Sunday, August 21, 2016

Analytical potential not fulfilled

Robert P. Jone is the CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). PRRI is a a polling shop which interrogates large samples about religion. In consequence, Jones has all sorts of interesting data about U.S. religiosity. But the book he's made of this -- The End of White Christian America -- is an analytical mess.

The book's title is misleading. As a student of religion, he should have known better than to replicate the facile U.S. journalistic convention that "Christian" means "Protestant." His subject is white-mainline Protestant-affiliated and white Evangelical-affiliated Christians. The U.S. does have a lot of white Protestants. But there are something like 48 million white Catholics in the U.S. as well as a goodly number of Mormons, Eastern Orthodox, and other believers with Christian ancestry like the Friends who rank nowhere in his discussion.

Moreover, for much of the book, the significant descriptive adjective is "white," not "Christian." The Black Church (as Protestant as can be) and Latino Catholic and Latino Protestant churches are not fading away. What's fading away is a white monopoly on national religious hegemony; this trajectory among our religious communities mirrors rather than leads the national demographic transition.

Jones does bring out the old chestnut that Sunday morning is the most segregated moment of the week -- that remains true. But his argument fails to support the idea that white U.S. Protestant Christianity's decline is a consequence of failing to integrate with believers of other colors. It may be true that contemporary "nones" -- the growing category of those without a religious affiliation -- don't feel at ease making a mono-color institution their homeplace, but that's not the data he brings out here. White Protestantism is fading because 1) white people are no longer the only people and 2) many young whites don't see much inspiration in it, looking to other traditions or becoming comfortable identifying as "spiritual but not religious."

And about those "nones" -- it's not clear to me that the U.S. has always been a hyper-religious country, however much notions formed by a particular mid-20th century landscape might claim it was. All those 19th century westward pushing frontier settlers were hardly a faith-filled bunch. The brawling, licentious frontier looked like sordid missionary territory to Eastern churchmen. And those "religious leaders" never quite implanted their "civilizing" influence. It is no accident that the Left Coast is the least religious terrain in the nation.

What Jones never tackles is how class status meshes with the religious landscape he describes.

This might be a better book if Jones had been willing to go there. The mid-20th century Protestant picture is fairly simple, although anyone can bring up isolated counter-examples. Rich and upper middle class white people, if of solid social standing, were mostly mainline Protestants. In fact, if their fortunes rose, they jumped from merely Protestant to "higher" denominations. Lower middle class and working class white people who were Protestants were evangelicals, trending off into Pentecostalism and unaffiliated assemblages. If they were segregationist, and many were, many jumped out of broad denominations like the Southern Baptists into idiosyncratic local evangelical congregations.

The class status of all these groups has been radically unsettled by racial, demographic and economic changes since the 1950s and '60s. No wonder the religious denominations so securely anchored in that landscape are unmoored and waning. For that matter, and here I agree with Jones, no wonder there's such a market for Trumpian nostalgia among some whites.

Someone with a deeper historical and sociological perspective could make a far better book from the data Jones swims among. I look forward to it.


Brandon said...

Here's an assessment of the religious situation in Hawaii, off the top of my head: Still many Buddhists, many Catholics, lots of Mormons. New Hope church (Foursquare Gospel) is big. My friend, who joined my church several years ago, grew up on Oahu in an upper-middle class Episcopalian family. His sister, another friend of mine, attended our church for years but recently went over to a Pentecostal church.

janinsanfran said...

Interesting observations, Brandon. One thing I've been surprised by when Walking San Francisco is the large number of grand institutional buildings that various Buddhist groups seem to own. We're not just talking storefronts here, but also grand edifices in Pacific Heights. San Francisco has lots of people of Asian-origin from many countries, so I should probably have expected some to have taken on the trappings of the old Protestant establishment. But I hadn't known.

Hattie said...

My religious affiliation is "fallen away Catholic." The old church plucks at my heartstrings, but this is not really serious. My mother more actively disliked the church, but her approach was to make fun of the institution, especially the priests.
Three of my grandparents were Catholic, one grandfather was Protestant. He was a total stereotypical uptight Presbyterian and constant hand washer, so that church never tempted me.
I long ago abandoned the idea that most people could be content without religion. I've been a non-believer since age 6, so you could say I'm used to it. My spiritual bump just isn't there.

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