When Robert P. Jones turned in the manuscript for his latest book in September, he couldn’t have imagined how much America would shift in 10 months. White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity, which comes out today, is a follow-up to his 2016 bestseller The End of White Christian America, which used sophisticated polling data to chart and explain white Christianity’s shrinking influence in the national conversation. (Donald Trump’s presidential election later that year would seem to contradict Jones’ findings, but as Jones explained persuasively afterward, one could see that upset victory “as the death rattle of White Christian America — the cultural and political edifice built primarily by white Protestant Christians — rather than as its resuscitation.”) But for White Too Long, Jones wanted to speak directly to his fellow white Christians, arguing that they had yet to acknowledge their role in one of America’s most shameful legacies: that of slavery and white supremacy.
In its teachings and its monuments — not to mention its othering of people of color — Christianity has legitimized the primacy of whites since before the Civil War, Jones contends, grafting Jesus’ sacrifice and resurrection onto a fantasy narrative in which Southern whites (and their poisoned worldview) one day rise again after being defeated by the North. (By the way, White Too Long makes plain that Northern and Midwestern white Christians have their own legacy of white supremacy, too.) To fight back against this history, Jones hoped to inspire a cultural reckoning with his book — as far as he was concerned, not doing so would be cataclysmic. In White Too Long, he declares, “It’s no exaggeration to say our very identities — our souls, to put it theologically — are at stake.”
White Too Long comes out in a very different environment than when Jones wrote it. This has been a tragic but also significant summer in terms of educating white Americans about systemic racism, and the Black Lives Matter movement seems to have profoundly changed hearts and minds. Suddenly, symbols of slavery and the antebellum South that were once considered untouchable objects are being torn down or reconsidered. In such a climate, White Too Long’s confronting of white Christianity’s racist roots no longer seems quite so radical. (In fact, one of the book’s most moving sections concerns two Macon, Georgia, Baptist churches — one white, one Black — that are already engaged in difficult but productive dialogue to improve their relationship.) But as Jones makes clear in White Too Long, this reckoning will nonetheless require a lot of hard work.
The CEO and founder of the Public Religion Research Institute and a former Southern Baptist seminary student, Jones was born in Atlanta but spent most of his childhood in Jackson, Mississippi, during a time of desegregation and growing racial tension. And like a lot of white kids of his era, the 52-year-old author was only slightly aware of the everyday symbols of white supremacy surrounding him. “Even after the [high] school was integrated in the early 1970s,” Jones writes in White Too Long, “it retained ‘the Rebels’ as the school name and ‘Colonel Reb’ as the mascot. When our majority-Black football team scored a touchdown during Friday-night home games, a white male cheerleader ran down the length of the sideline with a bedsheet-sized Confederate flag as the band played ‘Dixie’ for the cheering crowd.”
Jones includes his own story as part of White Too Long because he felt it important to admit to his racial blindspots if he was going to criticize others’. As a result, White Too Long is a book that combines head and heart, balancing data with personal anecdotes and an emotional appeal to his fellow white Christians to look inside themselves.
But the book’s centerpiece is its “Racism Index,” drawing on public opinion data to determine just how strong the connection was between religious identity and racist beliefs. Asking respondents to identify themselves by religion — evangelical Protestant, mainline Protestant, Catholic, unaffiliated — Jones found something alarming: “If you want to predict whether an average person is likely to identify as a white Christian, and you could know only one attribute about that person, you would be better off knowing how racist he or she is than how often he or she attends church. Or, to put it even more bluntly, if you were recruiting for a white supremacist cause on a Sunday morning, you’d likely have more success hanging out in the parking lot of an average white Christian church … than approaching whites sitting out services at the local coffee shop.”
These findings will probably anger many white Christians, who can’t imagine that they and their fellow parishioners are white supremacists. But whether dissecting Christians’ over-reliance on reconciliation as a way to assuage culpability or their insistence that slavery is something in the past and, therefore, not relevant today, White Too Long asks white readers to be comfortable with discomfort — which puts the book very much in line with other recent antiracist texts like White Fragility and How to Be an Antiracist.
