Monday, July 25, 2016

Robert P. Jones and The End of White Christian America: Want to Understand Trump's Rise to Power? Pay Attention to White Christian Strategy

In her recent commentary on Robert P. Jones' book The End of White Christian America (NY: Simon & Schuster, 2016) at National Catholic Reporter, Maureen Fiedler provides a very good reason for why we might want to familiarize ourselves with Jones' book and its argument (based on extensive sound empirical research) that White Christian America* is now waning: Fielder reports that she has recently interviewed Jones for Interfaith Voices, and,

One question I asked him got me a blunt answer. "When Donald Trump says he wants to 'make America great again,' is he really saying, "bring back white Christian America"? Jones' immediate answer: YES. No hesitation… just "YES." Donald Trump is the nostalgia candidate, wishing for an America that has already passed into history.

This is very important analysis when, as Brian Roewe reports all over again today at NCR, half (50 percent as opposed to 46 percent supporting Hillary Clinton) of white Catholics are reporting that they intend to vote for Donald Trump. Half of white mainline Protestants (50 percent as opposed to 39 percent supporting Hillary Clinton) say that they support Donald Trump, while nearly 8 in 10 (78 percent as opposed to 17 percent supporting Hillary Clinton) white evangelical Protestants are in favor of Donald Trump.

Do you notice the recurring word, the operative word, in these statements?: it's white. White Christians, Catholic, mainline Protestant, and evangelical Protestant, are enthralled with Donald Trump because they hear him promising, Robert Jones thinks, to bring back white Christian America. 

By contrast, as Roewe points out, almost 8 in 10 Hispanic Catholics (77 percent) support Hillary Clinton, and, as the Pew report from which these data are taken (see the link at the end of the first paragraph above) also shows, some 90 percent of black Protestants support Clinton.

The operative word is white

I've just finished reading Jones' book, and want to share some notes with you, so that you'll see the data on which he bases his recent conclusion that when white Christians hear Donald Trump say he intends to make America great again, White Christian America is hearing, "Bring back white Christian America." Jones notes (pp. 86-7) that Public Religion Research Institute surveyed Americans in 2015 to ask, "Since the 1950s, do you think American culture and way of life has mostly changed for the better, or has it mostly changed for the worse?"

Here's how people responded to that PRRI question:

The question of whether American culture has gone downhill since the 1950s divides Americans overall, with a majority (53 percent) saying it has changed mostly for the worse, compared to 46 percent who say it has changed mostly for the better. But we can see stark cleavages by race and religion. More than seven in ten (72) percent white evangelical Protestants and nearly six in ten (58 percent) white mainline Protestants say American culture and way of life has changed for the worse since the 1950s. Roughly six in ten white Catholics (58 percent) agree with their fellow white Christians that American culture has changed for the worse since the 1950s.  
Meanwhile, approximately six in ten Hispanic Catholics (59 percent) say the opposite – that American culture has changed for the better. Approximately six in ten (63 percent) religiously unaffiliated Americans also say American culture and way of life has changed for the better since the mid-twentieth century, as do majorities of African American Protestants (55 percent). Overall, the pattern is unambiguous: most white Christians – along with groups in which they constitute a majority, like the Tea Party – believe that America is on a downhill slide, while strong majorities of most other groups in the country say things are improving (p. 87).

To understand how the nation has come to this pass — to an impasse in which the combination white + Christian is having strongly regressive and possibly lethal (if Trump is elected) consequences for American democracy — Jones argues that you need to pay attention to two interlinked pieces of information: first, the White Christian Strategy is an outgrowth of the Southern Strategy which brought white evangelical Southern voters to the Republican party in droves; and second, the election of Barack Obama has unleashed serious backlash that is being driven by the White Christian Strategy far more than many political commentators realize — and by White Christian nostalgia for an ideal time (the 1950s) in which white Christians (especially straight white Christian males) were culturally dominant, and women, African Americans, and gay folks knew their places and kept to them.

Jones writes:

To understand the post-Obama milieu, it is necessary to understand the "White Christian Strategy," a political tactic employed primarily by the Republican Party beginning with the campaigns of Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon in the mid-1960s and ending with Mitt Romney’s failed presidential run in 2012.  
What I am calling the White Christian Strategy is an outgrowth of the Southern Strategy, a tactic developed by political conservatives and the Republican Party in the mid-1960s to appeal to white southern voters who were angry with the Democratic Party for its support of civil rights. The Southern Strategy picked up momentum through two critical transition moments, one in the 1960s and one in the 1980s, which political scientists Merle and Earl Black identified as the two iterations of the "Great White Switch" (p. 88, citing Merle and Earl Black, The Rise of Southern Republicans [Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2003), p. 4).

Once again: how, precisely, have white Christian conservatives brought the nation to this impasse? They have done so, Jones underscores, by playing on white racial resentment premised on the perception that white cultural dominance is being eclipsed as the percentage of non-white immigrants and African Americans increase in the population. To foster this perception premised on racial resentment, Christian conservatives have used, as a tool, the alluring notion that there was a utopian time in the not-distant past in which white Christians ruled the roost in American culture — and all was well with the world. 


The leaders of the Christian conservative movement [in the Reagan era forward] won support by extolling the virtues of an orderly bygone era, where white Protestant Christian beliefs and institutions were unquestionably dominant and there were clearly defined roles for whites and nonwhites, men and women. For these groups, the allure of the black-and-white image of a family Thanksgiving meal lay in this utopian vision of "true" America” (p. 92). (The black-and-white image of a family Thanksgiving meal to which Jones is referring is a 1942 Norman Rockwell depiction of a typical American Thanksgiving meal featuring a white middle-class family that the Christian Coalition emailed – in black and white – to its supporters in November 2012 — see p. 83.)

