“Everybody’s talking about . . . ,” in this case, white Protestant America’s posture and place in politics, events, culture, and more. This summer “everybody” is, or at least quite a few people are, talking and blogging about the capitalized three words White Protestant America, referencing the book by Robert P. Jones, CEO of PRRI, the Public Religion Research Institute.
Everybody’s also talking about “decline,” as in decline of the West, civilization, civility, politics, sanity, spirituality, and the like, so they might as well talk about the decline of White Protestant America, and they do. Jones does the declinists one better by writing not about the “decline,” but the end. His book is full of graphs, statistics, and charted trends, which are tools of his trade, as well as of stories, the tools of historians and many kinds of writers. Spoiler alert: this is not a review of the book. Often in Sightings we point to, plunder, learn from, comment on, and pass the word along about a book. But we who are schooled in academia know we can’t do justice to most books in the little space of a column. In academic settings I could question some elements in Jones book and would enjoy round-tabling about it.
For now, a dominating question might be: is the concept of the “end” in place as a proper category to discuss the history and prospects of White Christian America? That depends on what one includes in the category. If I had my choice, as I do on this page, I’d prefer to talk about the End of White Protestantdom in America. The Oxford Dictionary and users like myself can trace the concept of Protestantdom to the 17th century, but it’s rare even today. Yet it fits. The suffix “-dom” signals domain, place, power, etc. Thus we see the end of Christendom in many parts of the world, but we do not also see the end of Christianity as if it were a synonym.
To the point: Jones certainly makes his case about the imminent end of the American Protestant domain. To his credit, he does not restrict his charting, graphing, and commenting to “Mainline Protestantism,” the familiarly scourged cluster. He gives virtually equal attention to “Evangelical Protestantism,” meaning white versions of fundamentalism, evangelicalism, Pentecostalism, Southern Baptistism, and mega- and celebrity church communities. Until recently those were exempted from declinist visions, until analysts and communicators noted setbacks, fissures, schisms, low morale, and down-trending statistics in much of what is now code-named “evangelical.”
Jones spends some energies on the Post-End world. Readers can encounter blogs, reviews and reactions, and article-length critiques of many things in Jones’ book. He, of course, can deal with responses, and will probably chart and graph their trends. The instinct in the historian in me, profiting from this reading, is to roll with the punch of history. Colleague David Tracy taught me to see all human life measured under three signals: finitude, contingency, and transience. We and our civilizations die. Accidents and events alter courses. Nothing lasts. Why did many shapers and friends and foes of White Christian America think that, for the first time in history, people and institutions in this category would be exempt?
The alert leaders among them ask, “Even so, what now?” Or they counsel “Get over it!, and then go about their tasks, and, if they have faith, move on in the light of it. I ended a book on my version of the present subject back in 1963 with the citation for people of faith (in this case, at least, my faith) of the biblical book of Hebrews, 11:13-16 and 13:1-2. You could look it up. People of other faiths may be moved by other texts, but they can also move, if graphs as graphic as Jones’s don’t paralyze them and dull their imaginations. Jones is not paralyzed, and he looks also at existence beyond this one particular end, White Protestant America, out of the millions that are part of the world of “finitude, contingency, and transience.”
Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at www.memarty.com.