Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. Her latest book examines the lives of four past presidents to understand what it takes to lead in turbulent times. Their stories, she says, hold valuable lessons for today.
Throughout much of the history of the United States, white Protestant Christians set the tone both culturally and politically. But demographic changes over the last few decades have transformed the country. As recently as 2008, white Christians made up the majority of the American population. Six years later, the number had dropped seven points to 47 percent. A religious scholar tracks these changes in a new book. He says understanding this shift can help explain everything from the rise of Donald Trump to the heated rhetoric of the same sex marriage debate.
- Robert P. Jones CEO, Public Religion Research Institute
Read An Excerpt
Excerpted from THE END OF WHITE CHRISTIAN AMERICA by Robert P. Jones.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. "The End Of White Christian America" is the provocative title of a new book by Robert P. Jones. In it, the religious scholar examines profound demographic shifts that have moved this country from a white Christian majority to a multicultural pluralistic society. He argues it's only through understanding the anxiety created by these changes that we can begin to truly engage with the hot button issues of our times.
MS. DIANE REHMRobert Jones joins me in the studio. He's founding CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute. You are welcome, as always, to be part of the program. Give us a call at 800-433-8850. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. I'm glad you're here, sir.
MR. ROBERT P. JONESThanks, Diane. I'm thrilled to be here.
REHMGood. First of all, tell us about white Christian America and what it means to you.
JONESRight. Well, in the book, I use the term white Christian America really as a metaphor for understanding the cultural and political edifice that was built really, primarily, by white Protestant Christians that served, you know, kind of set the tone for our national conversations and shaped American ideals really for most of the country's history.
REHMNot even Roman Catholics, but Protestants.
JONESThat's right. I mean, it's important to remember, you know, this kind of mythology of America as a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant country, this waspy country. And, you know, there were some real truth to that, I think, in terms of culture and in terms of demographics up until the very recent past. And so the book is really about telling a story about, you know, I actually use this as metaphor and I talk about the death of white Christian America in the book.
REHMIndeed. You even open the book with your obituary for white Christian America.
JONESI do. I open the book with an obituary and I end the book with a eulogy, trying to think about this. But, you know, one of the things that I think occurred to me was that there were some deep, deep changes and we had some clues to this. One, maybe it's hopeful, like, one early thing, even before I began to conceptualize the book, I think that it a good indication is that -- I talked about this in the book, that I received this email from the Christian Coalition of America shortly after Barack Obama's election -- reelection in 2012.
JONESAnd at the top of this email, it has this striking black and white photograph of a white protestant Christian family bowing their heads around a Thanksgiving table and the caption under it read "saying grace before carving a turkey and Thanksgiving dinner, Pennsylvania, U.S., 1942." That was a the top of the thing. And then, the text right under it, which I think will help, it said, "we will soon be celebrating the 400th anniversary of the first Thanksgiving and God has still not withheld his blessings upon this nation, although we now richly deserve such condemnation.
JONESWe have a lot to give thanks for, but we also need to pray to our Heavenly Father to ask Him to protect us from those enemies outside and within who want to see American destroyed." And that's the email that went out just days after Barack Obama had been reelected president in 2012. So even before I'd conceptualized the book, I realized there was these moments where the political rhetoric just far out exceeded what seemed to be really the issues that were in play.
REHMSo you got changing demographics. We've seen that certainly in my time and what has happened is that those changing demographics have perhaps created an atmosphere of fear. Fear of loss of power, fear of loss of place, fear of loss of just being bigger in numbers.
JONESYou know, that's right. And the other thing I realized, though, is that the demographics that the census bureau was telling us was really only telling us half the story, right? So we were hearing that by 2042 the country was going to be a majority "minority" nation. But I could never quite square that with the level of anxiety. That’s still a little bit out on the horizon, another generation off. And what I realized, though, is that we -- it had indeed already passed a milestone and that is that just in the last eight years, we've gone from being a majority white Christian country, if you take all white Christians in the country, Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox, non-denominational, all together, we are today 45 percent white and Christian.
JONESAnd if we dial back just to 2008 when Barack Obama was first running for president, that number was 54 percent. So we've gone, in eight years, from a 54 percent majority white Christian nation to a 45 percent minority white Christian nation. That's a lot of change, about a percentage point a year, over a very short period of time.
REHMHow do you think that's changed our behavior and our political thinking?
