Although this week’s theme at Chautauqua Institution is “A Crisis of Faith?,” Robert P. Jones believes there is also a crisis of American identity.
Jones, founding CEO of the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute, will discuss this dilemma in the first of four conversations held this week by broadcast journalist Bill Moyers. The conversations will make up the week’s Interfaith Lecture Series, culminating in Moyers’ final thoughts on the discussions on Friday. Moyers said he is excited to learn from the speakers, whom he sees as intellectuals in the most dynamic areas of religion.
“They’re really thinking hard and living fully in this issue they’re facing,” Moyers said. “Are we having a crisis of faith?”
The conversation between Moyers and Jones is titled “What the End of White Christian America Means for Our Shared Sense of National Identity” and will take place at 2 p.m. Monday in the Hall of Philosophy.
The talk will focus on what being “American” has meant in the past for white Christians and what it might mean in the future for everybody.
“What white Christians have been accustomed to is essentially owning the table and inviting other groups to pull up a chair,” Jones said. “It becomes a very different thing to realize that you don’t own the table anymore and you’re sitting at a chair along with other groups having to negotiate.”
In 2016, PRRI, which collects data and publishes statistics about politics and religions, found that the number of people identifying as white Christians had fallen to 43 percent, down from 54 percent in 2008. Jones said he sensed that this was a major milestone that no one was talking about. So he wrote a book, The End of White Christian America.
In his book, Jones explains how this change, though seemingly small, has rippled throughout the white evangelical community. He said he found that the adjustment — compounded by the first African-American president — created deep internal anxiety among the group, which had formerly been the majority culture.
This has also thrown off white Christianity’s firm grip on the American identity. While the Constitution and Bill of Rights portray the United States as a country founded on common principles, not ethnicity, as was the norm, Jones said that has not been entirely true. There is no single “American” ethnicity, but white Christians, who have — until now — been the country’s cultural core, created those documents.
“I think there’s some opportunities here, but I do think it’s throwing us back to some really fundamental questions about who we are as a country and, frankly, what does it mean to be a church,” Jones said.
Moyers and Jones will discuss how this shift in faith influenced last year’s presidential election, as PRRI’s data found that anxiety over America’s future had a profound impact on the white evangelical vote. While evangelicals did help elect President Donald Trump, Moyers said he believes a boiling point would have been reached without him.
The statistics used in Jones’ book are just a few examples of the many that have astounded him over the years, he said. Racial division and partisanship are some of the most startling, Jones said, because they seem to get worse, not better.
Jones, who holds a Ph.D. in religion from Emory University, specialized in the sociology of religion, politics and religious ethics because all three had been incredibly influential in his life. Although he was ordained, he felt more drawn to academia and founded PRRI when he realized he struggled to find statistics about the intersection of religion and politics.
Jones’ team has also found that the number of unaffiliated spiritual people in the country is growing, especially among younger people. Jones and Moyers said they are seeing young people create new ways to worship outside of the politicized establishment. Jones himself worships with his family at an interfaith congregation.
“My family kind of represents some of the new ways people are putting together religiosity in the country and breaking down barriers,” Jones said.