By James A. Haught
Racism is much stronger among America’s white Christians than among churchless whites — and it always has been. That’s the message of a new book by social analyst Robert Jones, head of the Public Religion Research Institute.
White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity contends that white churches didn’t merely adapt the nation’s surrounding racism, but actually fostered it, locking it into the culture. That’s why white Christians currently display a lot more prejudice than non-Christians.
Here’s a sample from the book: Public Religion Research Institute pollsters asked thousands of people whether police killings of unarmed Black men are mere “isolated incidents” or if they reveal deep-rooted hostility to African-Americans. Among white evangelicals — the heart of the Republican Party — 71 percent chose “isolated incidents.” But just 38 percent of churchless whites agreed.
Another example: Some 86 percent of white evangelicals think the Confederate flag is “more a symbol of Southern pride than of racism,” but only 41 percent of unaffiliated whites share that view.
When Public Religion Research Institute interviewers read the statement “Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for blacks to work their way out of the lower class,” churchless whites agreed at a much higher rate than white Christians did.
Obviously, white Americans who don’t attend church are much more sympathetic to downtrodden minorities than white Christians are.
Jones grew up a Southern Baptist and studied at a Southern Baptist seminary before he awakened to the entrenched racism engulfing him. Now he is combating it.
Personally speaking, when I grew up in the 1940s, racism was absolute in America. Blacks were treated as inferior. They were forced to live in squalid ghettos, forbidden to enter all-white restaurants, hotels, theaters, pools, parks, clubs, schools, neighborhoods, jobs and the rest of white society. White supremacy steeped America so much that it seemed normal.
I became an adolescent newspaper reporter in the early 1950s, when the civil rights movement barely had begun. In a staff meeting, our editor vowed that our paper never would print “n—– weddings.” Later, under a new publisher, the paper became a fierce crusader for integration and equality.
The private lake where I lived had bylaws requiring members to be “white Christians,” excluding Jews, too. When I filed a proposal to admit minorities, leaders panicked and canceled the annual meeting. But the lake eventually integrated. (Technically, I didn’t fit the Christian requirement, either, because I was a renegade Unitarian.)
At that time, I didn’t notice that white churches fostered segregation any more than all other elements of society did. But I defer to the greater knowledge of Jones, who has spent his life studying this field.
Jones created a “racism index” based on his book’s survey results to identify which groups are most bigoted. White evangelicals scored highest at 78 percent. Irreligious whites rated 42 percent. He told CNN:
“President Trump, who has put white supremacy front and center, has brought these issues from just barely below the surface into plain view. . . .White Christians have inherited a worldview that has Christians on top of other religions, men over women, whites over blacks.”
Religious, racial and sexist bigotry seem to be flourishing together in the minds of white evangelicals.
FFRF Member James A. Haught, syndicated by PeaceVoice, was the longtime editor at the Charleston Gazette and has been the editor emeritus since 2015. He has won two dozen national newswriting awards and is author of 12 books and 150 magazine essays. He also is a senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine and was writer-in-residence for the United Coalition of Reason.
This piece is adapted from an Aug. 3, 2020, column written for Daylight Atheism at Patheos.