JONESWell, I think it comes out a lot -- it's expressed with anger, I think. So a lot of the anger we've seen in the election cycle around hot button issues is how it gets expressed. But I think, you know, like most things, if you dig underneath anger, there are other things going on, right? And the underlying emotions that I think are deeper than the anger are this real sense of vulnerability and a deep sense of nostalgia. And it's that vulnerability and nostalgia piece that I think is driving much of what we're seeing today.
REHMSo is it driving even the churches to take a more radical, political stand, do you think?
JONESOh, absolutely. I mean, I think, you know, that, you know, one thing that's always clear, if you look back at the country, it's at our times of deep insecurity that we reach for certain things. So if you think about the first time we ever saw "in God we trust" appear on money was during the Civil War, right, when the country was being ripped apart. When we see here the pledge of allegiance being -- "under God" being added to the pledge of allegiance, it's in the middle of the Cold War as we're kind of struggling with Soviet kind of, you know, the struggle between Russia and the U.S. in the -- during the Cold War era.
JONESAnd I think today, we're seeing this real struggle as white Christian America that really has been at the center of cultural and political power and senses that passing from the scene and I think that is really what is setting the stage for much of the anxiety that we're seeing in our public life today.
REHMSo a major question, how has this happened?
JONESWell, it's been a number of factors. I mean, so part of the census data that I cited is part of the story, that whites have had lower birth rates since the mid 1960s. We've also seen rising immigration, particularly from Mexico so the number of Latinos in the country as risen as the number of whites has been dropping. But, again, that's only part of the story. The other part of the story is actually a great religious transformation. And that is, white Christians leaving Christian churches, particularly young people.
JONESSo if you look at the number of religiously unaffiliated people in the country just back in the 1990s, that -- we were in single digits of Americans who were religiously unaffiliated. Today that number is 23 percent so nearly a quarter of Americans today claim no religious affiliation. And if you look at the demographic changes under -- or the generational changes underneath that, you can really see it. If you look at seniors, you see that number -- only about one in ten seniors are religiously unaffiliated.
JONESBut if you look at the youngest generation, the millennial generation, more than a third of them claim no religious affiliation whatsoever.
REHMAt the same time, don't young people tend to come back to the church after they marry and have families?
JONESYeah. That's a really insightful question and we have really -- we have seen this pattern over time, that, of course, when people are in their 20s, they're busy, they're mobile, they don't have deep roots. But by the time they hit their late 20s or 30s and they start having kids, they may start looking for these kind of institutions to ground their family's experience.
REHMSo what I'm asking is are we at a point of perhaps transition?
JONESWell, here's what's different today. The younger generation today is much more unaffiliated in their 20s than previous generations have been. So...
REHMHow do you measure that? Much more unaffiliated.
JONESYeah. So even if we take the baby boomer generation, which is the largest generation outside of the millennial generation and we rewind the clock and we look at survey data back when they were in their 20s. They were less religiously unaffiliated in their 20s than this generation is today. So even if some proportion of that millennial generation comes back, which they may, you will still be looking at the largest unaffiliated generation. One more factor that I think, hence that this may be a permanent feature of American life, is that we now have enough religiously unaffiliated people that they're actually seeking each other out as marriage partners.
JONESSo that means that rather than being an unaffiliated person with a religious person and the religious person pulling them back to church or synagogue, we won't have that, right? We'll have two unaffiliated people with neither one of them having a pull back to a religious institution.
REHMBut, you know, even if you have one religious affiliated person, marrying a non affiliated, you may see a drawing in, wouldn't you think?
JONESIf you have one, but, again, we're seeing less of these mixed marriage and more of actually people seeking out other unaffiliated partners. So either way, I think we will have this feature of a large number of people outside of traditional religious institutions is going to be a new feature of our politics and our culture going forward.
REHMAnd the politics is what I want to get to, but first, I want to ask where does the money come from for the Public Religion Research Institute?
JONESYeah. So we are a nonpartisan, nonprofit, research organization and so our money comes from other foundations. Our two largest foundations supporting our work historically are the Ford Foundation and the Nathan Cummings Foundation.
REHMAll right. And the book we're talking about, a brand new one, it's titled "The End of White Christian America" and Robert P. Jones is CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute. We are going to take your calls, your comments. I look forward to hearing from you.