Recently, I spoke with Jones over Zoom about his aspirations for White Too Long — and whether the Black Lives Matter movement has made him more hopeful that those aspirations could come to fruition. But he also had a lot to say about the growing exodus of young people from Christianity, why abortion isn’t as important to white Christians as the media makes us think, whether reparations is a topic that will ever be taken seriously and why unreligious whites shouldn’t be too smug about white Christianity’s racial failings.
We’re talking about a week before White Too Long comes out. How are you feeling about the pushback you’ll probably get from some white Christians who don’t want to think they’re perpetuating white supremacy?
I guess the first thing to say is that we’re clearly at a different moment than I envisioned us being at years ago when I first started doing the research, then writing the book and even as recently as last summer. I was in Richmond for research, and I walked all the way up and down the 14 blocks of Monument Avenue in Richmond, and all five of the [Confederate] monuments were still fully intact and standing. Not a year later, four of the five of those are already down — at least the statue portions of them are down. The fifth one, of Robert E. Lee, is slated for removal pending state approval. That’s certainly a situation I’m not sure I would have predicted that we’d be in.
There may actually be more of an openness to this conversation than I anticipated when I was writing the book — at least I’m hopeful about that. There still will be this tendency among even well-meaning white Christians to get defensive: “Well, look, I’m not racist. I’m not saying anything racist.” I think that’s not really the point of the book. The point of the book is to say that the bigger problem is the inheritance — the theological inheritance, the cultural inheritance — from a religion that was constructed by necessity from the beginning to be compatible with white supremacy.
I was raised Catholic, but now I don’t go to church unless I’m with my family or my wife’s family. Am I part of the “religiously unaffiliated” in the data you collected?
It depends on how you would answer a question in a survey. We allow people to self-identify in surveys. When we asked the question, “What is your religion?,” the folks who say “I’m nothing in particular” or “I’m atheist or agnostic” are the folks who get classified in the “religiously unaffiliated” category. If you answered that question, “I’m Catholic” — whether you mean that in a cultural way or a theological way — you would get grouped with Catholics in the public opinion data. If you said, “No, I’m really kind of nothing in particular” or “I’m nothing at this point,” then you’d get put in the unaffiliated category.
The reason why I asked — and I recognize this is outside the focus of the book — but I wondered what reasons people have for leaving their religion. How much is it because of systemic racism?
There are a whole range of reasons, as you might expect, that folks leave. I covered more of the demographic shifts in my last book, The End of White Christian America, but what’s notable is, as recently as the 1990s, only single digits of Americans said that they were religiously unaffiliated, and today that number is 25 percent. It’s a quarter of the country. Among young people, it’s about 40 percent who claim no religious affiliation. That’s new — we’ve never seen people in their 20s claiming to not be affiliated with any religious tradition at those levels. We’re in a different place.
There are a group of folks — I’m 52, so my age or older — who were raised religious, because the country was overwhelmingly religiously affiliated at the time. [These are] people born in the 1960s or even 1970s. But more and more young people today actually have not even been [raised religious] because [they’re the] children of those people who left.
When we asked people why they left, it’s a whole range of things that folks cite. They cite just not believing the doctrines anymore. They cite conflicts between science and religion — particularly young people cite this. For young people who were raised religious and left, they also cite the partisanship — one of the biggest divides we have is the partisan divide between Republicans and Democrats. That divide is all about racial politics. The current party configurations we have today are really based on the divergence of the two parties over the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s.
Prior to that, white Christians in the South were mostly Democrats. As the Democratic Party became associated [with] the party of civil rights, white Christians, particularly in the South or in the Midwest, left in droves for the Republican Party. Today, one of the ways of understanding partisan polarization is really through these racial and religious lenses: Today’s Republican Party is about 70 percent white and Christian, and the Democratic Party is about 30 percent white and Christian. And that’s increasing over time.
This larger percentage of young people who don’t affiliate with a religion, is that connected to a large percentage of young voters not affiliating with either political party? Younger people just don’t feel comfortable with those kinds of labels?
That’s more true for young people than older. Older people — say, in their 50s — certainly have less problem identifying as a Republican or Democrat. Younger people are more eschewing of those labels. If you look at voting patterns though — even though we have a large swath of young people claiming to be political independents — if you ask them which way they lean, they lean pretty consistently one way or the other. You’ve got [young] people more leaning toward the Democratic Party. If you look at vote choice, it’s also more clear that the partisan divides are there than if you just ask people if they identify as a Republican or a Democrat. Young people — some of the better research out there suggests — it’s single digits who are true independents. Even if they say they’re independent, the gravitational pull of partisanship is just so strong. It’s wrapped up with racial and religious identity today, which makes it even stronger.
