My father is an eighty-eight-year-old, right-wing evangelical libertarian, who goes by the name of Cowboy. Aside from working as a ranch hand in his youth, he’s a “cowboy” more in spirit and Western wear fetishism than, strictly speaking, profession. But that’s just splitting hairs. He’s basically my Jungian opposite, so we abide certain perpetual tensions, but I adore him.
As has been our family ritual since I was seven, Cowboy and I spent the last few days of July in the bright sun of Frontier Park rodeo arena in Cheyenne, Wyoming. If you ever want to witness a display of white settler Americana that is both bracingly real-time and nostalgia-soaked, take a trip to the “Daddy of ‘Em All.” (Be sure to watch the morning parade, too.)
Each day of fresh rodeo competition at Cheyenne Frontier Days opens with a prayer, which, on its own, is pretty mild—usually a recitation of tear-in-the-eye cowboy poetry about communing with the Creator in the great outdoors. But the announcer’s booming wind-up to it is remarkable. This is no obligatory nod to God, but a prophylactic defense of religious freedom—for Christians, at least—that seems to get more aggressive each year. I’m paraphrasing to the best of my memory:
Folks, as Americans we still enjoy freedom of religion, which means we are still free to honor God in public. And here at Frontier Days, we like to start our program by offering a prayer to the One True God, Jesus Christ. So if you’ll please stand, and men remove your headgear…
And then the cowboy poetry is read.
Of all the self-conscious prose, perhaps the most saturated word is “still.” “Still” loads its chambers with suggestions of a dark threat lurking just at the edges of the rodeo grounds: a world in which sinister “others” would threaten the precious covenant white Christian America has with its particular, favoring Savior. We have this freedom to be publicly Christian at our rodeo—for now. (So much else has been taken from us.) We can still say it like it is and worship the one true God (of the Christian scriptures) right here in this arena. And darn right, we’re going to do it (for as long as we still can).
Robert P. Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute has been doing some public teaching lately about the Christians of this rodeo, or what he calls White Christian America (WCA), in the current sociopolitical moment. In his book The End of White Christian America and related public editorials, Jones argues that WCA is in a predicament that, for some, feels like a catastrophe.
Jones defines WCA as the combined white Protestant and mainline evangelical traditions (he sets aside white Catholics, who for many generations constituted an often-racialized religious minority struggling for inclusion in the dominant culture). A combination of changing demographics and religious churn has finally transformed White Christian America from the country’s dominant cultural presence to a “divided and dying” minority within the American religious mosaic. Understandably, this breeds a certain “psychic discomfort” among its members.
The trends Jones cites are familiar to anyone who teaches American religious sociology – the rise of the unaffiliated or “nones;” the decreasing religiosity of even the church-affiliated, especially among younger age cohorts; the influx of people of color (especially Latinos) changing the face of Christian groupings that were once predominantly white; the modest rise in non-Christian religions.
Racism is also part of this story. Importantly, Jones connects the decline of White Christian America, especially its evangelical branch, to the politics of racial resentment. The Southern Strategy of leveraging covert racial appeals to draw white Southern and working-class voters to the conservative GOP coalition worked hand-in-glove with the “White Christian Strategy” of tapping religious values and organization to build a wedge between white religious voters and progressive movements. The rise of the Christian Right was propelled by backlash against women’s and LGBT rights movements, but white evangelicals’ resistance to civil rights reforms may have been just as important a factor. Cultivating a nostalgia in which religious “family values” and whiteness were intertwined was critical to this. As Jones puts it:
The leaders of the Christian conservative movement won support by extolling the virtues of an orderly bygone era, where white Protestant Christian beliefs and institutions were unquestionably dominant and there were clearly defined roles for whites and nonwhites, men and women. For these groups, the allure of the black-and-white image of a family Thanksgiving meal lay in this utopian vision of “true” America.
Jones traces the end of the WCA era to the installation of Barack Obama in the White House. In the wake of Obama’s inauguration, the Tea Party and, more recently, Trumpism emerged to frame White Christian America as victim of a takeover by racial and/or religious minorities and godless political elites at the helm of tyrannical government. That narrative is handy for a while, but the problem, as Republican elites recognized in their 2013 “autopsy report” in the wake of Romney’s loss, is that the GOP can no longer win presidential elections with conservative whites alone. Instead, they must rebrand to appeal to women, people of color, and young people, and that requires, at the very least, a change in tone. (Two thousand sixteen is hardly looking like the year that will happen.)