REHMWelcome back. If you've just joined us, Robert Jones is with me. He's got a brand new book titled, "The End of White Christian America." He's actually written an obituary for that group of people. However, there are many like Ryan, who sends a tweet saying, it's important to note that Christian America is not a monolith. Before 1980, Catholics and Evangelicals were not political allies. We're seeing the alliance unravel as Catholics shift younger and more Hispanic Latino, due to policy, driving a wedge. Now, interesting there that we get immediately to the politics and the policy but also the shifting alliances.
JONESYeah, the shifting alliances are absolutely a fascinating part of the story here. And part of what I'm telling is really a family history, a kind of, you know, story of this kind of sibling rivalry between the white, mainline Protestant group, which at the first half of the 20th century was really the most powerful expression...
REHMThe Methodists, the Episcopalian...
REHM...the Baptists, the, you know...
JONESYeah. Well, the American Baptists on that side, that's right.
JONESBut they tended to be concentrated more in the Northeast, the upper Midwest, less in the South...
JONES...and tended to be more educated and more kind of close to the levers of power than the -- their Evangelical cousins, that tend to be more in the South, less educated group. And there's this -- through the 20th century, we see this play. But it is important, the comment about Catholics is important and why the metaphor I use is really primarily a Protestant story. If we remember, you know, like when the National Council of Churches was formed, which was the big expression of white, mainline Protestant power in 1960...
JONES...the mainline denominations explicitly saw there to be two threats to the American democracy. One was communism and secularism, and the second one was Catholicism. And that was the more liberal branch of white, mainline Protestants. The Evangelical branch also had its theological problems. It's not till the 1990s really, at the very beginning of the conservative Christian political movement, that we see these barriers really begin to come down among Evangelicals. They came down a little bit with John F. Kennedy's election in 1960 as well, with the mainline branch. But not till the 1990s did these barriers come down.
JONESAnd really they only came down then because white Evangelicals knew that they needed actually more numbers and more partners for a coalition then they indeed had on their hands on their own.
REHMAnd what about older people who were absolutely convinced that attending church and being part of the Roman Catholic Church especially, going to confession every Friday, eating fish on Friday, what happened to all that?
JONESYeah. Well, you know, Vatican II is one thing that happened to all that. So there was a lot of changes within the Catholic Church to quote, unquote, "modernize" the church. So Latin stopped being used. English started being used. Some of these traditional practices began to be loosened up.
REHMAnd that turned some people off.
JONESIt did. It turned some traditionalists off. And, you know, what we see today with the Catholic Church is actually a pretty similar story that we actually see among the white segment of the Catholic Church, a pretty precipitous decline in terms of their numbers and percentages. And the really, the only thing that's holding Catholics steady as a proportion of the population is a replacement of that white attrition with Latino immigration, that's -- and also with higher birth rates. So that's what's keeping the Catholic Church fairly steady as a proportion of the population.
REHMAll right. So now we get to the question of how these changes are affecting not only demographics but policymaking politics.
JONESYeah. Well, you know, I think, you know, looking at this election cycle, I mean, I do think that it's not an overstatement to say that at least one helpful way of seeing this election is as a referendum on the death of white Christian America, particularly with Donald Trump's ascendency. I mean, Donald Trump saw this -- these anxieties and the sense of nostalgia among white conservative Christians very early on.
JONESI wrote earlier an op-ed for the Times this week and I cited in there a statement that he made in January, way back early in the primaries, where he was speaking at an Evangelical college in Iowa. And he said, look, when I'm president, we're going to be saying Merry Christmas again. No more of this Happy Holidays. You know, we are -- I'm going to restore power to the Christian churches. And he just explicitly put it out there...
JONES...and if I'm elected, you're -- I'm your guy. You don't need anyone else.
REHMWhat denomination is he, by the way?
JONESWell, it's an interesting controversy over this. I mean, so Donald Trump, you know, says he's Presbyterian and Christian. And early on, he also claimed to be a member of Marble Collegiate Church. And very quickly, Marble Collegiate Church in New York put out a statement saying, we have no record of Donald Trump being an active member in this church. So, you know, what's interesting though is that despite that -- despite the fact that he's had these gaffs where he tried to put money in the communion plate in a church in Iowa. He called, you know, two -- he called a New Testament book, Two Corinthians instead of Second Corinthians. So very clearly just not kind of acculturated to kind of Christian, you know, liturgical culture.