One of the things that I think everybody’s watching is to see what happens with the Trump administration and Trump being the head of the Republican Party: His [favorables] among young people is really, really low. The political science literature suggests that younger people tend to get their dials set a bit as they’re coming of age, and their first few voting cycles tend to stay with them. If that’s true, that could spell big trouble for the Republican Party as a national party in the future.
Writing the book, how did you balance the statistical analysis with your own hopes for the future of the country? I sense that you want white Christianity to evolve, in part, because of what it would mean for America as a whole.
I think it would be a good thing for the country, and a good thing for democracy, if white Christians would face this really troubling history and purge this legacy of white supremacy from their own ranks, from their own theology, from their own church practices. This would be not only good for white Christians to relieve this blight from our history and our present psyches. It would also be good for the country, in the long run, [in terms of] doing justice for African Americans who have been so discriminated against, which has been legitimized by white Christianity.
It’s a commitment to a healthy democracy that isn’t weighed down with white supremacy and racism. There’s this line from James Baldwin — who I did a lot of reading [of] as I was writing the book and it was kind of in my head — that he wrote nearly 50 years ago about if we can basically tell the truth, “we can end the racial nightmare and achieve our country and change the history of the world.” The thing that is in the way of the country’s best aspirations and the country’s best principles is that we’ve never fully disentangled ourselves from white supremacy.
I know enough of my own history and enough from having a PhD in religion to know the historical data, but one of the things that I wanted to do is to keep myself honest here and keep the rudder in the water in the right way. [I wanted] to use the social science data to tell me how nuanced [the argument] needed to be. When I saw this pattern of white Christian [racism] — not just evangelicals but Catholics and mainline Protestants — then the question is, “Okay, well, those patterns are there, but are they explainable through some other variable? Maybe it’s because all white Christians are Republican, or they live in rural areas, or they’re more likely to be in conservative areas of the country, like the South and the Midwest.”
In this case, even after putting all of those controls in — region, partisanship, gender, education level, you name it — this relationship between holding racist attitudes and white Christian identity remained strong.
Someone who isn’t religious could very easily read White Too Long and think, “Just break up the churches, tear down these institutions. They’re rotten to their core and aren’t worth saving.”
I would understand that sentiment. To be honest, as a white Christian myself, I felt despair when I saw some of this data — I really wrestled with this data and wrestled with my own family story. But I think the other thing [is that] all human institutions are more than one thing — Christian churches do a lot of other things, right? Schools, hospitals, charity work, feeding the poor, coming in after natural disasters: There’s a lot of things that these institutions do.
But it’s complex. There’s an original sin that we’ve never really dealt with. What I’d say is there’s an opportunity here for white Christian churches once again. They’ve been called on [before] — in the 1960s, after the Civil War, there have been a number of moments of reckoning. We’re in another one right now where white Christians have been called on, I think, to step up, to tell the truth, to reform themselves.
What is different about this [time] is you do already have many people abandoning churches. If white Christians want there to be a future for the churches in the country, they’ve got to get this question right — the times of obfuscation or avoiding these questions are over. I think the question before white Christian churches, really, is justice or irrelevance.
In the book, you touch on this fatalism that’s leaked into white Christianity: “This world isn’t worth saving, so let’s just wait for Jesus to come back.” It seems like a terrible, defeatist way of thinking about the world — especially if we’re trying to reform our society.
There is this otherworldliness tendency in white Christian theology. If you think about a society constructed to benefit whites at the expense of others — and then you ask, “What kind of a theology do you need to justify or legitimize that society?” — a lot of the dominant forms of white Christian theology are what you get.
One way of muting questions of justice is to have a strong otherworldly strain through your religion so that you downgrade the need to work for more equality — to lessen suffering — in the here-and-now because there will be a great reward in the hereafter. Now, that works pretty well if you’re at the top of the pyramid — the world is actually pretty good if you’re in a position of power, as white Christians have been in this country’s history. But, of course, that message isn’t so good if you’re enslaved or on the wrong end of Jim Crow laws and segregation — or you’re being denied housing because of restrictive real estate covenants. If you’re being arrested or killed by the police in disproportionate numbers, the here-and-now matters a lot more. It’s literally a matter of life and death, which white Christians have insulated themselves from with these theological concepts.
