The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How white supremacy infected Christianity and the Republican Party

A vendor displays a Confederate flag next to a Trump 2020 flag outside the Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee before the NASCAR Cup Series All-Star Race on July 15. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Robert P. Jones, chief executive and founder of the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), is fast becoming the leading expert in the values, votes and mind-set of White Christians. His work has explained how loss of primacy in American society fueled a white-grievance mentality — the same mind-set President Trump so effectively read and manipulated.

His latest book, “White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity,” is a masterful study documenting how white supremacy came to dominate not just Southern culture, but White Christianity. In it, he argues that “most white Christian churches have protected white supremacy by dressing it in theological garb, giving it a home in a respected institution, and calibrating it to local cultural sensibilities.” He also recounts ways in which White churches are moving to account for their past and explore their history with Black Americans.

Jones posits that it is not simply intermingling a celebration of the “Lost Cause” and religion that has led White Christians who do not think of themselves of racists to harbor views that reinforce racism; he also points to the theological worldview of White Christians, including “an individualist view of sin [which ignores institutional racism], an emphasis on a personal relationship with Jesus, and the Bible as the protector of the status quo.” If you want to know why White Christian ideology is the best predictor of racist attitudes (a shocking revelation for the author and likely many readers), the book is essential reading.

Below is my conversation with Robert P. Jones, edited for style and length.

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Q: Did Trump inspire this undertaking?

A: In some important ways, “White Too Long” represents my accounting of a journey I’ve been on at least since my seminary days in my early 20s. I was raised as a Southern Baptist in Mississippi and attended a Southern Baptist college and seminary. At the same time, I attended newly integrated public schools in Jackson, where I attended classes and played sports with African American classmates. But our social lives, our neighborhoods and churches were largely still segregated. It wasn’t until I was in seminary that I became aware of the genesis of my denomination, which I capture in the first sentence of the book: “The Christian denomination in which I grew up was founded on the proposition that chattel slavery could flourish alongside the gospel of Jesus Christ.” That appalling contradiction, and its legacy all around me growing up, has haunted me my whole adult life.

In the more recent context, the eruption of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013, coupled with the racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric that became the central campaign strategy of Donald Trump in 2016, were certainly catalysts for writing the book. Trump’s response to the neo-Nazi demonstrations in 2017 was also a turning point for me. Trump waited 48 hours to issue any statement, and when he did, he equivocated, stating there were “very fine people on both sides.” And I was stunned that Trump’s inability to flatly condemn neo-Nazis — who were chanting “Blood and soil!” and “Jews will not replace us” and who murdered a person protesting that hatred — had no discernible impact on his White Christian support. PRRI’s fall American Values Survey, conducted just a few weeks after these remarks, for example, found his favorability among White evangelical Protestants remained remarkably high, at 72 percent. So I began working on the book in earnest in 2018 with the goal of getting a deeper understanding of these confounding and unsettling patterns.

Notably, these dynamics are still with us. In more recent days, Trump’s use of police and federal agents to disrupt peaceful protests connected to the Black Lives Matter movement and his doubling down on support for the Confederate flag and monuments has also done little to dislodge White evangelical support, which remains at 63 percent favorable.

Nell Irvin Painter, author of "The History of White People," explains how the language of whiteness — and its meaning — has evolved. (Video: The Washington Post)

Q: How did Trump use white supremacy to co-opt White evangelicals in the Republican Party?

A: It’s important to note that the Republican Party has a decades-long history of deploying, in various degrees, what has been dubbed “the Southern Strategy,” a racist dog-whistle politics that fuels white grievances and exploits racial divisions to win elections. In 2005, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman formally apologized to the NAACP for these tactics. But that was 2005.

I think it is clear that Trump’s own racist instincts are driving his strategy, and this is becoming abundantly clear to the American public. Remarkably, last fall a PRRI survey found nearly 6 in 10 Americans said that his words and behavior were encouraging white supremacists. But it’s also true that Trump is dusting off an old Republican playbook that many in a former incarnation of the Republican Party were hoping to leave behind. He’s certainly had help crafting this appeal. His 2016 campaign manager, Paul Manafort, for example, was also the Southern political coordinator for Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign, which symbolically was launched with a speech lauding “states' rights,” the mantra of segregationists, at Mississippi’s Neshoba County Fair, a site just a few miles from where Freedom Riders James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner were killed in 1964.

Q: Are “values” now just a cover story for evangelicals to rationalize support for Trump?