JONESAnd yet, you know, new polling out just yesterday, nearly 8 in 10 Evangelicals saying their supporting him in the general election. He swept the South against Ted Cruz, right, by all measures should have been the Evangelical's candidate. He's the son of a Baptist minister, himself Southern Baptist. He had all the -- he's from Texas. He had all these credentials. And yet, Donald Trump I think, with his let's, you know, make America great again. And that last word, again, I think harkening back to a time in America where white Protestants, Christians, had more of their hold on the center of American power.
JONESAnd this appeal to nostalgia I think is the real key, that Donald Trump basically converted what we've been calling values voters into nostalgia voters
REHMOkay. But you call it nostalgia. I might say they're afraid of what is coming.
JONESI think that's exactly right. They're afraid of what's coming. And they're afraid of what they've lost. And there's also an economic angle to this as well. I mean, it's worth noting that 7 in 10 Evangelicals say that we're still in a recession when we asked them about their economic situation. Half of them are working class Americans. And so there's a sense in which this loss of an economic world, where you could put, you know, dinner on the table with a work -- without a college degree, this lack -- and this passing from the scene of this kind of conservative, white Protestant ethos.
JONESI think those two things together is a pretty powerful cocktail for, you know, and when a candidate like Trump comes up and says, I'm going to restore that world that you feel like you've lost, that's a very powerful appeal.
REHMAll right. We've got lots of folks waiting to talk with you. Let's go first to Connie in Harrisburg, Pa. Hi, you're on the air.
CONNIEHi, Diane. I love your show.
CONNIEI listen to it all the time.
REHMOh, I'm glad.
CONNIEMy main concern is now even he, as a Christian or Evangelicals or, is separating the faith of Christianity by race. The basis of Christianity is a belief that God had a son, Jesus Christ, who came down, rose and died for the sins of all humanity. When we start bringing race into the church, it taints the pure value of Christianity. We, as Christians, America, no matter what race you are, should be alarmed at what's going on in America today. Not as a black, white or Hispanic, but as Christian.
REHMAll right. Robert.
JONESWell, you know, I'm sympathetic to the point -- the theological point here. But the truth is that race has run through American churches and Christianity from the beginning of the republic. Even today, I mean Martin Luther King, you know, famously said, 11 o'clock, a.m. on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in American society, that is still largely true today. When we look at the composition of churches, churches are still -- 90 percent of American churches today are essentially mono-racial institutions. And that, you know, encapsulates a great, you know, the vast majority of Christians have the experience going to church with people who look exactly like they do.
JONESAnd beyond that, if we look at white social networks -- and this another piece and I talk about it a little bit in the book -- and we asked whites, like not just do you rub shoulders with someone of a different race, but have you actually had deep conversations...
JONES...and close friendships...
JONES...with someone, we find that the average social network of whites in America are 91 percent white and only 1 percent African-American, only 1 percent Latino. So when we get to questions of race and perceptions of racial inequality and we see this great chasm between the way African-Americans and whites or black Christians and white Christians are interpreting them, we should maybe not be that surprised that they're seeing very different realities.
REHMBut, I mean, our caller is basically correct...
REHM...that Christianity has no boundaries in ethereal terms. But in realistic terms, I think you've made that very plain. Let's go to Louisville, Ky. Kenny, you're on the air.
KENNYThank you. Love your show.
KENNYJust want to say that I agree 100 percent with what he is saying, that basically Christian America period, not just white America though, is declining substantially. And I believe there's a huge tradeoff with that. And I'm not a pro-Christian or pro-anything. But my observation is, as a 53-year-old person is that with the decline of Christianity, we're seeing a decline of morals and values and safety. I mean, when we were kids, we slept with doors open, cars unlocked, didn't worry about anything except a couple of fistfights every now and then. And that's changed substantially. And I believe it is due to the decline.
JONESSo, you know, I think this is a really clear expression of nostalgia, right? When I was a kid, we slept with the doors open, we didn't lock the cars, we had community. There -- I mean, this is a pretty common refrain, I think, for many -- particularly for many white Protestants in the country to say this.
JONESBut, you know, I think what's interesting also that I want to bring up here is that we are experiencing a very, very deep change here. And at the end of the book, like I said, I have a eulogy -- I write the last of the book as a eulogy. And I did that because I do think this is a very complicated experience. There are some Americans who -- it sounds like this caller is one of them -- who are deeply grieving, right, the loss of this world and who see it as a good thing when morals were better, when, you know, that's the vision of this world that this caller had. And I think there's a lot of Americans who are in that category.
