Here’s How It Got There

For a religion that was once subversive being countercultural may just be the ideal way to be.

It is that paradox that lies at the heart of The End of White Christian America, and in discussions of Christianity and public life more generally. How can a religion often defined as a religion of outsiders — one whose sacred texts embrace the overturning of the money changers in the Jerusalem temple and celebrate those who leave their families behind to follow a wandering preacher — ever function in a dominant paradigm without losing its distinctive character?

 

In the introduction to his 1987 Cultural Literacy, E.D. Hirsch Jr. laments the loss of a shared American culture — a body of knowledge, from Shakespeare to the Bible, that united Americans.

He recalls his father’s propensity for quoting a particular truncated line from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar whenever encouraging his colleagues to act swiftly: “there is a tide [in the affairs of men / which taken at the flood leads to fortune].” His colleagues — educated men themselves, Hirsch implies — would understand the reference, and so cultural communication would function smoothly. This shared consciousness, he suggested 20 years ago, was on its way out.

Hirsch’s nostalgia may seem even more dated now than it did in 1987. The idea of a “canon” of a shared cultural shorthand has been challenged as outmoded and exclusionary, unfitting for a pluralist society. Likewise, among the “neoreactionaries” of the alt-right in particular, the shared shorthand of (white, Judeo-Christian) cultural literacy is symbolic of a disappearing, homogenous “West” to which we can and must return.

Three decades later, in the fascinating, complex 2016 book The End of White Christian America, the Public Religion Research Institute’s founder and CEO Robert Jones traces the decline not merely of a demographic, but of the racial and religious contours of that very culture. Jones described the decline of “a shared aesthetic, a historical framework, and a moral vocabulary … [a] lingua franca.”

Though the book begins and ends with a mock eulogy for white Christian America (WCA), it’s not quite a eulogy, nor is it gleeful grave stomping. Rather, it is a sensitive, nuanced look at the decline of a world “where few gave a second thought to saying ‘Merry Christmas!’ to strangers on the street … a world of shared rhythms that punctuated the week: Wednesday spaghetti suppers and prayer meetings, invocations from local pastors under the Friday night lights at high school football games, and Sunday blue laws that shuttered Main Street for the Sabbath.”

The loss of these traditions reflects WCA’s demographic decline through the rise of a more ethnically and religiously diverse America. But it also indicates that we’ve lost a wider “shared” (if not universally) sense of cultural understanding in the public sphere: both on the smaller scale of the town hall on and on the large scale of the White House.

Jones traces WCA’s decline as a culturally powerful institution, however, not just as the result of demographic change but rather as the result of white Protestant churches failing to adapt to a multicultural, multiracial America. Jones casts his eye on a complacent mainline Protestant church that failed to hold on to the fervor of its members, and an evangelical church that sailed to the “moral majority” on issues of segregation and race.

PRRI itself is known for its careful cultural analysis of everything from the United Methodist Building in Washington, DC, once a de facto monument to the mainline cause célèbre of Prohibition, to Macklemore’s celebration of “same love” at the Grammy Awards. Blending the kind of exhaustive data PRRI touts, Jones traces two intertwined cultural histories: that of mainline Protestantism — careful, ecumenical, less fervent in the culture wars — and its sometime rival evangelical Protestantism, whose fervent and uncompromising reactionary approach to hot-button political issues from segregation to LGBTQ issues was responsible for both its rise and, he says, its downfall.

As Jones tells it, while mainline Protestants took a careful, interfaith approach to social issues, quietly emphasizing social justice on an institutional level, evangelical groups edged their way into public prominence by a more conservative approach to doctrine, a focus on salvation, and a patriotic Christianity deeply indebted to the idea that the United States should be an “explicitly Christian nation.”

Mainline Protestantism declined first, as it lost ground to secularism and to the evangelical right, which was quicker to raise the political pulse. But as the culture wars of the ’80s and ’90s gave way to certain permanent shifts in American culture — most religious Americans now support same-sex marriage, and among young evangelicals support is likewise increasing — evangelicals found themselves, too, at sea.

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