The conflation white + Christian, with the utopian (and entirely false, in that it ignores the price non-white, non-male, non-straight, non-Christian people paid for this "utopia" for straight white males) confabulation lying behind it and used as a political tool to divide the nation on racial grounds, is sharply evident, Jones says, in the Tea Party movement which suddenly burst on the scene after Obama's election. When the Tea Party suddenly emerged on the American political scene, the mainstream media loved to pretend that it was a libertarian movement with no connection at all to the religious right.

As Jones notes, abundant data prove the contrary:

Despite the official assertions that the Tea Party represented a new libertarian surge, nearly half (47 percent) of Tea Party supporters reported [on a November 2010 PRRI survey] that they also considered themselves a part of the Religious right or Christian conservative movement. Moreover, they were mostly social conservatives, with views on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage that would have dismayed libertarian purists. Nearly two thirds (63 percent) of Tea Party members said abortion should be illegal, and only 18 percent favored allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry. This new research showed definitively that the Tea Party, far from representing a new strain of libertarian populism, was in fact another revival of White Christian America” (pp. 96-7).


The Tea Party is animated by a narrative of cultural loss that allows it to function as a continuation of the White Christian Strategy. The Obama presidency provided a unique focal point for many white Christian voters, who already felt as if familiar cultural touchstones were disappearing at every turn. Shifting social norms, declining religious affiliation, changing demographics, and a struggling economy – all were embodied in one powerful symbol: a black man in the White House.  
The appeal of a return to an idealized past can be seen across a number of attitudinal measures. Like white evangelical Protestants, large numbers (70 percent) of Tea Party members agree that American culture and way of life has changed for the worse since the 1950s. A remarkable three quarters (73 percent) of Tea Party members agree with the statement, "Today discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities," compared to just 45 percent of Americans overall. More than half (55 percent) of Tea Partiers agree that the United States today is a Christian nation – compared to only 39 percent of Americans as a whole” (p. 97, citing PRRI, “A Shifting Landscape: A Decade of Change in American Attitudes About Same-sex Marriage and LGBT Issues,” February 26, 2014; PRRI, “2014 Pre-Election American Values Survey,” September 23, 2014; and PRRI, “Beyond Guns and God,” September 20, 2012).

Because of the power exercised by White Christian America's utopian (and racially imbricated) narrative on the imagination of many Americans from Reagan forward, the impasse at which the nation finds itself now is one in which there is a yawning chasm between how many white citizens and notably the white evangelicals who form the core of White Christian America (and of Donald Trump's supporters) see racial matters, and how African Americans see racial matters: there's a tremendous racial perception gap: 

The racial perception gap between white evangelical Protestants and African Americans is a yawning 45 percentage points. Fewer than three in ten (29 percent) white evangelical Protestants see the recent killings of black men by police as part of a broader pattern, while 57 percent see them as isolated incidents. Among whites, religiously unaffiliated Americans hold the closest views to African Americans: about two thirds (66 percent) of the religiously unaffiliated see these events as signs of a broader problem, compared to 23 percent who see them as isolated incidents. 
If there were any lingering hopes that the election of the nation's first black president could move America past its racially fraught history, they died along with Brown, Garner, and Gray. The racial perception gap highlights one of the most powerful – but also least discussed – divisions between Americans on the topic of race: the rift between the descendants of White Christian America and the rest of the country. These stark divides prompt a simple but fundamental question: why can't white Christian America understand how African Americans feel about the black men who have died at the hands of white police officers? (pp. 154-5).

At the political and moral impasse now facing the nation, in which white Christians of all stripes are exercising virtually no moral leadership (see: Who supports Donald Trump?), it would be a mistake, Jones thinks, to conclude that the waning demographic and cultural influence of White Christian America means that we will see waning political influence of White Christian America — e.g., in the current election cycle — in the near future. He points to the case of LGBTQ rights here, as he notes that white evangelical Protestants, who are the core of Trump's support, still comprise 10 percent of the population nationwide, and a full quarter of all Southerners. And their political influence remains exceptionally strong precisely because of the geographic concentration of these voters and the fact that they are now virtually the base of one of its two major political parties.

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).

I'll have more to report to you in the next day or so about Jones' specific observations re: the role being played by White Christian America in debates about LGBTQ rights and racial issues. For now, what I'd like to point you to once again is Jones' comment to Fiedler cited at the head of this posting: when Fiedler asked Jones whether Donald Trump's promise to "make America great again," falls on the ears of many of his supporters as a promise to "bring back white Christian America," Jones immediately answered, "YES. No hesitation… just 'YES.' " 

If Donald Trump is elected president of the United States in 2016, white Christian Americans will bear primary responsibility for placing him in the White House. From the Catholic side, white Catholics (as opposed to Hispanic and black Catholics) will bear a great weight of responsibility for this event if it happens, and the U.S. Catholic bishops, who have worked long and hard to ally the Catholic church in the U.S. with precisely the kind of right-wing white evangelical voters who are the base of Donald Trump's support, will bear the heaviest responsibility of all.

The fact that half of white Catholics are reporting that they support Donald Trump is a tremendous indictment of the (lack of) moral leadership of the U.S. Catholic bishops for decades now. And of the intellectual "leaders" of American Catholicism in its academy and journalistic sector who have been altogether pallid about challenging the bishops' lack of pastoral responsibility and moral insight, and have, in fact, actively assisted the bishops in leading the American church to this point . . . .

*I'm using Jones' term, with the capital letters he uses throughout the book.

See the following two postings which continue the discussion of Jones' book as it addresses LGBTQ issues and racial matters

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