JONESBut there's other Americans who are maybe quietly happy that this is passing the scene. And there are yet other Americans who are, you know, celebrating the end of this kind of dominance of white Protestant Christian America. And I think that's the complicated point we are at in this country, is that this is something very big, unprecedented really, that -- this cultural change that we're dealing with. And we have very different reactions to it. And I think part of our task going forward is trying to figure out what kind of a story do we tell about what Americans are -- who America is and who Americans are, that includes all of these factions.
REHMWhat happened at the beginning of the 19th century -- sorry, beginning of the 20th century, when you had all these immigrants coming from around the world and non-Americans had to navigate into this white Christian America? Most of those who came at the time of course were white themselves.
JONESWell, yes and no. I mean, we look back to them and we say they were white. But at the time, right, Irish people weren't white. They were Celts, right? And Jews weren't white, they were Hebrews. I mean, if you look at even the Census forms, they had these other categories. They were not Caucasians.
REHMWow. I did not know that.
JONESYeah. So if we remember this -- and I think that actually gives us some hope for kind of navigating the moment that we're in. Because I -- there's -- it's certainly true that this is unprecedented. It's also the case that we've dealt with things like this before. And I do think this height of immigration, at the early part of the 20th century, is part of it, where there was this -- there was strong anti-Catholic sentiment, anti-Irish sentiment, anti-Asian sentiment, you know, the Chinese Exclusion Act.
REHMItalians were coming. Everybody was coming.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Was there, then, an equal amount of nostalgia and upheaval and concern about the country?
JONESI don't think it's equal. But I do think that what we saw then was certainly some -- there was a great survey question that a colleague of mine, Karlyn Bowman from the American Enterprise Institute, brought up one time. It was a survey question asking about the advent of automobiles and whether it was better when we just had bicycles, right? And there was a strong sense of, oh, yes, the world -- our country was much better off when there were no automobiles and we had bicycles, you know. So I think there is -- nostalgia is always a powerful draw.
JONESBut I think, in this case, the changes are so significant and concern the center of American culture in a way that some of these other things were a little more peripheral, that are more challenging for us today.
REHMAll right. Let's talk about the decision-making process within our political system and how that may have been affected or is being affected by this transition.
JONESYeah. So, you know, I think the -- a couple of simple things that I want to bring up, and we've mentioned Barack Obama, it's obviously interesting to just note that during this kind of time to transition, we've had a sitting president who's African-American, right? That's key on the scene. Another big symbol here, on your first segment you were talking about the Supreme Court, right? It's notable that in 2010 we lost our last Protestant justice on the Supreme Court. That was an event that kind of went by without a lot of fanfare.
REHMAnd in its place a Roman Catholic.
JONESAnd in its place, right, you know -- and if Merrick Garland is confirmed, we would have a Supreme Court made up of five Catholics and four Jews, which would be unprecedented. You know, just to kind of put this into perspective, historically 91 of the 112 justices we've had on the Supreme Court have been Protestant. And so -- and now we have zero. So that's a nice -- a really clear, symbolic shift in one of our, you know, biggest American institutions.
REHMAnd one about the ways we make political decisions?
JONESYeah. Well, in terms of, you know, partisan politics and the way that kind of those weigh out, if that's what you're getting at, is I do think we're seeing an increasingly polarized two-party system, you know, and one that -- I talk about it in the book -- the end of the white Christian strategy is what I talk about it, that in terms of electoral politics, we're -- I think Mitt Romney's campaign was the last one where this strategy of stacking up white Christian votes to offset the votes of a changing, more pluralistic America was really a plausible one.
JONESAnd Romney actually hit most of his marks. In fact, if you compare his votes to George W. Bush, he got just as many white Evangelical votes, got just as many white Catholic votes, and he still lost. Because the demographics had shifted underneath, between the time of Bush's election and Romney's run for president. So I think that's really shifting. And it -- but it looks like, you know, we may actually have another test of this in this current election cycle with Donald Trump's very strong appeal among white Christian voters.
JONESAnd this appeal to nostalgia and vulnerability. I think those two things are really important. Current vulnerability, nostalgia for the past, and this, you know, kind of referendum on which kind of America we want.
REHMRobert P. Jones. And the book we're talking about is "The End of White Christian America." When we come back, more of your comments, your email. I look forward to speaking with you.
REHMAnd welcome back. If you've just joined us, we're talking about a new book by Robert Jones. He's founding CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute. His new book is titled "The End of White Christian America." You really wanted to shock people with that title, I have that feeling.
