Reviewing White Too Long
What a personal relationship with Jesus means
When browsing the library I like to start with the new books in front of the counter. Lo and behold there was Robert Jones’ White Too Long, an over two hundred page evaluation of the legacy of white supremacy in American Christianity. I licked my lips, checked it out, and prepared myself for what should prove to be an uncomfortable read for many white evangelical Christians in the South if they ever even bother to pick it up. The author is the founder of PRRI (the Public Religion Research Institute), which “explores and illuminates America’s changing cultural, religious, and political landscape,” so Jones often has his finger on the events and controversies surrounding white evangelical Christianity, which was once the Christian majority.¹ Their teachings transform Christianity today in ever so subtle ways that would be nearly impossible for me to detect without the author’s historical analysis.
One indication of white supremacy’s shadow over American Christianity is in the invitation to have “a personal relationship with Jesus.” At first it seems like an innocuous comment that does not in turn reflect a much deeper and broader problem in the culture of American Christianity, but that is not the case. For those who are not familiar with this invitation, Jones describes it on page ninety five from personal experience, and I am familiar with the formula as well because I used to attend a Baptist church as a child. Near the end of the church service the preacher delivers a verbal invitation to sinners in the congregation, inviting them to stand up, walk down the isle, and give their lives to Jesus. An emphasis is placed on the importance of having a personal relationship with him. Meanwhile music softly plays in the background to set the emotional atmosphere. What Jones’ points out is how this invitation plays into the “blindness to social sins swirling about” the church. In the white evangelical mind the weight of moral shortcomings is tied to the individual while simultaneously “screening out institutional and structural issues,” meaning that any culpability in the way society at large is structured is explained away and shifted to the individual.² An article on NPR sums it up another way: “‘In that configuration, immorality only lives in the individual person,’ said Dupont, the religion historian who grew up in Texas. ‘There’s no conception of systemic injustice and systemic sin.’”
Jones uses a study from Michael Emerson and Christian Smith to cement his observation, revealing how attitudes towards racial economic inequality differed between the white and black Christians they had interviewed. Why does racial economic inequality exist? One white Protestant explained what Emerson and Smith call the “lazy-butt account.”³ White evangelicals, however, tended to blame blacks for a lack of motivation and the culture of the black American community. They were simply blind to any hinderances to upward social mobility for blacks put in place by American institutions. They overlooked the circumstances of minority communities that were/are underserved in the realms of education and more.
Jones also notes how many prominent black figures observed this phenomenon. For example, one can see it in Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which laments the fact that, although the South has many churches, many of its white Christians did not bother to lift a finger to alleviate the social ills that plagued blacks. “Where were their voices of support,” Jones quotes King as asking, “when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protests?” At one time white evangelicals used to believe in systemic injustice and systemic sin. This was before the Civil War, says Jones, when “it was generally popular for white Christians to be what theologians call postmillennialists: to believe that Christ will return for this victorious period only when society has advanced toward the ideal of a Christian civilization.” After the Civil War this optimistic view fell out of favor. They “will be redeemed only by the second coming of Christ.”⁴ All calls for social justice are pointless and fruitless under such an understanding since a fallen humanity is powerless to make any positive changes for the best.
With that being said, Jones is able to reveal connections between the beliefs of white evangelicals today and the rest of American society, and then he is able to use that to show us their implications. Let’s look at the issue of climate change as a brief example. He says only 44 percent of white evangelicals believe in climate change and that it is a cause for serious concern. In contrast 6 out of 10 Americans believe in climate change as a serious issue. This conclusion is similar to what I found from the Pew Research Center (PRC).⁵ 37 percent of white evangelicals believe there is no evidence climate change is caused by human activity. More white evangelical Christians favor off shore oil drilling, for example. Their religion is simply more concerned about individual salvation than the destructive corporate practices harming our planet. PRC goes on to note that one’s “[p]olitical party identification and race and ethnicity are stronger predictors of views about climate change beliefs than are religious identity or observance.” Race is such a strong factor. It is deeply intertwined with history and religious beliefs, and I did not realize the power of race in religious beliefs until I began reading this book a few days ago. Who knew the idea of a personal relationship with Jesus would lead me down this rabbit hole?
¹ See Robert Jones’ article in The New York Times. “During Barack Obama’s tenure as president, the United States has crossed the threshold from being a majority white Christian country (54 percent in 2008) to a minority white Christian country (45 percent in 2015).”
² See Jones’ quote from a study conducted by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith: “Absent from their accounts is the idea that poor relationships might be shaped by social structures, such as laws, the ways institutions operate, or forms of segregation . . . As carpenters are limited to building with the tools in their kits (hammers encourage the use of nails, drills encourage the use of screws), so white evangelicals are severely constrained by their religio-cultural tools.”
³ “There are a lot people just sitting back on their butts, saying because of circumstances in the past you owe me this and you owe me that. There’s a lot of resentment in the White community because of that and we just kind of need to get over all of that and move forward. Everybody is responsible for their own actions. Life is not the circumstances; life is how you deal with the circumstances and how it makes you better and how you move forward.”
⁴ Jones traces this change in view to a popular work by Reverend C. I. Scofield called the Scofield Reference Bible. He was a former Confederate soldier.
⁵ “[I]t is the religiously unaffiliated, not those who identify with a religious tradition, who are particularly likely to say the Earth is warming due to human activity. Hispanic Catholics, like Hispanics in general, are more likely to say the Earth is warming due to human activity. White evangelical Protestants stand out as least likely to have this view.”