I was also really interested in your suggestion that Christians are too invested in reconciliation: You confess your sins, you’re forgiven and then everything’s fine. White Too Long suggests that reconciliation is actually only the first step. It’s a powerful idea.
I think it came from reading “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” from Martin Luther King, and thinking about the questions of justice that are so central through much of African-American Christianity [but] are much more muted in white Christianity. Also, I was reading other academics, such as Jennifer Harvey, who studied a lot of white Christian churches who were attempting to do work in this space.
One of the things she noticed is that white Christian churches just kept getting hung up on going straight to reconciliation but not really thinking through the questions of justice. When I talked to the churches on the ground in Macon, Georgia — these two First Baptist churches that I outline at the end of the book — one of the key insights is that it’s just so easy for the equation to be “White lament and apology + Black forgiveness = reconciliation,” and then we’re all good. Breaking that formula for them was really key in order to be in a real relationship with the African-American church in their community.
Then [you have to] wrestle with these types of questions: “What does restitution — what does repair — entail?” There’s a clear Biblical mandate for those kinds of questions. Jesus in the New Testament is saying, “If you’ve got something wrong between you and your brother, go get that fixed first and then come [to the altar].” God in the Old Testament tells folks to forget their solemn assemblies and let justice roll down like water. You have to get it right between you and your brother that you’ve wronged before you go thinking that you’ve got some religious resolution to these problems.
Which brings us to this idea of reparations, which you advocate for in White Too Long. It still seems like a bridge too far for a lot of people. You quote Mitch McConnell: “It’d be pretty hard to figure out who to compensate.” That seems to be the sticking point — the logistics. Can we ever move past that?
I think so. I agree with you, though, there has been a knee-jerk defensiveness around this issue — this is the place where it literally costs something. [In Macon], one of the questions that the pastor of the white church said was, “Hey, look, given our history, what does it mean that our church is financially much better off than our sister African-American church? We know exactly why that is, so what do we do about it today?”
I think there are churches having that conversation. But I highlight also Al Mohler, the President of the Southern [Baptist] Seminary, who lamented the slave-running history of their institution — and yet, when a local group said, “Okay, well, great, how about making good on that and making a contribution of your very sizable endowment and sharing it with this local, mostly African-American institution that trains African-American ministers?,” he wasn’t even really willing to have a serious conversation about that. He just dismissed it out of hand.
I’m hoping that [attitude] will be less tenable. [White supremacy] was in every area of society for hundreds of years — to expect that this is going to cost nothing to set right is fantastical, magical thinking. A serious Christian really should be able to think further than that. I guess I’m hoping that by laying it out a little more clearly and straightforwardly [in the book], it will push these questions. I’m not pretending they’re simple questions, but they are serious questions, and they have serious moral and theological repercussions. And they deserve serious consideration and action on the part of white Christians.
White Too Long pushes back against a popular belief that racism will fade once the older generation dies out. Instead, racism is passed along from generation to generation. But do white Christians — or just white people in general — get more racist as they get older?
That’s a good question, and I don’t think I’ve got data to speak to that. What you would need is a really long-term panel study where you track the same people over time — that kind of data, as far as I know, doesn’t really exist in the way you really need it to fully answer that question.
I don’t think that’s going to be the case with this [younger] generation, though — I can say that much. One of the things that holds attitudes stable over time are relationships, and young people today are much more likely to have relationships across lines of race, across lines of different sexual orientation, immigration status, all kinds of things, than older Americans are. Younger people are more than three-quarters supportive of marriage equality for LGBT Americans, and I wouldn’t expect that to shift and have them be more conservative when they’re 50 or 60 — they have relationships with people and see those relationships worked out in real life and care about those people.
[In the book] I write a little bit about my two kids — one’s 19 and one’s 10 — and seeing the diversity in [my teenage daughter’s] relationships, they look so different than mine did in high school, even though I went to an integrated public high school. That gives me some hope.