JONESWell, you know, it's a provocative title, for sure, but, you know, I will say if you're really looking at, you know, at the numbers, and you're looking at the waning of not just the numbers but the institutional power that white Protestant Christians used to wield in this country, you know, I don't think it's really an exaggeration to kind of think of that as a metaphor and think of it as something that indeed has passed away.
REHMWhat about African-Americans? Do they go to church more than white Americans these days?
JONESWell, the sort of African-American Protestant is really interesting. I mean, so African-American Protestants have not seen the kinds of declines in their churches that white Protestant Americans have seen. In fact they've maintained their proportion of a little more than one in 10 Americans are African-American Protestants, and that's maintained true over the last few decades.
JONESYou know, what's -- so I think that's an important, you know, piece to note, that that -- and I think that's why also this story really is about white Protestant decline in the country, and it's also true that Latino churches are actually growing in the country. So we have a kind of stability among African-American churches, growth among Latino churches and really decline among white Protestant churches.
REHMOf course African-Americans found power within their churches with the growth of the power movement against the segregation that was going on during the early years.
JONESYeah, no, that's right, and certainly African-American churches play a distinctly powerful role for the civil rights movement. One sort of complicated piece that I think we still are kind of trying to sort out, though, is that there have been some tensions between older civil rights leaders who are kind of deeply embedded in the kind of black church movement and the Black Lives Matter movement, which is less connected, I think, to the African-American churches so -- and driven by a much younger demographic.
REHMHere's an email from Daniel in Bentonville, Arkansas. With the shift in religious demographics, will we soon see a decrease in demand for our major political representatives to have religious affiliations? It would seem that being a Christian is an absolute requirement for being president, for example.
JONESWell, you know, it's interesting. So we have seen this decline, right, and this rise of religiously unaffiliated people. There's a definite lag in members of Congress, for example, who identify as religiously unaffiliated. The best counts, by Bill D'antonio at Catholic University of America, Pew and others, who track these things really show there's only a handful of people who don't identify as Christian in Congress.
JONESSo at the elite institutional level, we're seeing that difference. However, in this election cycle, again it's interesting that the main arguments being made by white Evangelical backers of Trump is not that he's an exemplary Christian, right, those aren't really the arguments that are being made. If you listen to Mike Huckabee and Franklin Graham and James Dobson and the way that they're talking about his candidacy is not so much that he's one of us, and he's an exemplar of our cultural world, but he's the guy who can't -- who understands their anxieties and is going to bring back the America we feel like we've lost.
REHMHere's an email from Ronnie, who says at a second-generation, 70-year-old Jewish woman, I've been uncomfortable most of my life being Jewish in a Christian nation. I recall my father complaining time and again when I was growing up that school was closed for Christian holidays but not Jewish holidays.
JONESWell, I do think one of the things we're going to see is, and I think this is part of the struggle, is how white Protestants, who are shrinking in numbers, are going to adjust to not being the majority and how they're going to adjust to seeing other religious holidays on the calendar and having to kind of plan their own vacations around that. I mean, that's going to be a new reality for many -- for many white Protestants in the country.
REHMWhat are the other adjustments we're going to have to make?
JONESYou know, I think assumptions, right, all these huge assumptions that come in to our political life, such as yes, you have to be Christian to be president, you know, despite the constitutional protections to the contrary. You know, I think a lot of these assumptions are going to go by the wayside, and if we look at millennials, this question about morality came up earlier, if we look at the millennial generation, they are much less likely to tie religion to morality than older Americans are. They don't see those bonds as being that closely connected. And so I think there's a real generational sea change on that question, as well.
REHMHere's an email from Alan. Were the founding fathers, Franklin, Jefferson, Adams, Washington, Christian in other than a moral sense? What was their goal for the country with regard to religion?
JONESWell I think that so -- you know, presidential historian is not my title, but, you know, but I -- it's clear, though, from the historical record that the religiosity of many of the founding fathers was very, very complicated. And just to take one example, you know, Jefferson's excising of all the miracles from his copy of the New Testament, it would -- literally with, you know, cutting them out of his copy of the New Testament, would not sort of pass muster with many Evangelicals today or Christians today.