Jones is pointing out, as carefully but firmly as he is able, that White Christian America will be increasingly outdated, and eventually irrelevant, to the degree that it remains, as the kids say, “a thing.” Part of its disconnect from issues affecting so many other Americans stems from the fact that WCA is racially segregated, though the type and sources of segregation vary across tradition.
White Mainline institutions have worked toward racial equality for decades, but most white congregants nonetheless attend monoracial churches. (White Catholics also tend to be isolated from racial minorities through de facto segregation and inattention.) White evangelical history is deeply tied up with support for slavery, segregation, and resistance to civil rights—a legacy evangelicals have only begun to address in recent decades through racial reconciliation and multiracial church efforts.
When white Christians have little contact with people of color, by virtue of their segregated neighborhoods, churches, and friendship networks, they remain ignorant of and unsympathetic to the kinds of inequalities (in educational opportunities, experiences with policing, immigration, and so on) that affect racial minorities. This helps explain why when movements like Black Lives Matter try to bring racial inequities into public discourse, many white Christians respond with the “All Lives Matter” disconnect or outright denial of well-documented inequalities.
Jones argues, rightly, in my view, that White Christian America will have little meaningful role to play in American political culture if it doesn’t break through its denial of decline, take a hard look at its racial isolation (and racism, in some cases), intentionally desegregate, and build substantive bridges to both nonwhite Christians and non-Christian Americans. Otherwise it is destined be a shrinking island full of old, white, frightened, and resentful religious citizens in a sea of an increasingly diverse, young, secular folks who are trending quite progressive on social and environmental issues.
But an angry and nostalgic WCA is hardly innocuous. As the movement behind Donald Trump indicates, it can do considerable political damage to already vulnerable populations as it declines.
As they grapple with loss of cultural hegemony, with being part of a “taken for granted social world,” as Jones puts it, white mainline Protestant and evangelicals face hard choices. Do they retreat into insular communities with increasingly privatized worldviews and localized impacts? Or do they dig deep to find new ways to relate their theologies to the world’s current problems and complex conditions? Is there a way for WCA to apply its time-tested resources for civic engagement, but also innovate so as to engage with racial and religious communities from which WCA has been isolated? As the hubris of hegemony wanes, can new visions of vibrant Christianity emerge?
On the last Sunday morning of Frontier Days, Cowboy and I had a moment. We were having breakfast in the hotel before he headed off to the nondenominational “Cowboy Church Service” sponsored by the Fellowship of Christian Cowboys, with two of his older, white Christian friends. As usual, I wasn’t going. I’ve spent a lot of time in evangelical congregations for my book on evangelicals and race, and, as a lesbian, it’s not always comfortable sitting with folks who see me as living an immoral lifestyle, and whose churches bar the likes of me from membership. Indeed, that sense of non-belonging is part of what separated me from the church as a young adult.
We’ve never talked about this explicitly, but Cowboy never pushes me to go.
Out of the blue he asks me: “Hey, do you know what ‘Black Lives Matter’ is?” He knows I write about race, and he’s even read my book. But racial politics is one of the many silences between us, and it’s rare for Cowboy to ask me a question about it (as opposed to just announcing what he thinks). So I try to explain it, both the movement to address the statistically disproportionate killing of black people by law enforcement, and the idea that black peoples lives should matter as much as anyone else’s, but it doesn’t always seem like our political and legal systems reflect that.
He listens carefully. “Huh,” he says. “Well, now I know that. I didn’t know what it meant.” We agree to meet in a couple hours back at the fairgrounds.
As he sketches the contours of White Christian America’s declining dominance Robert Jones asks WCA to search its soul for new ways to be vibrant, relevant, and truly Christian under changing demographic realities. But I also wonder. How might those of us who’ve always been on the margins or the “outside” of WCA think about how we might invite “them” into the conversations we need to have about the world we all care about?
Cowboy and I don’t do it without tension, but we’re keeping at it. Still.
Nancy Wadsworth teaches American political culture and social movements, political theory, and the politics of race and religion at the University of Denver. She has taught at Eugene Lang College, and at the University of Colorado at Boulder, before coming to the University of Denver in 2004. She is author of Ambivalent Miracles: Evangelicals and the Politics of Racial Healing (U of Virginia Press, 2014) and co-editor of Faith and Race in American Political Life (University of Virginia Press, 2012).