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In his book “White Too Long,” Robert P. Jones, president and founder of the Public Religion Research Institute, digs into how white supremacy as part of the history of the white Christian church and the implications the past has for understanding racism in the United States today.
In this interview, he explains how he came to understand the nature of white supremacy in the white Christian church and his research.
The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Laura Harbert Allen: How did you become interested in researching white supremacy and racism among white Christians?
Robert P. Jones: Well, I went to church like five times a week growing up. If the doors were open, I was pretty much there. And you know, I sometimes thought of Fridays and Saturdays as Sabbath from church. It was that kind of setup. I went to a Southern Baptist college. I went to Southern Baptist seminary. So it’s pretty deep in my bones.
But it wasn’t really until my 20s that I started learning some things that made me think I didn’t really know the whole story. For example, the Southern Baptist Convention began in 1845 by a group Of ministers who decided, that they needed to formally declare that slavery was compatible with Christianity. And that was the beginning of the denomination, but it’s not a story I was ever told in church. And I finally had a Baptist history professor tell me in seminary for the first time that that was the truth.
LHA: How did that make you feel?
RPJ: I was pretty stunned by it. I had some vague notion that there were Baptists in the north, and we were the Baptists in the south, but I always thought of that as a geographic descriptor. I didn’t really attach much meaning to it other than where it was on the map.
So to find out that, oh, no, it wasn’t just geography, but it was actually explicitly supporting slavery, it took a while to even take that in.
LHA: You also tell a story about your family Bible as well. Do you care to share that?
RPJ: When I set off for seminary my mother gave me our family Bible. It’s a 200-year-old Bible printed in 1815, and it had actually been handed down from mother to daughter at marriage. And in between the Old and New Testaments, it had this record of marriages, births and deaths on my mother’s side of the family for about 150 years. So it was a pretty prized possession. And it wasn’t till much later while doing some genealogical research that I realized who some of those names were.
There was a document of an estate settlement of the uncle of the person whose Bible it was, where along with all the other property, they had listed the names of four human beings that they considered property that were to be handed down to the next generation when the estate was settled at death.
LHA: Wow. So you have these realizations/epiphanies in your own life. In your book, you talk about the cultural toolkit of Evangelicals. How does that relate to ideas like the Doctrine of Discovery?
RPJ: The basic idea [in the Doctrine of Discovery] was that Europeans, who were Christian, had the blessings of the Catholic church and the authority of the state to so-called discover any other lands that were occupied by non-Christian non-European people, and when they did, they had the right to dominate those people and confiscate those lands. And so that’s deep in the DNA of the European Christendom that comes to America.
Christian theology and worldview had to be compatible with this idea of white supremacy, of manifest destiny. That America was this Christian nation. And so one of the ways that it developed was a hyper-individualistic view of salvation. If there’s one thing I heard growing up every Sunday night, it was, “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?” And it’s very intentional, in fact. But individual salvation limits our moral vision in a way. It means that if I have this interior kind of psychological relationship with Jesus, that’s really the beginning and the end of Christianity, So questions of social justice, of inequality, are really hard to get to if that individual relationship with Jesus is at the core of how you see the Christian life.
That makes you unable to see structural racism or racism that’s embedded in institutions because you’re so focused on your individual relationship with Jesus.
Martin Luther King actually got at this in his letter from Birmingham jail. He has this great line where he talks about being disappointed at whites who are sitting, as he puts it, safely behind their anesthetizing stained glass windows. And it was the idea that white Christians were not able to see outside those stained glass windows to structural injustice all around them.
LHA: Something I really appreciated about your book was that you really did an excellent job of talking about how this is part of mainline Protestant denominations too.
RPJ: Well, you know, the history’s pretty clear. This is not a southern problem. It’s not just a Baptist problem. I mean, it really is a white Christian problem, writ large. The historical testimony is there, but I was also interested in how much it still hangs around in contemporary Christian life.
The other hat I wear in my day job is conducting public opinion surveys. And so I set about trying to figure out how I could assess what difference does Christian identity make for white Americans? Does it help them have better attitudes around racial equality? Does it not?
So, I set up a set of about a dozen questions that asked about things like Confederate monuments and flags, about whether police treatment of African Americans is an indicator of unfair treatment or whether those are just isolated incidents, about whether there are still effects today from past slavery and discrimination or whether that’s all just gone. I combined the answers using some statistical methods into the thing I call the racism index and then measured that across different white Christian faith groups.