The challenge, though, for white Christian churches is that one of the ways that institutions change over time is that younger people challenge the older generation to rethink how the institution is positioned, what it does, what it believes. But white Christian denominations across the board have witnessed a serious exodus of younger people from their ranks. The younger people, had they stayed, might be really pushing these questions of racial justice, of LGBT inclusion, a more welcoming stance toward immigrants — but they’re simply not in the churches. The median age of white Christians is more than a decade older than the population at large — they’re not holding onto younger groups that might help them change. It’s going to be much harder because they don’t have that natural effervescence from below that would push them internally.
The irony is that you’d almost want to tell disillusioned younger white Christians to stay in the fold just so they could provoke reform in their churches.
There is that kind of catch-22. In some ways, what many white Christian denominations may be facing is a kind of too-little-too-late situation. Had they really made a commitment in the 1960s and 1970s to root out the vestiges of white supremacy, we might be in a different place [now], but we’re not. At this point, so many young people have left and most of them aren’t looking to come back.
A couple years ago, we [surveyed] folks who were under the age of 30 and had been raised religious but had left — most of them left during their teen years — and when we asked them whether they were looking for a place that might be a better fit than the religious organization they left, more than nine in 10 told us, “No.” They weren’t even looking.
You see the same polls I do: Whites right now would still vote for Trump over Biden. I’ll see people on social media declare, “If you vote for Trump, you’re a racist.” I agree with that sentiment, but it seems like a losing argument in order to change minds. Or is a good chunk of those white Trump voters simply unpersuadable?
I don’t spend a lot of time on Trump in the book. I don’t think of this book as a partisan book or my goals in writing the book as partisan, although I do think this: We have to face the racial history of our partisan divide. Trump isn’t the cause of it — he is more, really, a result of it, and in many ways he crystallizes it. I think his defense of the Confederate flag — his ambivalence over white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, his very consistently going after African-American athletes — there needs to be [a discussion] about dog-whistle politics. We’re well past racist dog-whistle politics and really into megaphone politics.
But I have heard African-American Christians saying to their friends who are white Christians, “Look, what you’re saying is that supporting someone who has really been very overtly racist, [that’s] not a deal-breaker for you?” That has some real teeth and is worth really thinking about. [His] policies and his very plain language, that’s a criticism that has some legitimacy.
White Too Long makes the case that, essentially, white Christians — and just white Americans in general — will need to commit to these changes for the rest of their life. I agree with that, but I also know it’s a hard ask. Lots of people will say, “We tore down these statues. We changed the names of these buildings. But, c’mon, we don’t want this burden on us forever.” What do you say to that argument?
The problem with that kind of thinking is that it assumes that this is an act of altruism on the part of white people for other people. Certainly, the justice question looms large, and the justice question is about restitution and that does involve other people. But for people who are deeply religious and deeply care about Christianity, that history [of white supremacy] should be deeply, deeply troubling. It should raise the question of how can one be authentically Christian when the Christianity that you’ve inherited has been so shot through with white supremacy? How do you even know the thing you’ve inherited is authentic?
It’s going to be a journey, but the beginning of a journey is this realization that you’re lost and you need to be found. One of the hymns that is sung more than any else, “Amazing Grace,” [says] “I was once lost, now I’m found, was blind but now I see.” I mean, this is a question where white Christians have their very souls at stake. I can say it, with no exaggeration, that it’s a core question of recovering from a deep disfigurement that white supremacy has caused inside of white Christian churches. It’s really an internal reform movement toward wholeness and toward health. The first step is to see just how much damage has been done — and not just to people out there but to ourselves.
I also feel like non-religious white people shouldn’t feel too smug: “This is your problem, Christians.” All white people should feel complicit.
I think the thing, too, is to say that if you know someone who has left Christianity, if they grew up in it, chances are it hasn’t left them. The patterns of thinking — about otherworldliness or hyper-individualism — also diffuse through the culture. If you’re white, even if you weren’t devout, religion’s about mapping the world and how you understand the reality of the world. [Christianity] is really good at doing that, so even whites who are on the periphery of religion absorbed these ways of thinking and passed them down. White Christianity diffused itself through white culture over time.
White Too Long only briefly talks about abortion rights. How does that factor into this discussion? It feels like Christianity’s pro-life stance has a racial component as well.
