Author Robert Jones is the CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute in Washington D.C. and recently visited Alma College to talk about the ideas in his book: titled the End of White Christian America.
Robert Jones sat down with CMU’s Ben Thorp to talk about the nation’s shifting demographics and what they mean for the future.
Ben: I know your book has a list of the demographic shifts that we’re looking at. Talk to me about what those are and what those mean.
Robert: I like to say this a data driven book with a provocative title. First maybe I’ll tell you what I don’t mean: I don’t mean the end of all white christians in the country obviously, or the end of all white churches either. But what I do mean is this: when I use the term white christian america I’m using it really as a metaphor for a dominant cultural world that held sway up until the middle and really the second half of the 20th century. Because of demographic and cultural changes now it really doesn’t have the power it had once.
Just to get into the demographics we have moved from being a majority white christian country descriptively, to not being a majority white christian country. To put this in perspective in 2008 when Barack Obama was first elected President the country was 54 percent white and christian and today that number is 43. We’ve gone from being 54 percent to 43 percent, a change of 11 percentage points in about a decade, that’s a lot of change.
Ben: What are the things that we say as ‘this is what we mean’ by white christian america?
Robert: It was a world largely built by protestants. We even have a term for it: WASP. White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant. We talk about American culture as the dominant thread of it being this wasp-y culture. It was built into our institutions.
If you think about the 1970’s and you went to join a country club, let’s say, if you were catholic you were likely to be denied membership, if you were african-american you were likely to be denied membership. You really did have to be white, non-hispanic, and protestant to fit the model. This is not an imaginary thing. This is an explicit set of criteria that you needed to be admitted into the upper echelons of American powerful institutions.
Ben: What does that shift mean for this country as a whole and what do we see as a result of that shift?
Robert: I think the most straightforward thing that it means is a kind of identity crisis. The country has thought about itself this way for so long. If you think about Norman Rockwell paintings from the 1950’s it portrayed a white christian family at prayer as a motif for the country. So when we think about what does it mean to be an American that’s a real live debate. Who represents America? Who are we going to be as a country?
Just one concrete example is the coca cola ad that ran in the 2012 superbowl. The title of the ad is ‘it’s beautiful’ and they had ‘America the Beautiful’ sung in a variety of languages and as it was song they had this montage of very different Americans: white, black, latino, muslim, christian, just every conceivable type of person. It caused a firestorm of protest when it came out because people said ‘wait a minute that’s not America, that’s not the America that I see.’ I think that’s one of the fundamental debates that we’re having in the country, who are we and who are we going to be? Are we going to look like those white protestant norms that came out of the 1950’s or are we going to look like this very diverse country which is what we are turning into in the present?
Ben: So talk to me about pushback to losing the white christian-ness. I believe in your book, which came out before this last election, you said that Mitt Romney was going to be the last of the white christian values campaigns that we saw. Would you change that read now?
Robert: You’ve done your homework. Here’s the challenge though. This election was so close. In Michigan for example, one of the key states in the electoral college that gave Trump the presidency was won by 11-thousand votes. That’s nothing in the grand scheme of things. It was very very close.
I don’t think anyone should over-interpret this election for the future. It didn’t really change any of the fundamental trends. What it did was extend the life. I’ve talked about it as the last gasp of white christian America exerting itself in the middle of these, with great anxiety around these changes. I think it was an expression of these changes and there was this kind of anxiety that produced an energetic response in this election but I don’t think there is anything there that really changes the fundamentals in what we’re seeing in the larger trends.