unarmed blacks are not isolated incidents, or even that African Americans still face racism and discrimination. 
White non-Christians, on the other hand, more often agree with blacks about racial discrimination, according to public opinion surveys
So what gives? Why would white Christians be more reluctant to see racism than their non-Christian counterparts?

Dan Burke asks Robert P. Jones what prompted him to write his new book, and Jones responds:

Whenever we asked questions about race or African Americans there was a huge gap between whites who are Christian and those who are not. Whites who are not Christian were always closer to the attitudes of African Americans. 
Seeing that pattern over and over made me realize that something deeper is going on. And coupled with my own experience of growing up in the South and this current moment, I realized that these issues are not being dealt with well. Most white Christians try to ignore them.

Burke follows the preceding question by noting that at least some white evangelicals are speaking out about killings of black citizens by the police and vigilantes, and he asks what Jones makes of this fact. In his reply, Jones states:

One of the challenges, historically, has been that the Christian theology developed in white churches intentionally blinds white Christians to racial injustice. White Christians are nearly twice as likely as non-religious Americans to say police shootings of unarmed black men are isolated incidents. That is a moral and theological problem.

Burke observes, "We've heard some Christian leaders denounce racism in clear moral terms, but that doesn't seem to filter down to the pews, according to surveys. And that's a problem not only for white evangelicals but Catholics and others, right?" To which Jones replies:

Yes, that's true not only for evangelicals but Catholics and the more liberal mainline Protestant leaders. They've put out a number of statements and press releases, but historically they have not landed at the parish or congregational level. And that's where theology gets built: at the local level. 
The hymns sung, the scripture passages preached, how people understand salvation, none of that has been deconstructed. It was all built for a world in which white Christians needed to shield their institutions and beliefs from claims of injustice by African Americans.

Why have white Christians been so slow to recognize their historic racism and the racism built into American institutions up to the present, Burke asks? Jones's response:

As long as white supremacy has a hold on our culture, it's pretty comfortable for white Christian churches to say their theology is about personal salvation and personal lives. Theology has been constricted to be only about personal piety, disconnected from claims of social justice. Everything outside of salvation has been labeled "politics." 
It's a self-protective move. If you read sermons in Mississippi in the 1950s and 1960s you would have no idea that there was a Civil Rights movement. It was a lulling of white consciences to sleep.

Then comes the question, "But what about this moment?." I've excerpted Jones's response above, with his insistence that the last four years are a moment of reckoning for white Christians.

Or one hopes that the last four years and what is happening now will be a moment of reckoning for white Christians, who bear singular responsibility for placing Donald Trump in the White House. Who bear singular responsibility for what has happened since then and what is happening right now ….

Who bear singular responsibility for so much that should elicit shame and horror among people of Christian faith, who are called to repentance themselves every bit as much as the LGBTQ people many of them love to target, or the black and brown people many of them want to blame for their woes…. 

But whether people will repent of what they need to repent of and take responsibility for their abysmal choices is a very different question when all is said and done, isn't it? 

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