Tag Archives: White Christian America

Fear Itself…

FDR famously declared that ” the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” It was 1933, and the country was still reeling from the Great Depression.

Almost 100 years later, the U.S. is dealing with a pandemic, but otherwise most of us are in far better shape than people were in 1933. (For that matter, there’s an argument to be made that if it wasn’t for the people holding an “unreasoning, unjustified” fear of vaccines, the pandemic would be largely behind us.) Our sour national mood is almost entirely attributable to a political environment  characterized by fear–a fear that has led to Congressional gridlock and refusal to deal with reality.

A friend recently sent me the results of a poll conducted by Axios–results that puzzled her. The poll showed heightened levels of fear across the political spectrum, but far higher  among those identifying as Republicans. She had a reasonable reaction: yes, rational Americans have reason to be fearful of Republicans’ persistent attacks on democratic institutions–but what do the Republicans fear? And why is fear so much higher among them?

Whatever they told the pollsters, I’m pretty sure that what most of today’s Republicans really fear is demographic change and the loss of White Christian privilege. It’s that fear that is motivating their frenzied attacks on democracy and “one person, one vote.” 

There’s an enormous amount of research corroborating that conclusion. Over the past decade, as popular culture and media outlets have paid more attention to their demographic decline, Americans who equate “real Americanism” with being White and Christian have seen headlines describing the waning of their share of the population; in 2017, numerous outlets headlined the fact that the country’s White Christian population had dipped below 50% for the first time.

Or, as one 2019 headline put it, “White Christian America ended in the 2010s.”

The author of the article, Robert P. Jones, heads up the Public Religion Research Institute. He wrote

Of all the changes to identity and belonging, the century’s second decade has been particularly marked by a religious sea change. After more than two centuries of white Anglo-Saxon Protestant dominance, the United States has moved from being a majority-white Christian nation to one with no single racial and religious majority.

When I first identified this shift mid-decade in my 2016 book “The End of White Christian America,” I noted that the percentage of white Christians in the general population had dropped from 53 percent to 47 percent between 2010 and 2014 alone. Now, at the end of the decade, only 42 percent of Americans identify as white and Christian, representing a drop of 11 percentage points.

Jones recited the statistics: since 2010, the number of White evangelical Protestants has dropped from 21 percent of the population to 15 percent. Today they are roughly the same size as their white mainline Protestant cousins (15 percent vs. 16 percent, respectively).

In 2017, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that, for the first time, there was an absolute decline in the country’s white, non-Hispanic population. In other words, whites not only lost ground as a proportion of the population, but in actual numbers; there were more deaths than births. The U.S. Census Bureau now predicts that the U.S. will no longer be majority-white by 2045, and among children at every age below 10, whites are already a minority.

Research tells us that White Christians have become deeply anxious about the future and unrealistically nostalgic for the past. That anxiety and nostalgia “has fueled support for Trump’s “Make America Great Again” agenda, and not just among white evangelicals.”

Solid majorities of each white Christian subgroup voted for Trump in 2016 and, in the Public Religion Research Institute’s most recent American Values Survey, nearly 9 in 10 (88 percent) white evangelicals and approximately two-thirds of both white mainline Protestants (68 percent) and white Catholics (65 percent) oppose impeaching and removing him from office.

White Christian America’s attraction to Trump has little to do with his personality or character — a slim majority (52 percent) of white evangelicals, for example, say they wish his speech and behavior were more like previous presidents — and everything to do with something more important: their belief that “making America great again” necessarily entails restoring white Christian demographic and political dominance.

These are the fears that motivate today’s GOP base–its opposition to immigration and hysteria over “Critical Race Theory,” among other things, and its determination to retain social dominance and privilege no matter how unconstitutional or unChristian the means and no matter how damaging to the nation.

Fear is a potent motivator but a very bad navigator.

 

Religion? Or Politics?

The phrase “culture wars” usually brings to mind the current political polarization between self-described conservatives and the rest of us: more and more, that’s a line of demarcation that runs between Republicans and Democrats (and Democratic-leaning Independents). However, as a recent essay from the Guardian points out, cultural issues are also creating huge tensions within the more fundamentalist religious denominations.

Barry Hankins is a professor at Baylor who has authored several books and articles about the Southern Baptist Convention, and in the linked article, he examines the effects of the culture wars on that Evangelical denomination.

He begins with a question:

Is the Southern Baptist Convention – the largest and arguably most powerful Protestant denomination in the United States – being held together by culture wars instead of Biblical teaching? That is the question in recent weeks, as thousands of Southern Baptists gathered in Nashville for their annual meeting to determine the bitterly contested future of the convention.

Many conservative members of the denomination seem to have seen in Donald Trump’s populist authoritarianism a last-gasp chance to save white Christian America – theology, and, for Trump, Christian morality, be damned.

Hankins has been a longtime scholar of the Southern Baptists, although he is not himself a member of that denomination, and he says that in the past he has defended what he terms their “serious theology,” despite the influence of cultural concerns on that theology. But by 2020, he says he had come to recognize that “conservatives of the right wing of the SBC were not just subordinating theology to the cultural concerns of white Christian identity politics, but had in fact lost their way as Baptists.”

At the SBC’s recent meeting–widely covered by the national press–we casual readers were relieved when the less political, less strident candidate, Litton, won the presidency of that body. But he won by a very narrow margin, suggesting that control by those Southern Baptists who want a less partisan voice–and independence from identity with the Republican Party–is tenuous.

Hankins points to the narrowness of the vote as a sign  that the Convention has not “turned a corner.” And he insists that the differences are not theological. (Both sides are anti-gay, anti-abortion, pro-submission of women. The list goes on…) The debate, he says, is political.

The side that lost last week, wants to be more political, more explicitly aligned with the Trump-era Republican party, and aggressively prosecute the culture wars. They are motivated, I believe, by an inordinate fear of being out of step with the Republican party’s brand of white identity politics – and its de facto leader, Trump. They believe white Christian America is embattled and surrounded by a hostile secular-liberal culture. Their only chance of survival, they believe, is to stay aligned with the Republican party against a radical left that threatens the Christian faith’s very existence in America and whose ideologies are seeping into the SBC, as Mike Stone charges. As he said as he geared up for his run at the SBC presidency: “Our Lord isn’t woke.”

There’s more in the linked essay, and it’s fascinating, but aside from the specifics–doctrinal or cultural– the description of this denomination’s internal conflict raises a fairly profound issue: how does religion differ from political ideology–if, indeed, it does?

I did a bit of Googling, and came up with the following definitions.

Religion is an organized and integrated set of beliefs, behaviors, and norms centered on basic social needs and values. Religious beliefs–as opposed to religious rituals– are the specific tenets that members of a particular faith believe to be true.

A political ideology–as opposed to the messy realities of campaigning and/or governing– is  a set of “ethical ideals, principles, doctrines, myths or symbols of a social movement” that explains how society should work and offers a political and cultural blueprint for a certain social order.

At the very least, there is considerable overlap.

The question for an increasingly multi-ethnic country that is legally and constitutionally prohibited from favoring one religion over others (or religion over non-religion or vice-versa) is: how do you decide what is genuinely religious and thus worthy of the governmental deference required by the Free Exercise Clause, and what is really a thinly-masked political campaign to protect a formerly privileged tribe?

Is the Southern Baptist insistence on the supremacy of White Christian America religious–or is it political? And even if religious, does it really deserve deference?