America’s racial reckoning — seen in protests in the streets and at school board meetings and even shaping this past Tuesday’s election results — comes as the nation continues to shift rapidly. The latest data — from the U.S. Census and the Pew Research Center, respectively — shows 40 percent of Americans now identify with a race other than white and 24 percent identify with a religion other than Christianity. Confronting the nation’s history of white supremacy matters because Christian churches shaped communities, particularly in the South.
Robert P. Jones grew up Southern Baptist — from Sunday School to Seminary — in Texas and Mississippi. Jones now admits he didn’t understand the structural racism that was all around him. His most recent book, White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity, is an effort to draw from his past to confront American evangelicalism’s history. Along with his personal eyewitness accounts, the CEO and founder of the Public Religion Research Institute brings the skills of a researcher and scholar to the task.
Dr. Jones recently spoke with Governing Editor-at-Large Clay Jenkinson. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
“I will flatly say that the bulk of this country’s white population impresses me, and has so impressed me for a very long time, as being beyond any conceivable hope of moral rehabilitation. They have been white, if I may so put it, too long …”
— James Baldwin, New York Times, Febr. 2, 1969
Governing: You take your title of your book — “White Too Long” — from this James Baldwin quotation. It suggests that we have been white so long that it’s going to be nearly impossible for us to come to terms with the relationship between white supremacy and American Christianity. Were you self-consciously wanting to suggest that kind of pessimism?
Dr. Jones: I didn’t want to shy away from the enormity of the problem. I don’t see it in terms of pessimism or optimism but more about honesty. I use the metaphor that it’s in our cultural DNA. Undoing something that’s centuries old, that’s literally in the bones, is going to be a multigenerational process. It’s going to require a broader questioning of some fairly deep assumptions. Baldwin’s idea of being white too long was an interesting way of expressing it.
Governing: If a pastor in a small community is on board with your thesis, what’s the next step?
Dr. Jones: A lot of it has to do with the undoing of self-conception. One practical suggestion is to tell a truer story about the founding of the church and why it physically sits where it is. Those stories very quickly get to racially restrictive neighborhood covenants, whites-only parts of town, all kinds of history that virtually every city in America has to tell. I grew up Southern Baptist in Mississippi from deep Georgia roots that go back to the early 1800s, and telling my story is a way of modeling this. That’s the way these things have evolved in my family, with stories opening up other stories and sparking a creative, effervescent thing that provides more room to play than some sort of 10-step program.
One practical suggestion is to tell a truer story about the founding of the church …
Governing: Won’t that small-town pastor have to negotiate with the capacity of parishioners to absorb?
Dr. Jones: There’s a real art to being a pastor. A frequent metaphor is that of shepherding a flock. If you’re a shepherd, you can do some things that spook your flock if you move too abruptly. There’s this tension between doing nothing to upset anyone, which is what white churches have often done, and having the skill and leadership to lead people on a journey. Christianity is supposed to be a journey, and it’s not supposed to be a comfortable journey. Christian life is supposed to be a challenge. Part of that challenge is how we’ve let our conceptions of race and racism seep into our theology and infect it.
Governing:At some point it became no longer possible to ground one’s defense of slavery and racism in biblical text. If our racism is embedded in the DNA of the church, how does it perpetuate itself after those easy defenses fall away?
Dr. Jones: Here I can be really personal. I grew up in Jackson, Miss., in the ’70s. The Jackson Public School District drug its feet for 20 years before complying with Brown v. Board of Education. The first African American showed up at my all-white public school in 1976. What’s notable is that my white evangelical Southern Baptist church provided me with no lens for understanding the stuff swirling around in the political world. There was not one syllable uttered in our church to help us understand this sea change in our everyday lives, about why it was happening, what the backstory was, or where the church was on any of this. Medgar Evers was killed in his driveway in 1963, just 11 miles from my driveway, and I never heard his name. Not in public school civics class, not in my church. He was gunned down by a white Episcopalian from the Delta, a member in good standing of his church, who had bragged in the papers that if any African American tried to come into his church, he would be sitting on the steps with a gun.