JONESBut that -- so but I do think this kind of, you know, question of how do we live out this idea, you know, this First Amendment idea, right, that we don't have religious establishment in the country, and I think we're having to face that question in a way that we haven't had to face it before, right, because when you have a de facto majority that is such a super-majority that it controls the culture, it controls, you know, the kind of basic institutions in the country --there was a great quote from one of the books I read in doing research for the book that basically said, look, if you were in charge of something big and important in the middle of the 20th century, chances are you are a white, mainline Protestant male, right. That's the kind of dominance that this group kind of had in the culture.
JONESAnd so I think we're at a moment where we can't depend on a kind of principle over here but a kind of de facto cultural domination over here. We have to kind of live into that principle, I think, in a more vivid way.
REHMAnd more recently we've had same-sex marriage laws passed across the country, we've had transgender laws put into place even in the military. To what extent are they related to your book?
JONESYeah, well, I think the sort of second wave of white Christian America's decline really did -- was wrapped around these fights around gay rights. And because it was wrapped with the kind of conservative end of this movement, which had really been all in opposing same-sex marriage and gay rights from its inception, really, the conservative Christian right movement, so in the book I talk about this a bit, but I do think this shift, again if we kind of just look at this frame from the beginning of Barack Obama's presidency to today, when Barack Obama was running for president, only four in 10 Americans supported gay marriage.
JONESThat number today is 53 percent, right, again very short amount of time, big amount of change, and I think we're still reeling. I think, you know, this year we've had I think over 100 bills introduced in states across the country that are these sort of named Religious Freedom Restoration Act bills that are about basic carving out religious exemptions to the legalization of gay marriage and gay rights around the country. These are very much reactions to this great shift in the country.
JONESI think this kind of acceptance of gay marriage is another kind of case in point of the really shifting culture that conservative Christians in particular are grappling with.
REHMAll right, and to Julie in Ann Arbor, Michigan, you're on the air.
JULIEThanks, Diane, for taking my call.
JULIEI listen every day, but this conversation is just really, really fascinating. So thank you. My question comes from -- so just a quick background. I am an atheist, kind of wavering agnostic from some personal events. I was raised in a Baptist church until I was 12, and then my parents allowed me to really kind of think on my own and make decision on my own. So that's kind of my background for my question.
JULIEMy question is you hear so much, and it was already discussed briefly from other callers, but maybe my question's a little different, is that you hear so much that the rise in crime and the rise of craziness in the country is because we have lost God in our schools and lost God in our country. And while I support the division of church and state on that thing, I'm wondering is there truly any statistical data that can really give us a reason of why, why are these things happening, why does there seem to be a rise in crime, or is it just news is reporting it more? I mean, there are so many variables that I understand, but is there truly a correlation? Can we draw any correlation at all from the lack of any kind of religious guidance, moral guidance of any religion, really, not simply Christianity but really a lack of a moral foundation or a religious foundation with rise in crime? Can -- is there any statistical data that we can really, really draw from?
JONESWell, I think it would be really difficult to draw, you know, a correlation between these things that are so big with so many intervening variables. But I would say that there's a real difference in perceptions out there and what some of the realities are. So for example the perceptions are that we have much higher rates of immigration than we actually do. When you actually look at the numbers, especially since the recession, net immigration in the country has been basically flat.
JONESCrime rates are actually down. Violent crime rates are actually down over the last few years. Unplanned pregnancies and the number of abortions are actually down. And so it would run -- if you wanted to run this correlation, it would run probably the opposite way, but I don't think that's all that, that, you know, sort of a valid way of thinking about these things. I think there's never a kind of one-to-one correlation between those kinds of events.
REHMHere's a caller in St. Louis, Missouri. Jason, thanks for joining us.
JASONHi Diane, Diane, thanks for having me.
JASONI had a question to Robert about the sort of overall effect on democracy in America and the change in demographics and if Robert thought that white Christian America will continue to try to hold on to power by restricting other groups' ability to enact their political power through the democratic process. And I'll take my call off the air, thank you.
REHMAll right, thanks.
JONESWell, I wrestle with this question at the end of the book and really when I'm talking about the eulogy and addressing kind of different, you know, groups. And I think it -- you know, we don't know. I think we're at a -- we're really at the early moments, I think, of when white Protestant Christians are really grappling with this reality, and we're seeing a lot of different reactions, from anger and denial on the one hand to depression, you know, and maybe some bargaining on the other.
JONESAnd -- but I think we're also moving some ways towards acceptance. So just a couple of examples here. If you look in the Evangelical world, you can see a couple different expressions. Franklin Graham I think is much more on the kind of anger and denial thing. But Russell Moore at the Southern Baptist Convention has been urging Evangelicals to really accept these new realities and try to figure out what it means for engaging the public square not as the majority but as a new minority in the country.