LHA: So what’d you find?
RPJ: It was very startling actually. You know, one might expect that white Christian groups in the south would score high on a racism index like that. And that’s true. I scored this index from 1 to 10, with 1 holding the least racist attitude and 10 holding the most racist attitude. White Evangelicals scored 8 out of 10 on that index. That’s maybe not so surprising given the history.
But what was more surprising was those white mainline Protestants that tend to be more northeastern or upper midwest in their geographic location scored 7 out 10 as well, and white Catholics who tend to be urban, kind of like New York and Boston and more northeastern as well, also scored 7 out of 10.
And then when you compare that to whites who were unaffiliated, those who claim no religious affiliation, they only scored 4 out 10. So, looking at this quick correlation, you basically see one way to boil it down.
Take your average white person in America, and you add Christian identity, they move up the racism index and not down.
LHA: We do research for a reason – to answer questions, but that still had to be a little shocking.
RPJ: It was notable enough that we checked those results a number of times to make sure they were right.
LHA: It got my attention for sure. What are the lessons that we should learn from this research and how it relates to white Christian nationalism, which has entered popular discourse since the January 6 Insurrection?
RPJ: I think these terms come up because we need terms to describe what we see in front of us. And I would say it’s a new term for a very old problem.
I think it’s kind of a combination of what we saw through the Trump presidency, this kind of America first nationalist emphasis just being said out loud and claims about America being a Christian nation being said out loud. And so I think it’s an amalgamation of those things.
But the tap root is very, very old. It goes back again to this idea that America is a European Christian promised land, right? Divinely, ordained promised land for European Christians, and I think that is something that goes way back to the founding. We’ve got this term – white Christian nationalism – that I think is useful because it’s describing the newest movement of that, but it’s drawing on this much older problem.
In fact, it is one of the fundamental contradictions in the country. Are we a white Christian country, a kind of divinely ordained promised land, or are we a multi-religious multiracial democracy?
And those two things are fundamentally incompatible.
LHA: What do you think when you hear people say our democracy is in danger?
RPJ: Well, I would say it’s always been fragile, right? We have the founding fathers telling us it’s a Republic “if you can keep it,” and that every generation has to renew its commitment to democracy. We have always struggled, I think, in the country with this contradiction, and it’s because it was there from the beginning.
We’d already had 200 years of history before we got to 1776, and that history had white supremacy baked in. I think people forget, for example, in the Constitution that Article II has a reference to who counts. It’s male landowners who are free persons. African Americans and Native Americans are explicitly prohibited from being recognized for representation. And nonwhite persons count as three-fourths of a person. Even in the Declaration of Independence – which I think people think of as having this kind of more soaring language – there is a reference to Native Americans as savages.
Again, we’ve struggled with these things from the very beginning. I would say we are at a moment. I was born in 1968 so I’m 54 years old, and I would say in my adult life, the structures of our democracy, I think I am more worried about them than I have been at any other time in my adult life. That’s real, even if the threat is not completely new,
LHA: What, if anything, is different now?
RPJ: I think part of why we’re at this moment now is that the country is in fact changing in ways that it hasn’t before. We are the first generation, for example, where white Christians are not the majority. No other generation has had to deal with that reality. So even if we were paying lip service to diversity in a previous generation, we would privately know if we were white and Christian, we still had a lock on power. But today that’s not really true. I mean, white Christians make up only 44 percent of the country, and it’s dropping.
LHA: How do we start to talk with one another across those divisions? How do we start to really see each other?
RPJ: It’s really hard. We have done some recent surveys looking at people’s social connections, and it is still true, for example, that the average white person in America’s friendship network is 91 percent white. And that goes for religion. It goes for social class. We are just more and more stratified by these things
I think it is a reality that there aren’t that many institutions that bring people together across those lines. In an earlier era, labor unions did some of that work, but the labor movement has been on the ropes, you know, for decades.
The Republican Party today is almost 70 percent white and Christian in a country that’s only 44 percent white and Christian. The Democratic Party is only 30 percent white and Christian.
Increasingly, the parties are divided less by policy debates and more by identity.
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Photo credit: Laura Harbert Allen, Provided