White Christians increasingly appear to support democracy only as long as they’re in charge of running it, author and researcher Robert P. Jones said in one of his most candid interviews to date.
Jones, founder of Public Religion Research Institute and author of White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity, gave a lengthy interview to the online publication Religion Dispatches, where he spoke with Peter Laarman about the dangers posed by recent shifts in religious identification.
Over the past couple of years, Jones has appeared all over national media as an interpreter of the white evangelical culture he was raised in as a Southern Baptist in Jackson, Miss. His evangelical bona fides include earning degrees from two Baptist schools — Mississippi College and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary — before later earning a Ph.D. in religion from Emory University.
Laarman asked Jones about the tug-of-war between “a broadly egalitarian and democratic strain in American religion and a broadly hierarchical and authoritarian strain.” Has that authoritarian strain, he wondered, created contempt for democratic governance?
“I think what we’re seeing in this moment of change is a test case of whether groups of white Christians have merely been paying lip service to democratic principles and free elections, or whether they really believe in those principles and norms now that white Christians have become a demographic minority,” Jones responded.
He explained that the reality of white Christians not being a majority in America is so new that it is hard for some to accept.
“We’ve gone from 54% white Christian to just 44% since Obama was first elected, or a drop of about 1% per year,” he said. “Previous generations of white Christians had the convenience of being able to support participation for all, at least at the rhetorical level, because their dominance wasn’t under threat. Today the question is whether these Christians only support democracy in instrumental ways. And the answer we are getting from many quarters is that they were supportive of democracy as long as they were in charge.”
“The answer we are getting from many quarters is that they were supportive of democracy as long as they were in charge.”
Yet even though white Christians no longer hold a majority status in the nation as a whole, they continue to exert inordinate influence, Jones added.
“The first thing to look at is how, at just 14.5% of the population, white evangelicals delivered about one-third of (Donald) Trump’s support,” he explained. “84% of them voted for Trump in 2020 — that’s seven points above the 2016 level — so they are clearly punching well above their weight in a fair way, in a way that is consistent with democracy in that they are turning out at very high rates. And every group has this same right to participate, to show up. In 2016 white evangelicals made up 20% of the electorate with just over 16% of the population, and in 2020 they still had a 19% share of the vote even though they were down to around 14% of the population. That’s pretty impressive.”
Laarman asked Jones how long a minority group like white evangelical Christians can continue to exert disproportionate influence.
“Having poured your bucket of voters into the pool, you may want to keep others from putting their voters in.”
Jones replied: “Knowing you have maxed out, you may start looking for ways to stop others from participating. Having poured your bucket of voters into the pool, you may want to keep others from putting their voters in. That’s where this real temptation to suppress the vote and pass restrictive voting laws comes from. They realize that they have fewer and fewer legitimate ways to win national elections. They can still win in state elections, of course, but even in evangelical strongholds like Texas and Georgia their numbers are dropping, and they know it.”
That’s what’s really behind perpetuating Trump’s Big Lie about the election and attempting to pass new state laws restricting voting, Jones said, “trying to protect something that they feel like they own, which is the country. And we are seeing some clear signs that they may be willing to use whatever means necessary to protect that ownership.”
Read the full interview here.