Over 60? Then you feel changes in America. You can’t define them, perhaps. But, as I do, you feel them. This book, The End of White Christian America, defines them, helps us understand them and provokes us to ponder how as Gospel-believing, Jesus-following Christians we should respond.
It’s an ominous title.
The author is Robert P. Jones, CEO of Public Religious Research Institute. The book is available from Amazon—https://www.amazon.com/End-White-Christian-America-ebook/dp/B0176M3QC8/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1478442626&sr=1-1&keywords=the+end+of+white+christian+america). Over the next few weeks, I’ll intermittently blog about it.
Let’s start with a visual. In the late 18th century, steeples of two church buildings towered over lower Manhattan. By the mid-19th century a building that housed one of Joseph Pulitzer’s newspapers eclipsed the churches and allowed Pulitzer to look down on the churches. A hundred years later the Chrysler Building and Empire State Building defined New York City’s skyline.
“Where church spires once stirred citizens to look upward to the heavens, skyscrapers allowed corporate leaders to look down upon churches from their lofty offices. Instead of market transactions happening under the watchful eye of the church, these exchanges literally take place over its head and beyond its reach.”
Even most of us senior citizens can’t remember when “market transactions [happened] under the watchful eye of the church.” But, America knew such a day—now long gone.
In 1924 the United Methodist Building, across the street from the U.S. Capitol, was dedicated as a “sentinel for Protestant Christian Witness and reform in the nation’s capitol.” The hope was a building “where Christian faith and politics could mingle”, a place for Protestant presence on Capitol Hill.” Societal changes suffocated that hope. Today “the building’s tenants are a hodgepodge of Protestant and ecumenical organizations, interfaith groups and secular nonprofits.” One small sign of the “end”.
In 1980 the Crystal Cathedral was one of America’s first megachurches. Robert Schuller preached a “feel-good-about-yourself gospel”. The suburbanization of California’s Orange County contributed greatly to his success. Robert P. Jones says Schuller’s appeal was simple—he validated and encouraged material success, personal growth and fulfillment and political conservatism. His ministry was “a powerful new force in white Christian America’s life.”
But when demographics changed, so did the “force.” Membership dropped. The empire unraveled. Schuller’s children assumed control, filed for bankruptcy and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange County bought the building. Another sign of the retreat of Protestantism’s power in our country.
In the early 1920s, Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians divided over North-South lines (eventually known as Fundamentalists and Modernists). Central to the division was evolution. One group in general held to “theistic evolution” (God governed the process), the other to “creationism” (God created everything there is, some insisting on a literal seven-day period). Yet another sign of white Christian America’s weakening, this time from an internal issue.
These are only some of the forces which have diminished the social and political clout of white Christian America. The process, as this short summary shows, has been in play for over a century.
Jones observes that the terms “Christian” and “Protestant” were virtually synonymous for most of the 20th century. Even now, pockets of the “good old days” of June Cleaver, Andy Griffith and Norman Rockwell remain. But “it’s no longer possible to believe that white Christian America sets the tone for the country’s culture as a whole.” Protestantism, as a powerful cultural force, has faded.
Demographics is a reason. In fact, the U.S. Census Bureau has predicted that “by 2050 the United States would no longer be a majority-white nation.” After Barack Obama was elected president, the Census Bureau adjusted that predicted year to 2042. Population experts now say that by 2060 “the number of people who identify as multiracial will nearly triple and the number of Hispanics and Asians will more than double.” This process has given rise to battles over “gay” rights and racial tensions. “America’s religious and cultural landscape is being fundamentally altered.” That “alteration” was heightened last year when the U.S. Supreme Court decided to legalize “same-sex marriage” nationwide.
Jones concludes his first chapter with a challenge . . .
“There is much at stake for the country in whether these survivors (the next generations of White Christian Americans) retreat into disengaged enclaves, band together to launch repeated rounds (to fight for their old social values) . . . or find a way to integrate into the new American cultural landscape.
Eventually Jones will offer his solutions. I don’t think we’ll find them satisfactory. But I take the time to blog through this book, because we must be informed about changes occurring all around us. Not simply so we can be “in the know.”
But so we can live as intelligent followers of Jesus
in a changing country.
So we help our children
(who never knew the June Cleaver days)
grasp the import of what they face
following Jesus in today’s America.
And so we can all impact this society,
not only for the nation’s sake,
but for that of the kingdom of God.