Why a Religious Scholar Keeps Probing White Supremacy

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Robert P. Jones may be America’s most interdisciplinary wonk, as comfortable with data-driven pivot tables and public-opinion surveys as he is with theology and history.

The founding president of the Public Religion Research Institute has a divinity degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a doctorate in religion from Emory. But more important than that, he has an unflinching ability to hold a mirror up to his own Christian faith to spot the embedded bigotry and to suss out its roots in unlikely places. 

His new book, The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy and the Shared Path to a Sacred American Future, is out this week and excerpted here. In it, the twin tales of a lynching in Minnesota and a race riot in Oklahoma converge to build on a foundation laid in his home state of Mississippi, where Hernando De Soto used the Christian-based Doctrine of Discovery in the 16th Century to justify a western expansion of European colonialism. In many ways, the traces of white Christian nationalism in our current politics can find its origin story in Pope Alexander VI’s 1493 edict blessing Christopher Columbus’ colonialism.

“That’s what explains the kind of sense to ban books to erase history,” Jones says. “These are not moves of confident people. These are moves by desperate, fearful people who see the writing on the wall.”

Below is an edited and condensed version of our conversation last week.

How would you describe the state of white supremacy in America right now?

We’re going through a stage where it’s cyclical. What has typically happened is that we see these surges of public expressions of white supremacy following acts of progress with racial equality. We saw it after the Civil War, during the efforts of Reconstruction and its aftermath and subsequent dismantling. We saw it in the 1920s when you had African Americans returning who’d been serving in the war. They were coming home and demanding equal rights after risking life and limb on behalf of the nation in World War I. You saw it after the Civil Rights Movement. We’re seeing it again in the wake of the election of the first African-American President and in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement over the past half a dozen years or so. We’re in yet another phase of reactionary public resurgence of white supremacy. A reactionary movement is some progress towards racial equality. 

It seems like the march forward is less pronounced.

In the 55 years I’ve been alive, expressions of anti-Semitism and white supremacy in public that we’ve seen have matched the way that the country is changing. The claim that white Americans have had on the country has not just been a racial claim. It’s been a kind of ethno-religious claim to the country. They see the country as a promised land for white Christian people, and it’s always been this blend of ethno-religious claim. And that is demographically under threat. During the tenure of our first African-American President, it moved from being a majority white Christian country to one that was no longer a majority white Christian country. In 2008, 54% of the country was white and Christian. Today, that number’s 42%. 

Your last book, 2020’s White Too Long, outlines that reality. Specifically, it quantifies this fear of, frankly, white Christian men. 

Previous generations could pay lip service to democracy, to equality, to pluralism, knowing that they had enough demographic power to still be at the top of the pyramid. That’s no longer true. This whole push against erasing history and the just sheer dishonesty about the past is locked up with this need for denial. 

It’s a shared dishonesty about our past. And it takes two to share. 

It’s collusion is what it is. One of the quotes from James Baldwin that has really stayed with me is when he was asked about perceptions of African-Americans toward white Americans about honesty about themselves. He put it this way: he said, we’re apt to see white people as the slightly mad victims of their own brainwashing.

In order to hold onto land, political power, cultural power, it’s been necessary for white Christian people to be dishonest about the past and how we got to the place.

We’re sitting here as two white dudes in America in the year 2023. The power structure that exists is so convenient, right? 

That’s another reason that there has been, continues to be what’s driving this denial of our own history. It is clearly and pretty transparently self-interest. Because if we ask these questions, not only of our treatment of African Americans, but our treatment of the original inhabitants of this land, indigenous people, we tell a more honest story, it’s going to raise the questions of justice in the country and who has things and who has not. And you look at the disparities between white Americans and African Americans, wealth disparities, income disparities, life expectancy, and health outcomes, it’s all very plain. It raises some very uncomfortable questions.

How do you incentivize those conversations that need to be taking place? On the surface, those are not conversations that happen organically because they hurt. 

They are challenging. The thing that has become clearer to me is that we white Christian people have a huge stake in getting this right and being more honest. If we have any hope of living a life of integrity when we look in the mirror and think about our own lives, but also in relationship to others. We love to put our arms around and talk about America as a pluralistic democracy, but if we’re going to really live into that promise, we are going to have to do it on the basis of honesty and not some sanitized history of impossible innocence.

You’ve been spot-on through your research and scholarship that history can be used as a weapon here of cultural definition. What responsibility do historians have for this? 

That’s a whole industry of telling a white supremacist history. We spent a lot of time fighting about Confederate monuments and taking them down. These historical markers in granite and stone are here, but what people forget is that groups also had a textbook program. They were not only erecting stone monuments, but they were placing things that were sympathetic to the Confederacy in public schools’ textbooks.

So it was part of what I’m out to do is to try to tell a truer story of how we got to where we are. It not only explains some of the tensions and the injustices between white and Black Americans, but also between white and Native Americans. 

When we talk so much about white supremacy, we gloss over the original racism of this country. How did that intersection of anti-Black racism and anti-First People’s racism come to overlap in your mind? 

They’re very rarely held together. That’s one of the parts of the journey that I went on during the research and writing of the book was to become more clear-eyed about the necessity of connecting the interactions of people Christian European descent with indigenous peoples here and then their interactions with people with African descent. I write about this thing called the Doctrine of Discovery, which was this little-known church doctrine that’s out of the 15th Century. 

