Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Robert P. Jones and The End of White Christian America: What Good Does Church Do, When Churchgoers (White Ones) Display Less Sensitivity to Racism Than Non-Religious People Show?

When I began blogging two days ago about Robert P. Jones' new book The End of White Christian America (NY: Simon & Schuster, 2016), I told you I'd have a bit more to say regarding Jones' observations re: the role being played by White Christian America in debates about LGBTQ rights and about racial matters. Yesterday, I discussed the first of those two topics. Today, I want to present some more tidbits from Jones about White Christian America and the issue of race.

As my initial posting discussing Jones' book indicated, it's impossible to avoid the topic of race in discussing the political influence and agenda of White Christian America — and the considerable support of White Christian America for Donald Trump — because the matter of race is built right into this political influence and agenda. The operative word for discussing White Christian America is white.

It's ultimately the signifier white that binds together such otherwise disparate groups as white mainline Protestants, white evangelicals, and white Catholics (who were excluded in the past from WCA by its "founding members," white Protestants, but have made common cause with white evangelicals under the leadership of the U.S. bishops) — though many liberal political commentators including members of some of these religious groups wish to overlook or downplay the racial component motivating White Christian America to support Donald Trump. And in this discussion as well as in the attempt of some "liberal" white Christians in the U.S. to thwart it, the word Christian becomes an important signifier qualifying the word white, since on what grounds has it been declared by some American Christians that the subject of race should not be discussed as we discuss white Christian support for Donald Trump?

On what grounds do representatives of Christian religious communities decree that the topic of race or of racism must be beyond the pale of discussion as we face the fact that support for Donald Trump is higher among white Christians than among other parts of the U.S. population  — including among white Catholics? A case in point: among "liberal" Catholic intellectuals at places like the Commonweal blog (and at National Catholic Reporter, in some notable cases, too), you'll encounter repeated assertions that so-called "identity politics" are tearing the nation apart, that there's a witch-hunt in American academies motivated by "political correctness," in which intolerant leftists are trying to shut down the free speech of conservatives, that bringing up the issue of racism and insisting that opposition to racism should be a criterion by which Catholics make political choices is a high-handed tactic of leftists to shame people who have alternative viewpoints about racial matters, etc.

What you will seldom encounter in these parochial "liberal" Catholic discussions is the frank admission that the people mounting these charges are almost to a man themselves white — the frank admission that they themselves have a totally unacknowledged and perhaps totally unexamined agenda based in their own racial identity (and in their gender- and sexual orientation-identity). The pretense of this kind of balancing-act, either-or "liberalism" is that some of us stand above the fray and represent some kind of "pure" and objective vantage point from which we are able to see clearly what those down in the trenches cannot see, due to their passion and commitment to particular groups or ideologies.

The pretense is that we should trust some of us, an elite, to make decisions for the rest of us, to adjudicate between left and right and come up with the "correct" solution for all of us — a solution that just happens to continue to place the same straight white people representing elite pockets of our society on top of the interpretive pyramid as arbitrators of truth for everyone else. The current election battles, particularly within the Democratic party, have sorely tested that conviction and the refusal of elites to acknowledge their own very considerable self-interest as they play the game of pretending to be above the fray, of having no commitments of their own — even when the skin color, gender, and sexual orientation of those comprising these elites are obvious to anyone who looks closely at them.

Among Catholics, the racial breakdown among voters supporting either Trump or Clinton is glaringly evident, as half of white Catholics report that they intend to vote for Donald Trump (along with half of white mainline Protestants and about  8 in 10 white evangelical Protestants) — while 8 in 10 Hispanic Catholics say that they support Clinton, as do 90 percent of black Protestants. (But remember: race is the topic to be avoided as we parse these data, since "political correctness" and shaming talk about racism are tearing the nation apart — not racism itself. From the perspective of many Catholic "liberals" in the U.S., it's inappropriate and distasteful to talk about the patent, clear-as-day subtext of racial commitment as one talks about why Donald Trump has soared to power, and why half of white Catholics! support a presidential candidate who, throughout his run for the presidency, has blatantly traded in racism and xenophobia to appeal to voters.)

