The Nostalgia Voter Facing the End of White Christian America
This is an excerpt from the new book The End of White Christian America (2016), by Robert P. Jones, published with permission from Simon & Schuster.
Two weeks after Barack Obama’s reelection in November 2012, an alarmist email went out from the Christian Coalition of America, the organization founded in 1989 by Pat Robertson that became the backbone of the Christian Right in the 1990s. The centerpiece of the message was an image of a white family bowing their heads to say grace before a Thanksgiving meal (Figure 3.1). The photo’s caption read: “Saying grace before carving a turkey at Thanksgiving dinner, Pennsylvania, U.S., 1942.” Below, the email’s text reminded readers that “the United States of America is the only nation where Thanksgiving has its roots in a Judeo-Christian tradition.” Even today, it went on, “most Americans ... see this holiday as an expression of their faith.”
But the kicker was a lament that revealed the Christian Coalition’s despairing view of what the election meant for the country’s direction: We will soon be celebrating the 400th anniversary of the first Thanksgiving and God has still not withheld his blessings upon this nation, although we now richly deserve such condemnation. We have a lot to give thanks for, but we also need to pray to our Heavenly Father and ask Him to protect us from those enemies, outside and within, who want to see America destroyed.
With only an image and a few hundred words, the email conjures up an idyllic memory of White Christian America. The choice of a black-and-white photograph transports the mind back to a “simpler” time. The picture’s composition closely resembles Norman Rockwell’s iconic depiction of an American Thanksgiving in “Freedom from Want,” also painted in November 1942 and published in The Saturday Evening Post on March 6, 1943. Thanksgiving 1942 came less than a year after the attack on Pearl Harbor drew the United States into World War II. Patriotic sentiment and a sense of shared national purpose were high, and for most white Americans the racial tensions of the 1960s were not yet on the horizon.
The photo’s setting in Pennsylvania evokes heartland America. The family in the photo is plainly Caucasian, and the practice of praying before the meal denotes them as Christian. The email text leads with a quote from the King James version of the Bible, securing their Protestant affiliation. Moreover, the characteristics of the table and the room—with some signs of affluence but no servants—mark it as middle-class, and the position of the father figure at the head of the table depicts traditional gender norms. The multiple layers of meaning in this single image make it a nearly perfect exhibit of the lost utopian world of White Christian America.
But the newly reelected president embodied a very different story. President Obama’s second inaugural address, with its forward-thinking narrative of moral progress, presented a striking contrast to the nostalgic lament of the Christian Coalition email. Obama framed the speech with an opening reference to the Declaration of Independence, then painted a portrait of struggle and progress in living up to the Constitutional principle of equality. He described the present moment as the continuation of “a never-ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time.” The crescendo of his address echoed Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, but expanded its reach in significant ways:
We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths—that all of us are created equal—is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall. . . .It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began. For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. (Applause.) Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law—(applause)—for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well. (Applause.) Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote. (Applause.) Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity—(applause). . . .That is our generation’s task—to make these words, these rights, these values of life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness real for every American.
If most readers of the Christian Coalition email found comfort in its black-and-white depiction of a bygone era, they were almost certainly dismayed by President Obama’s speech. Among the Christian Coalition’s audience, Obama’s speech was not a harbinger of progress but a disturbing celebration of moral disarray. The two divergent and competing narratives—one looking wistfully back to midcentury heartland America and one looking hopefully forward to a multicultural America—cut to the heart of the massive cultural divide facing the country today.
A PRRI survey question captured the breadth and depth of this cultural gulf: “Since the 1950s, do you think American culture and way of life has mostly changed for the better, or has it mostly changed for the worse?”
The question of whether American culture has gone downhill since the 1950s divides Americans overall, with a majority (53 percent) saying it has changed mostly for the worse, compared to 46 percent who say it has changed mostly for the better. But we can see stark cleavages by race and religion. More than seven in ten (72 percent) white evangelical Protestants and nearly six in ten (58 percent) white mainline Protestants say American culture and way of life has changed for the worse since the 1950s. Roughly six in ten white Catholics (58 percent) agree with their fellow white Christians that American culture has changed for the worse since the 1950s.
Meanwhile, approximately six in ten Hispanic Catholics (59 percent) say the opposite—that American culture has changed for the better. Approximately six in ten (63 percent) religiously unaffiliated Americans also say American culture and way of life has changed for the better since the mid-twentieth century, as do majorities of African American Protestants (55 percent). Overall, the pattern is unambiguous: most white Christians—along with groups in which they constitute a majority, like the Tea Party—believe that America is on a downhill slide, while strong majorities of most other groups in the country say things are improving.