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Thoughts on the End of White Christian America

I used to work for an advertising agency, doing marketing research. We used a lot of survey data in our work, and our sainted department head used to frame our work as “ideas from data.” Our task was to take the data, and understand the story the data were telling us. From the story, we could get ideas. From those ideas, people could make better ads.

Because the story would be about the people we were trying to help sell product to. Soap. Cereal. Batteries. Things people use. For reasons. Understand the people, understand the reasons, do a better job of selling.

Robert P. Jones’ The End of White Christian America reads a lot like one of the reports we might have written at our place, if we’d had all the data Jones has. Survey data, public opinion data, demographic data, voting behavior data. He tells a story with those data, for sure. That story no doubt tells us something real about the world in which we live.

book cover End of White Christian America

The main plot of that story is that smaller and smaller percentages of the US population are “white Christians” these days. “These days” means since 1974, and especially since 1994, which looks to be the peak of a little resurgence of religious affiliation in the late 80s. If trends continue, that kind of person – whatever that kind of person is – will no longer be “most everyone” in the country. Those people will notice that, and feel it, and respond to it somehow. So will everyone else.

In particular, according to Jones, that means that the Republican party’s “southern strategy” will need to change if the Republicans want to keep winning national elections. The candidates will need different wedge issues, too, because “stop gay marriage” won’t work the way it used to. That seems to be where Jones sees the story going. Even with the 2016 election, which he discusses in an addition to the main text, and which he reads as a “last chance” rally by WCA voters.

There are things Jones’s story doesn’t tell us, however. For instance, it doesn’t tell us why there was such a rapid change in public opinion around “gay rights” and “gay marriage” between 2004 and 2013 (123). The data tell us that rapid, dramatic change happened. They don’t tell us why.

There was demographic change at the same time. That demographic change goes part of the way to explaining the change in public opinion. But that observation just kicks the “why” can down the road a bit. And the demographic change doesn’t fully account for the public opinion change anyway, as Jones notes. Opinion, as measured by surveys, changed within demographic groups, too. So – why?

I think he would need to do focus groups.

Jones also never discusses a basic principle of demographic change, namely that it’s always a net effect of movement in and movement out of a demographic group. When a group is declining in numbers, it’s because more people are leaving than are entering. That means who is leaving, and who is entering, and what that is doing to the composition of the group as measured on other dimensions, may also matter.

He does point out that white Christian America is getting older – because fewer young people are staying and joining. That leaves me curious about which young people are staying and joining, and how different they are, or may be, from young people in the past. It also leaves me curious about which old people are leaving for reasons other than death. If the active member roll of the Presbyterian Church is anything to go by, there are those people.

He’d need some different data for an analysis like that. Plus … focus groups.

Jones’s discussion of race seems ultimately inconclusive. He talks about the histories of white Protestant denominations in the US, and what that has meant for their institutional realities. He looks at public statements around race. He presents two illustrative case studies of multiracial congregations, and notes the practical challenges those congregations face, and are overcoming. He discusses the theological and practical inadequacy of reconciliation talk unaccompanied by repentance and action. All of that is interesting. In essence, however, Jones is saying what everyone else is saying: “race” is an ongoing problem for Americans, and we’re all still working on that, probably not hard or fast enough.

How much the decline of white Christian America will affect racial politics in the US, or the pace and intensity of the repair work, remains to be seen. The “nones” are still white. They still live in a highly residentially and institutionally segregated country. How much difference does it make that they don’t go to segregated church on Sunday morning? Maybe the “most segregated hour of the week” has simply switched location, and more people are spending it sleeping in.

So, the big idea I got from reading this book was that whatever “cultural narrative” is going to have a chance of bringing together “most everyone” “these days” is going to need some real work. It can’t simply be a secularized version of what white Protestants hear in church on Sunday mornings, because that won’t automatically resonate in a deep way with a large enough segment of the population. The question becomes, then, what might? Jones doesn’t begin to answer that question.

I’m telling you: for that kind of research, you need focus groups.

To be fair, though, The End of White Christian America would probably have seemed a lot more explanatory to me if I hadn’t just read Noam Chomsky’s How the World Works. Jones’s focus on the correlations between demographics, broad public opinion trends, and voting behavior would have seemed more like a focus on what matters in “American politics.”

Plus, I wouldn’t have had this idea from all of Jones’ data: Who is the market for Jones’s “ideas from data,” really, and what might those people want to sell?

Focus groups won’t help answer that question.


Jones, Robert P. The End of White Christian America. Simon and Schuster, 2016.

An installment of the Read Me Project

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“Yes, I am going to read all these books.”

Images: “Book Tower,”Deror_avi, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Book Tower by VitVit (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

3 responses to “Thoughts on the End of White Christian America”

  1. Interesting! I often wonder how much this cultural shift has to do with classism and economics, rather than being all about race, gender, gay marriage, and declining churchian affiliation? We are a deeply divided nation, but much of it seems to be along economic lines, the haves and the have nots, elitists versus the working class. Just in a very literal sense, often people working two jobs just to try to pay rent don’t want to spend their one free morning in church. And the elder composition of the church does not always lend itself well to empathizing with a whole generation facing a completely different economic world then they did.

    I’m chuckling here, I am not very young, but I have been the youngest in the congregation many times, and all the talk about how young people are destroying the world and clearly not as skilled at doing life as we were, can really start to wear on you. That mindset is often to be found within the Republican party, too.

    Liked by 1 person

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