An Obituary for White Christian America
After a long life spanning nearly two hundred and forty years, White Christian America— a prominent cultural force in the nation’s history— has died. WCA first began to exhibit troubling symptoms in the 1960s when white mainline Protestant denominations began to shrink, but showed signs of rallying with the rise of the Christian Right in the 1980s. Following the 2004 presidential election, however, it became clear that WCA’s powers were failing. Although examiners have not been able to pinpoint the exact time of death, the best evidence suggests that WCA finally succumbed in the latter part of the first decade of the twenty-first century. The cause of death was determined to be a combination of environmental and internal factors— complications stemming from major demographic changes in the country, along with religious disaffiliation as many of its younger members began to doubt WCA’s continued relevance in a shifting cultural environment.
Among WCA’s many notable achievements was its service to the nation as a cultural touchstone during most of its life. It provided a shared aesthetic, a historical framework, and a moral vocabulary. WCA’s vibrancy was historically one of the most prominent features of American public life. While the common cultural ground it offered did not prevent vehement— or even bloody— conflicts from erupting, the lingua franca of WCA gave them a coherent frame.
As the nation was being born, George Washington invoked WCA in his first inaugural address. And when it was being torn apart during the Civil War, WCA provided biblical themes and principles that called the nation back to its highest ideals. Without WCA, neither Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address nor Martin Luther King, Jr.’ s, “Letter from Birmingham Jail” could have been written, let alone understood. Virtually every American president has drawn from WCA’s well, particularly during moments of strife.
During its long life, WCA also produced a dizzying array of institutions, from churches to hospitals, social service organizations, and civic organizations such as the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and the YMCA. Beyond these direct functions, WCA also helped incubate and promote the missions of countless independent nongovernmental organizations that met in its facilities and were staffed with its members. Widespread participation in WCA’s lay leadership positions served as an important source of social capital for the nation, instilling in participants skills they carried, not only to other civic organizations, but to democratic governance itself.
But WCA has not been without its critics and controversies. Its reputation was especially marred by its general accommodation to and participation in the institution of slavery up until the Civil War. In the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, WCA’s apathy toward— and in some quarters even staunch defense of— segregation in the American South did little to overturn these negative associations. Its credibility was also damaged when it became mired in partisan politics in the closing decades of the twentieth century. Late in its life, WCA also struggled to adequately address issues such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights, which were of particular importance to its younger members, as well as to younger Americans overall.
WCA is survived by two principal branches of descendants: a mainline Protestant family residing primarily in the Northeast and upper Midwest and an evangelical Protestant family living mostly in the South. Plans for a public memorial service have not been announced.
• Robert P. Jones,
The End of White Christian America
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We will be exploring more of what Robert Jones discusses in this book in weeks to come.