You know, abortion’s got a really interesting history as a policy issue — particularly related to white evangelicals, who scored the highest in the book on racism. What’s notable is that abortion came much later to their political priorities than most people think. After Roe v. Wade, for example, the Southern Baptist Convention, which is the largest evangelical denomination, actually praised the decision because they thought of it as a Catholic issue: “Catholics are the ones hung up on abortion and contraception.” It took a few years to build the bridge for conservative Protestants and Catholics to come together [on the abortion issue].
Even today, when we ask questions like, “How important is it that a candidate share your views on the issue of abortion?,” it’s only about a third of white evangelicals — who are the strongest ones on this — who say, “A candidate must share my position on abortion, or I won’t vote for them.” When you actually ask evangelicals, you’ll see it doesn’t turn out to be the litmus-test issue that I think many political leaders or even evangelical leaders purport it to be. If you ask [evangelicals to rank] 10 issues, it’ll show up in the lower half — other things, like immigration and terrorism, rank much higher than abortion does.
One of the things I think has happened that’s provided more energy for the organizing of the Christian right is racial politics more than abortion or same-sex marriage, even though [that’s not what] we heard about from political leaders in the 1990s and 2000s. Look how quickly the LGBT issue has sort of dissipated after the [2015 Supreme Court] decision — it’s largely been dropped as a leading issue for conservatives. Abortion’s still out there, but the thing that’s animating the Christian right, really, is racial politics and resistance to the civil rights movement, much more than abortion. There’s a truer story to tell about identity politics — or culture-war politics — that puts race more at the center of that narrative. It was much easier [for Republicans] to argue, as a public position, opposition to abortion than opposition to civil rights.
Black Lives Matter has blossomed this summer, long after you finished the book. Do you have a sense that BLM has affected white Christians’ thinking?
I think there’s some movement there. There are two things that come to mind. One is that the new president, J.D. Greear, at the Southern Baptist Convention, was the first kind of major leader inside the SBC to just very clearly say, “We should be saying, ‘Black Lives Matter,’ and we shouldn’t be retorting, ‘White Lives Matter, All Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter.’ We should sit with ‘Black Lives Matter,’ and that’s okay. We should really take that in.” Also, there’s a gavel that’s been used since the 19th century that was introduced to the SBC by one of the slave-owning founding faculty of the Southern Baptist Seminary — the oldest seminary in the SBC. It’s been used to gavel in every Southern Baptist Convention since the 19th century, and he’s going to retire it this year. That’s symbolic.
Then in Mississippi, my home state, if you had told me that the president of the Mississippi Baptist Convention would be standing up at a press conference and calling on the governor and the legislature to remove the Confederate battle flag from the state’s flag, I wouldn’t have believed it. That happened just a few weeks ago. There was a referendum [to change the flag] in 2001, and the Southern Baptist Convention was silent on it [back then]. This time, [SBC] was actually calling out the governor and stepped out before there was any political action on it. I think there are things that are shifting and that are different.
But the real question will be, “Are white Christians willing to do the hard work beyond the symbols?” Symbols are important — the symbols matter — but the question is whether white Christians are going to do the work to dismantle the worldview and theology that they helped build the thing propping up the symbols in the first place.
Because you mention briefly in the book going to see an Atlanta Braves game, I thought of how sports fandom and religious affiliation are similar. They’re both about believing in the righteousness of your team — but, like with the Braves’ Tomahawk chop, there can be racism within the organization that fans don’t want to accept. They don’t want to think that their team could be evil.
It’s interesting: Religious identities, [team] identities, they’re a tribal way of understanding yourself. They’re groups you’re a part of that you’ve got a stake in. I’ve been saying that there’s a real opportunity here [in white Christianity] for people to have a stake in something to make sure that it exists into the future as the best version of itself.
With sports teams, if you’re a fan, you feel like you’re a part of its past — you’ve got sports memorabilia, old ticket stubs, you can tell the story about [your team winning the World Series]. I think there could be some real pride in being that link in the chain where there’s a change — people can look back and say, “You know what, that was the way to step up, take responsibility, and move us to a healthier place.”
Similarly, church members, generations from now, will look back and say, “Yeah, those people really stood up and did what was right. They did what was right for those around them and for making things right with people around them. And they also did the right thing for us by handing down a better version of the institution to their children and grandchildren.”