A: I think the phrases “family values” and “values voters” were one of the most successful, durable — and disingenuous — political branding operations in my lifetime. This identity foregrounded opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage along with an insistence that a candidate’s character was central to their qualifications for office. But it never really held together in the way that the rhetoric implied. When the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion came down, for example, the Southern Baptist Convention supported it, largely considering it a “Catholic issue.” Opposition to same-sex marriage, despite being broadly declared a hill to die on just a decade ago, has largely been dropped as a political wedge issue, as two-thirds of Americans — along with a majority of younger Republicans — have come to support marriage equality. And in more than a decade of doing public opinion research, I’ve never seen a public opinion survey where White conservative Christians ranked abortion or same-sex marriage among their top three voting issues.

Most tellingly, Trump’s ascendancy has snuffed out the White Christian character and virtue industry, at least as these ideals apply to our political leaders. One jaw-dropping statistic: In 2011, only 3 in 10 White evangelicals said that it was possible for a political leader to commit immoral acts in his or her private life and still be able to fulfill their duties in their public life; by 2016, with Trump at the top of the ticket, 72 percent of White evangelicals had decided this was no longer a problem.

The one enduring, animating issue that fueled white flight from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party has been civil rights for African Americans. This was the issue that originally pulled Jerry Falwell Sr. out from behind the pulpit and into organizing the Christian right political movement. This white-supremacist undercurrent, tied to White Christian identity, is the key to understanding our current political polarization and the transformation of our two political parties over the last few decades. Today, approximately 7 in 10 self-identified Republicans are white and Christian, compared to only 3 in 10 self-identified Democrats. These divisions along racial and religious lines began with the passage of the civil rights acts in the mid-1960s, picked up steam with Reagan and have continued to increase even over the last decade.

Q: Do you think we are at a moment when White Christians’ mind-set can change?

A: There are signs that we are at a unique moment of opportunity. This time last year, I was conducting research for the book in Richmond. I walked the length of Monument Avenue in the shadow of five massive monuments to leaders of the Confederacy, which had stood in their places for more than a century. The bronze statues at the center of four of these monuments have now been removed, and the fifth statue to Robert E. Lee is slated for removal. As the statue to Stonewall Jackson came down, people gathered across the traffic circle at the First Baptist Church — a church that had been intentionally relocated from downtown in the late 1920s to be nearer to the monuments. Members of the congregation rang the bronze church bell in celebration, the same bell that their ancestors had offered to the Confederate army to be melted down to make cannons. In my home state of Mississippi, the Mississippi Baptist Convention — the state arm of the Southern Baptist Convention — called on the governor and the legislature to remove the Confederate battle flag from the state’s banner, the last remaining state flag that incorporated that symbol of the Confederacy.

When I wrapped the book manuscript last fall, I would not have imagined these memorials to white supremacy would have fallen in just a few weeks’ time. But the question before us is whether we’ll take the next steps to see and topple the White Christian worldview that legitimized these symbols in the first place.

Q: Is the white-supremacist mind-set a Trump problem or a GOP problem?

A: The roots of the GOP problem go back at least to the toleration and execution of the Southern Strategy to win elections. When such a tactic is deployed for half a century, no one should be surprised when white-supremacist sentiments turn out to be an animating core of group identity. I hope there can be a more honest reckoning, both for the Republican Party and for its White Christian base that has provided theological and moral cover for this strategy.

Trump’s recent racist comments that he is going to protect those living “the Suburban Lifestyle Dream” from the threat of “low-income housing” in their neighborhoods, or his refusal to condemn the display of the Confederate flag at public events and venues, are simply unremarkable in the light of this history. Trump is most accurately understood as the inevitable end of a road paved brick by brick through 13 presidential election cycles since 1968. By the time the RNC attempted to apologize for the Southern Strategy in 2005 or advocated for a more pragmatic and humane immigration policy in its “autopsy report” after [Mitt] Romney’s 2012 defeat, this runaway freight train simply had too much momentum behind it to be easily derailed.

But I do think the clarity of the current moment is calling the moral question in this election like no other in my lifetime. There is an opportunity here, for both the GOP and for White Christians who are a part of its foundation, to rebuild a party of principle that rejects white supremacy and strategies that stoke white racial fears and grievances.

The 'Southern Strategy' was created to bring disaffected whites into the Republican Party, says historian, professor and author Carol Anderson. (Video: The Washington Post)

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