As Jones notes (pp. 154-5), what we're now facing at this point in American religious-political history is a yawning "racial perception gap" in which 45 percentage points separate white evangelicals from African Americans when we ask whether recent killings of black men by police are part of a broader pattern. While fewer than three in ten white evangelicals see these killings as part of a broader pattern, non-religiously affiliated Americans rather than any group of Americans representing any white church closely mirror the perception of African Americans that there's a troubling pattern in police killings of black men. And that finding might be worth thinking more about, might it not? — the evident failure of white churches to inculcate moral awareness about racism among their members, with the much-needed moral corrective of unchurched or non-religious people pulling the culture in a more morally aware direction?

As I noted two days ago, Jones observes,

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).

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? This question could well be rephrased as, "What kind of moral leadership are white church members in the U.S. exercising as Donald Trump rises to power, when moral insensitivity about racial matters has become a clearly discernible, statistically verifiable trait of white churchgoers — and when that moral insensitivity is in sharp contrast to the clearly discernible, statistically verifiable moral sensitivity of non-religious Americans about racism?"

Or the question might simply be rephrased, "Who needs churches, when churches produce such morally obtuse human beings?"* (Please don't overlook Jones' all-important aside in the preceding paragraph: the racial perception gap between White Christian America and African Americans — which is easily verifiable and is obviously extremely important — is one of the least discussed divisions between Americans on the topic of race today. Why is that, I wonder? Why is this racial perception gap not being discussed? 

Why is racism as a topic ruled off-limits even — or especially — by Catholic "liberals" who claim to promote human rights, when the political choices of Catholic voters are under discussion? Why is the racial complexion of those issuing this ruling not considered necessary or polite to note and to discuss? When those same Catholic "liberals," who have also ruled that the "identity politics" of LGBTQ people are beyond the pale and LGBTQ rights are not to be supported by Catholics, tell us that the all-important issue to keep discussing is the issue of abortion, how do they expect to be taken seriously as they instruct us to make our choice of candidates on the basis of a candidate's stand on the issue of abortion?

When the lives of post-birth human beings who happen to be African American or LGBTQ don't matter or count in discussions about religion and politics, but the lives of zygotes trump all other lives and are the single lives that matter as we make political decisions, what kind of moral influence are white Christians really exerting in the public square and in American political life? And what kind of moral leadership are Catholic intellectuals offering the Catholic church in the U.S. or the nation as a whole?)

Admittedly, as Robert Jones (who shares my own roots in the white evangelical tradition of the American South — we both have Baptist forebears from Twiggs County, Georgia), points out, the challenge of dealing with overt racism among American Christians is perhaps strongest of all among white evangelicals: he writes,

No segment of White Christian America has been more complicit in the nation's fraught racial history than white evangelical Protestants. And no group of white evangelical Protestants bears more responsibility than Southern Baptists, who comprise the overwhelming majority of white evangelicals, particularly in the states of the former Confederacy (p. 167).

But this is hardly a challenge confined to white evangelicals, as we face the racism of White Christian America as a whole. It is not a challenge that white Catholics in the U.S. can evade and pretend about, for the following reason:

There is evidence that resistance to racial integration helped rouse Christian conservatives around a political agenda in the late 1970s. The historian Randall Balmer contends that evangelicals were generally reluctant to take up the cause of abortion – which remained primarily a Catholic issue well into the 1970s – until it was linked to a broader conservative agenda, one that revolved around resisting the federal government’s crackdown on Christian schools that banned interracial dating, like Bob Jones University (pp. 170-1).

The U.S. Catholic bishops chose to ally the church in which they exercise pastoral and moral leadership with white conservative evangelicals in the latter decades of the twentieth century. This alliance is now bearing exceptionally bitter fruit as half of white Catholics in the U.S. support the racist, xenophobic Donald Trump as their presidential candidate.

That fact reveals the moral and pastoral vacuity of the U.S. Catholic bishops in the starkest way possible. And the willingness of "liberal" Catholic intellectuals to pretend about all of this does not serve the U.S Catholic church and its future at all well.

*Jones' answer to this question, with which I agree: it would be simplistic to claim that religion or churches are the problem, tout court, when we look at the important witness given by some religious people and some church members both in American culture at present and throughout history. That witness arises out of the religious convictions of the people offering it. It's not an accident and it's not there despite the religious convictions of those bearing such prophetic witness. A case in point: though white Catholics have more wealth than and exert more influence in the Catholic church in the U.S., the witness of Hispanic Catholics, who lack such institutional clout, to the values of justice and mercy is a significant aspect of the story of American Catholicism today, and must not be overlooked by anyone seeking to understand this story.

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