JONESThat's a really important step that I think we're seeing out there today. I think we -- we're in a kind of, you know, wait and see, and the kind of leadership that steps up at this particular moment is going to make a real difference in how this goes down in the next few years.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to Scott in Greensboro, North Carolina. You're on the air, Scott.
SCOTTHi Diane, so good to talk to you.
SCOTTI had the honor and privilege of meeting you last year, and you will be sorely missed when you go off the air.
SCOTTI won't know what to do with myself.
REHMWell, I'll be down there in North Carolina before you know it.
SCOTTSounds great, look forward to seeing you.
SCOTTI live down here in the Bible Belt, and a couple thoughts come to mind with your author Mr. Jones' book. You know, the death of white Christianity would be the five stages of grief, and you kind of covered that. So my question would be how do atheists come out of the closet, so to speak? When I rekindled my friendship with one of my best friends down here, he was so relieved to find a like-minded individual who was raised religious but is now atheist.
SCOTTAnd, you know, my question is why, why do we cling to our cultural mythologies that we know are anachronistic? You know, religion's point is to answer the phenomenon of the universe, and now we have science to do that. So, you know, I myself was raised Jewish, bar mitzvahed, the whole nine yards. We recently got married, had a Jewish ceremony. Although I'm a fervent atheist, when we have kids we're probably going to raise them Jewish. So how do atheists come out of the closet, feel more comfortable being an atheist in society, how do we make that, that leap?
JONESWell, you know, I think non-religious people are, indeed, coming out of the closet, as you might call it, because there's more and more of them. Having said that, I mean, we do have survey data that shows that still people make a distinction between people who are just not particularly religious and people who are atheists, and the atheist still does carry some stigma in the minds of many Americans today. So that's still certainly true.
REHMAnd that really does go back a long way, doesn't it?
JONESIt does. I mean, it has a history in communism and again these kind of twin threats to democracy. That's what it's wrapped up in in the kind of American kind of cultural mindset. So, you know, so that's, I think, still the case. And I think particularly when you're in a state in the South, that is still heavily religious, then, you know, I think there's a kind of lag between the changes that have happened at the national level and what, you know, one experiences on the ground in a state like my home state, like Mississippi or Tennessee.
REHMAnd an email from Natalie in St. Louis, Missouri. She says, as a non-Christian, I resent the constant barrage of professions of faith and Christianity by politicians and commentators. Our legislators and presidents swear to uphold the Constitution, not Jesus. Our founding fathers were emphatic about giving us freedom of and from religion.
JONESWell, you know, I think we still see some of that. We still see a lot of, you know, ending of speeches, and we'll have the conventions coming up in the next couple of weeks, so we'll see a lot of thank you and God bless Americas at the end of these speeches is a pretty typical -- a pretty typical phrase.
REHMHow do you feel about that, when you personally hear that?
JONESYeah, well, you know, there's a kind of civil religion that's been kind of out there, that's, you know, roughly theistic and -- but it's not all that specific. Where I think things have gotten tense is, for example, when George W. Bush had Franklin Graham offer a prayer at his inauguration, and he prayed not with this kind of civil religion motif, but he actually said in the name of Jesus I pray, amen, which a lot of Jewish Americans were not very happy with and felt excluded from and a lot of other non-religious Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists.
JONESAnd so I think that -- that is a difference. The question for me is, like, so if we're not doing, you know, if sectarian kinds of expressions are not really the norm, we have this kind of civil religion that's been the norm, how long will that hang on, and what will it look like, I think, going forward is kind of an open question.
REHMAnd that's the open question we'll leave this conversation with, really a fascinating issue, though, Robert Jones, and "The End of White Christian America" is not only provocative, it's worth reading. Thanks for being here.
REHMAnd thanks, all, for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
Most Recent Shows
What Nancy Pelosi’s fight to stay in power says about the midterm elections. Then, the Emmys are next week. Diane talks to twenty-five time nominee Lily Tomlin about aging in Hollywood and her current role in the show “Grace and Frankie.”
Protests, sparring over documents and questions about the limits of executive privilege. Diane talks with a Constitutional law scholar about the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. And what are we to make of the anonymous op-ed in The New York Times?
A special podcast of a 2007 interview with Diane and Senator John McCain, who died Saturday.