Once Jim Crow laws and segregation were successful and intact, you no longer had to make the overt argument for segregation. What you had to do was to convince white Christians that all that stuff was political and had nothing to do with their Christian life. What we saw in the 20th century was that edifice of white supremacy that got built with the support of white Christian leaders and pastors and churches. Once it was built, the best way to protect it was to make it invisible, to create a kind of theology that was so inward focused that Christianity was only about personal piety. It was disconnected from social justice, politics, the world. It led white Christians to be fairly narcissistic and indifferent to injustice all around them. Martin Luther King Jr. had that line in “Letter from Birmingham Jail” where he’s in dismay not about racist Christians, but about so-called moderates in Birmingham, the “more cautious than courageous” white Christians who “remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.”
Governing: Is it a fair reading to say that thoughtful, well-educated people are leaving the church because it doesn’t address the things that have to get addressed in a complex and diverse society?
Dr. Jones: The biggest decline is among white Christians. African American Christians are remaining fairly stable, and Latino churches are growing. Only the white, non-Hispanic churches are experiencing this slide, and it’s been fairly precipitous over the last decade. The other story is disaffiliation, predominantly of young people. Nearly a quarter of the country today claims no religious affiliation. Many white churches, particularly the more conservative ones, have staked out positions that don’t resonate with younger Americans. They see this politicized, partisan version of Christianity that seems mean, ugly and mired in partisan politics, and that’s not what they want out of religion.
Governing: If young people are becoming more enlightened, is it possible that we avoid or shorten that multigenerational process you spoke of? Could things sort themselves out over the next 50 or 100 years?
Dr. Jones: There’s opportunity here. We’re at a moment where we have to decide what kind of a country we want to live in, and what kind of churches we want to have. If we choose the status quo, then I don’t know whether we’ll have another opportunity. I’m not trying to be evasive, but it really is up to white Christians. They often think these reforms are about doing right by people we wronged. And that is certainly true. But the thing that’s become clearer to me as I’ve wrestled with this is that we’ve done damage to our own faith by allowing white supremacy to seep into it and be a presupposition of the kinds of theology and practices that can be developed. My fifth great-grandfather, whose Bible is sitting on my desk, enslaved other people in Georgia. What loyalty do I owe him? What loyalty do I owe my kids? For many white Christians, there is a real choice here where we can double down and be loyal to our ancestors, or we can be loyal to our kids, but we can’t really do both at the same time.
Governing: You suggest in your book that enlightenment is not the end of the story. That’s not how complicity and embeddedness work.
Dr. Jones: I’m urging people to see the full meaning of repentance. It’s a good Christian concept. On the one hand, there’s confession, and that usually involves telling the truth about where you are, what happened and what your role was. But that’s never the end of repentance in the Christian tradition. Both the Old Testament and the New Testament are pretty clear about this. The other piece to completing repentance is about justice and repairing the damage. Too many white Christians have thought, “I’m going to tell the truth, and then I’ll be reconciled with my Black and brown brothers and sisters where everything will be fine.” They skip that second part, about restitution, repair and justice. That’s the piece where there’s a lot more work to be done. I don’t pretend to have any magic formula about what that has to look like, but I do think that local communities should root it in their own histories.
James Balwin’s so-called “Pin Drop Speech” from his debate with William F. Buckley at Cambridge University (Feb. 18, 1965).
Governing: Appearing before a U.S. House Select subcommittee in 1968 that was considering the establishment of a Commission on Negro History and Culture, Baldwin said, “Then one has got to accept that I have learned a lot from you, and a lot of it is bitter. But you have a lot to learn from me, and a lot of that will be bitter. That bitterness is our only hope. That is the only way we get past it.” Are good-hearted white Americans willing to go through a valley of bitterness to get to the other side?
Dr. Jones: There’s no way you can have a pretty conversation about an ugly history. If we really want to wake up and put an end to it, we’ve got to face it and go through it. We’re seeing some of that. We saw a citywide commemoration of the Tulsa Race Massacre, an event that was swept under the rug 100 years ago. There are places where this type of thing is happening. That’s what Lent is for, for bitter truths, for staying with the bitterness, sitting with the bitterness, not as an end in itself, but knowing that on the other side is healing. So many people have had a bout with cancer, and when you get the list of the treatments that you’re going to have to endure, it’s a pretty bitter set of things. But you endure it because you think there’s healing on the other side. That’s what Baldwin is talking about.
You can hear more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, “The Thomas Jefferson Hour,” and the new Governing podcast, “Listening to America.” Clay’s new book, The Language of Cottonwoods: Essays on the Future of North Dakota, is available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble and your local independent book seller.
Clay welcomes — actively solicits even — your comments and critiques of his essays, interviews and reviews. You can reach him directly by writing email@example.com or tweeting @ClayJenkinson.