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Opinion What the end of white Christian America has to do with Trump (Part 1)

Robert P. Jones, the founder and CEO of the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute, is author of the exceptionally timely book “The End of White Christian America,” which chronicles the transition of white, Protestant Americans from majority to minority status. In 2009, the country was 54 percent white, Christian; now it is 45 percent. Jones looks at the experience of two main sub-groups, mainline Protestants and evangelical Protestants. (The latter one might recognize as the “hillbillies” from “Hillbilly Elegy.”)

Right Turn, regular readers know, has been investigating this subject and trying to understand its correlation to the current election. I sent a series of questions to Jones, who was good enough to send extensive answers that go to the heart of some of the issues raised in the 2016 election. We would caution here that the end of White Christian America’s grip on American society is not a political event but a much broader social, economic and cultural trend; we cannot understand it just as a political phenomenon (“The Trump voter”). Rather, it is a broader societal phenomenon showing up — dramatically so — in the 2016 election.

The southern evangelicals seem to have reacted more emotionally to the decline of WCA than the mainline WCA’s. Is this because of socio-economic class? Because mainline churches have adapted better?

I think the principal reason white evangelical Protestants are reacting more viscerally to the end of White Christian America is because they represented the last phase of its health and vitality. While the decline among their more northern mainline Protestant cousins began in the 1970s and continued through the turn of the twenty-first century, the decline among white evangelical Protestants did not occur until the last decade. As a result, there was a significant period of about four decades where white evangelicals adopted a fairly self-congratulatory posture, concluding that their more conservative theology was what had protected them from decline.

But over the last decade, the evidence showing that white evangelicals are declining and graying has become irrefutable. Just between 2007 and 2015, white evangelical Protestants have slipped from being 21 percent of the population to 17 percent of the population. Like their white mainline Protestant cousins, they are now significantly older than the general population. And if you look at their distribution across age groups, the future is pretty clear. White evangelical Protestants account for nearly three in ten seniors but only one in ten adults under the age of 30. The Southern Baptist Convention, which is not only the largest evangelical denomination but the largest Protestant denomination of any kind, has now posted nine straight years of negative growth rates.

Most importantly, it was this second wave of decline among white evangelical Protestants that pushed the country from being a majority white Christian nation (54 percent white Christian in 2008) to a minority white Christian nation (45 percent white Christian in 2015). While white mainline Protestants have had decades to adjust to their diminished power, white evangelical Protestants are feeling the loss in a more acute way, which often get expressed as denial, anger, or both.

You don’t make a value judgment but isn’t this just white racism – the belief that whites should be in charge? It seems like we are back to the South’s infatuation with the “Lost Cause.”

I’m white and grew up in Mississippi in the 1970s and 1980s, and “my people,” as we say in the South, have roots in Georgia’s Bibb County going back into the 1700s. So I can say with some certainty from both the data and personal experience that white southerners, and white southern Christians in particular, have hardly begun to deal with the legacy of racism and prejudice that has shaped their identity and institutions and that continues to shape their attitudes today. That reality, it seems to me, is simply a given. But the issue of racism is a partial manifestation of a larger dynamic.

White southern Christians, at least since the Civil War, have been vulnerable to the siren song of nostalgia. One of the most illuminating survey questions PRRI has asked recently is about perceptions of the 1950s. When asked whether American culture and way of life has changed for the better or changed for the worse since the 1950s, the general public is fairly divided. But more than seven in ten white evangelical Protestants say things have changed for the worse since the 1950s.

So what do the 1950s represent for many conservative whites? It’s an idealized vision of a pre-civil rights, pre-women’s rights, pre-gay rights world where races didn’t mix and social roles were fairly rigidly defined. It’s Andy Griffith and Mayberry, and not the later Technicolor episodes. It’s this sentiment that is captured so well in the lyrics sung by Archie and Edith Bunker from the opening song of the 1970s sit-com, “All in the Family,” which was so far ahead of its time: “And you knew who you were then/Girls were girls and men were men/Mister, we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again/People seemed to be content/$50 paid the rent/Freaks were in a circus tent/Those were the days.”

So race, particularly the sense of a loss of white power and a sense of unquestioned white ownership of power in local communities, certainly figures prominently here. It would be hard to overstate the lingering power of race in white Christian communities.

But it’s also important to remember that these racial attitudes were set within what seemed to many white conservative Christians to be an ordered, hierarchical world that now seems to be in chaos. For example, Phyllis Schlafly, one of the few female leaders of the Christian Right, just died this month. She rose to prominence, somewhat paradoxically, as the outspoken, anti-feminist opponent of the Equal Rights Amendment. Schlafly was a strong backer of Barry Goldwater in 1964, and toward the end of her life, she was an early and outspoken supporter of Donald Trump. Trump was invited to speak at her funeral, where he called her a “hero” to the conservative movement. Imagining Schlafly looking down on the funeral, Trump vowed, “We will never, ever let you down.”

Yes, racial attitudes—and, yes, some unvarnished racism—are certainly at work. But I think it’s more accurate—and more illuminating—to understand this broader sense of loss and nostalgia when describing the anxieties among the descendants of White Christian America.

We will post the next portion of our conversation on Sunday.