But it does shape the way that centuries of European Christians would understand their interactions with any people group that was non-Christian and the land that those people inhabited. It essentially was the belief that God had designated any territory, not inhabited or controlled by other Christians, as a new promised land that was available to be taken. These doctrines, very concretely, gave European Christians the right to not only occupy, but to kill, to steal—and then this is the phrase that’s really stayed with me—to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery. Those words are right out of the Vatican, which at the time was the head of the entire Western Christian Church.

It was incredibly convenient for those in power. 

This ruling came because the kings of Portugal and Spain originally were appealing to the closest thing that existed to international law at the time, and that was the head of the church in Rome. So they actually sought this ruling out, and the church obliged to give them this moral and religious blessing in a Christian animated conquest.

You have a pretty clear-eyed view on the 1619 Project as a cultural event and its limits as a historical event. How did you summon the bravery to have any sort of criticism for this watershed moment? 

What I deeply appreciate about the 1619 Project, a really Herculean feat, was it widened the aperture beyond what we see on that postage stamp of all these white men gathered in Philadelphia with their quill pens. That’s not the story of America. You cannot just put white men at the center of the story of America. 

I think 1619 matters as a year, but it’s not the only one. If we’re looking for a full flow of history, it doesn’t begin or end or stop at a particular year. I think we can go back at least to 1493, which was one of these edicts from the Doctrine of Discovery that was specifically applied to the Americas. And that was for Columbus when he returned to Spain. The ruling from the church reiterated their right to conquer, steal, and enslave.

I want to pick at that scab a bit. There is a 35-point delta between Republicans and Democrats when it comes to support for the core tenets of that doctrine. What is happening here? 

It’s fairly remarkable that you can still pick up, in contemporary public opinion, something that’s a 15th Century church doctrine that still has a resonance and still is divisive in American society. We’ve always faced these two competing visions of the nation. They were here before the nation was even completely formed. The two visions are rooted in the Doctrine of Discovery, that we are in this country designed by God to be a promised land for European Christians. Is this a pluralistic democracy where everyone, regardless of race or religion, stands like equal footing and citizens? 

Our two political parties have organized themselves along the lines of race and religion. The Republican Party, which affirms this idea that the country’s a promised land for European Christians, is 70% white and Christian. The Democratic Party is only about a third white and Christian. 

Is that durable? Is that something that we’re going to be dealing with when you and I retire in 30 or 40 years?

I hope I’m still working 30 or 40 years from now. We are at a particular hinge point here and it is because of the changing demographics in the country. 

We heard this in Donald Trump’s rhetoric. You would hear things like if you don’t vote for me you’re not gonna’ have a country anymore. This kind of subtle signaling about the changing demographics of the country, of holding on to this vision of a white Christian country is from people who, even if they don’t really know the exact statistics, they do see the writing on the wall. And literally sometimes hanging on the wall; if they go visit their local elementary school, they look at those pictures on the wall and it’s majority non-white. The grocery stores are stocked with food that is catering to not just white people. Billboards and radio stations are in Spanish. These changes in the country have created a kind of desperation. 

That’s what explains the kind of sense to ban books to erase history. These are not moves of confident people. These are moves by desperate, fearful people who see the writing on the wall. I hope that 20, 30 years from now, we’ll be in a different place, but I think the danger is whether the democratic institutions survive the next 10 years.

When you talk about the 20-to-30-year window here, what does this conversation sound like? 

I hope this conversation feels like a particularly troubled time in American history that we’ve been able to move past. A majority of Republicans and a majority of white evangelicals who affirm this very old idea of America as a promised land for European Christians, but it’s two thirds of the country that rejects this idea. If you look at younger people, they are far less likely to support this than older people. We’ve got this very challenging five-to-10-year period. This is a period when the country is adjusting itself to finally getting past lip service of being a pluralistic democracy and delivering the promise of actually being a pluralistic democracy. 

Moving beyond the book, your PRRI research has shown that racism is not an exclusively Southern problem. Racism isn’t exclusive to physical geography.

In the new book, I go to Minnesota, right? 

We’re talking about Duluth. 

Duluth, Minnesota. Very, very white. Not a history of slavery there, and yet 10,000 people turn out for a lynching in 1920, right? It’s about one-tenth of the population of the town. It’s also not a white evangelical problem. It’s a white Catholic problem. It’s a white mainline protestant problem. It’s not just the ones that were sucked into the Confederacy in the South. We can’t treat this yet as some kind of regional message of the Confederacy. White supremacy survived the Civil War and is quite intact. We have a Black Lives Matter movement in the 21st Century because we’ve never really fully dealt with the issue of white supremacy. 

You’re coming at this from a perspective that perhaps very few others could as a religious scholar who is a critic of the Southern Baptist Convention where you came up, who understands the corrosive elements of racism in the religious tradition. How do you deal with that? 

It’s been a personal journey. Given the religious and cultural worldview I inherited, how do I disentangle white supremacy from Christianity? It’s certainly personal for me when I think about the kind of faith I want to pass on to the next generation. We all have a responsibility to take what we’ve received from the past, to sift it as best we can, to excise the parts that are harmful, that are dangerous, that are sinful. Hopefully my kids and our grandchildren aren’t fighting these same battles because we’ve taken the time to be honest about them and try to find some healing along the way.

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