When Robert P. Jones talks about white Christians, it would behoove us to take note. He studies the intersection of religion, culture, and politics, and is the author most recently of White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity, published three months ago. Jones combines a doctorate in religion with a degree in computer science and math, which helps explain how he founded and runs the respected public opinion and research outfit, the Public Religion Research Institute.
In White Too Long, Jones offers a detailed accounting—based on survey data, historical analysis, and his own lived experience—of just how intertwined is white American Christianity and white supremacy. He demands that his fellow white Christians grapple with and reject that ideology, and instead work to combat it. This is an urgent message, and one Jones has connected directly to the upcoming election.
Identity is at the heart of how this kind of privilege is justified, as Jones stated last month:
White Christian folks really did think they were the country. So if you take that really seriously, [as] something they believed to the core of their being, then what’s becoming abundantly clear is that that is not true. But that is a foundational piece of their self-understanding. To fight tooth and nail for something that is going to actually undermine your basic identity is not too surprising. It runs just that deep.
White Christians’ sense of themselves is the common foundation underlying a whole series of conservative stances on various issues—which are really better understood a kind of white identity politics. As Jones told the New York Times in June, “The new culture war is not abortion or same-sex marriage, the new culture war is about preserving a white, Christian America.”
This is the primary theme for white Christians when it comes to the 2020 presidential race, as Jones further explained: “That’s what Trump’s really leading with. The ‘Make America Great Again’ thing — the way that was heard by most white evangelical Protestants, white working-class folks, was saying: ‘I’m going to preserve the composition of the country.’” They, and their candidate, want to define America in exclusionary terms.
Vice President Joe Biden, building off the message delivered over and over by his one-time boss, President Barack Obama, speaks about America very differently.
Our nation was founded on a simple idea: We're all created equal. We've never lived up to it — but we've never stopped trying. This Independence Day, let's not just celebrate those words, let's commit to finally fulfill them. Happy #FourthOfJuly! pic.twitter.com/1WrATlx8Xl
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) July 4, 2020
The whole video is only a bit over 90 seconds, and it’s worth watching. In the core section, Biden reflected on the famous words from our Declaration of Independence about equality:
Through it all, these words have gnawed at our conscience and pulled us toward justice. American history is no fairy tale. It’s been a constant push-and-pull between two parts of our character: the idea that all men and women—all people—are created equal, and the racism that has torn us apart.
That’s the language of inclusion—which The Man Who Lost The Popular Vote rejects—language that progressives understand must be at the core of how we as a country and a people define ourselves. It’s what Obama meant last weekend in Florida when—just as he’s done on countless other occasions—he spoke of us being “all in this together as Americans, as one American family.” As for Trump’s vision, Obama added: “But apparently that’s not how this man thinks. He thinks that’s for suckers, I guess.”
I do have hope for America. Recent research done by political scientists Ashley Jardina at Duke, Nathan Kalmoe at LSU, and Kimberly Gross at George Washington University is part of the reason why. The strong identification with whiteness found by Robert Jones appears to have weakened some since 2016, and I doubt you’ll be surprised by what’s causing that development:
The decline in white identity was driven mostly by whites expressing disgust toward Trump….We find broad declines in white-identity strength across many groupings of white people, but an emotional reaction promoting social disgust was especially potent. Pre-election disgust toward Trump significantly reduced white racial identity after the election in multivariate tests. Importantly, we find that it is disgust, in particular, and not just negative Trump affect or negative Trump attitudes in general, that are most tied to changes in white racial identity.
This election is, as Biden has made clear from the day he announced his campaign, a “battle for the soul of this nation.” He first used those words three years ago, after Charlottesville, when the racist-in-chief offered words of comfort for white supremacist, anti-Semitic, neo-Nazis.
Are we going to be a nation where every American—no matter their background, identity, or affiliation—is fully included as members of our American family? Are we going to be a country that lives its creed on justice, and rejects inequality and bigotry in all its forms? Are we going to be a place where every one of us has the right to health care, to a decent standard of living, to fair and equal treatment by our law enforcement and justice systems, and to a truly equal opportunity to succeed?
These and other fundamental questions—including whether we will preserve our system of constitutional democracy at all—hang in the balance. Electing Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and Democrats at every level of government is the first step in making sure America answers them the right way going forward.
Ian Reifowitz is the author of The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh’s Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump