PRRI founder Robert P.Jones to close season with discussion of ethics, faith

Robert P. Jones grew up as a Southern Baptist in a white evangelical church in Mississippi. 

Now, as president and founder of Public Religion Research Institute, Jones wants to fulfill his own — and help others to fulfill their — Christian duties with an emphasis on ethics in faith communities.

Jones will give his lecture on “White Supremacy, Christian Nationalism and the Fragile Future of the American Experiment,” at 2 p.m. Friday, Aug. 26 in Elizabeth S. Lenna Hall — not the traditional venue of the Hall of Philosophy — to end Week Nine, its theme of “Faith and the Tapestry of the Future,” and the 2022 Summer Assembly Season’s Interfaith Lecture Series.

“I’m going to be talking about the ways in which white supremacy and American Christianity have had this symbiotic relationship throughout American history,” Jones said. “This is a history that is largely unnoticed, and in some cases deliberately buried, because it’s a fairly unflattering history.”

A leading scholar on religion, culture and politics, Jones, is the author of White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity (winner of the 2021 American Book Award) and The End of White Christian America (winner of the 2019 Grawemeyer Award in Religion). 

He said he wants white Christians in his audience to have a better sense of the truth about their identity, both in the past and the present. 

“I think that’s going to require some serious soul searching … some repentance and hopefully commitment to repairing the damage,” Jones said.

Americans are barely waking up to the realities of white Christian nationalism, Jones said, because they are just now realizing it’s a problem.

“The choice in front of us today is whether we’re going to face it, work for healing and repair or whether we’re going to deny it,” Jones said. “James Baldwin put it so unnervingly, whether we’re going to continue our national racial nightmare.”

Jones founded PRRI in 2009 to use data to examine the intersection of religion, culture and politics.

“There was still a need for solid, independent, nonpartisan public opinion research,” Jones said, “and to get a deeper understanding of what the public thought of, not only about issues, (but) what in their worldview, including their cultural and religious views, led them to those beliefs.”

Jones said religion and politics always overlap, because they’re part of human culture. Intertwined, these two facets of American culture can lead to significant ramifications.

“I’m actually quite alarmed at the current state of things, particularly the most recent Supreme Court decisions that (rely) on a particular view of history and tradition, rather than on legal principles of separation of church and state,” Jones said.

Jones said historically, Christian churches have supported white supremacy, which forces the opposition of the democratic principles America was founded on.

“It’s no exaggeration to say that if we can’t honestly deal with this history and choose a different path, not only is the American experiment in democracy in peril,” Jones said, “the future of the church itself is in peril.”

His life in Mississippi was surrounded by people who thought as long as they weren’t personally racist, they were doing their job. Jones said this is not, and should not be, the case; Christians have a responsibility to combat injustices around them.

“The dilemma for white Christians is to really face the ways that Christianity has justified not just a personal sense of racism, but the setting up of institutions,” Jones said. “That is the habit of systemically perpetuated white supremacy, and limited Black equality.”

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The author Kaitlyn Finchler

Kaitlyn Finchler is a journalism and public relations graduate from Kent State University as of May. This will be her second summer at Chautauqua where she will cover literary arts, serving previously as the Interfaith Lecture Series preview reporter. In her free time, you can find her reading, cooking or flipping between “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Gossip Girl.” She’s most excited to see how many times she can slip the word “plethora” into her stories before Sara makes her stop again.