White Christian America Needs a Moral Awakening

By confronting their faith’s legacy of racism, white Christians can build a better future for themselves, and their fellow Americans.

Church supper by a Southern Baptist Church.
Don Cravens / The LIFE Images Collection / Getty

The Christian denomination in which I grew up was founded on the proposition that slavery could flourish alongside the gospel of Jesus Christ. Its founders believed that this arrangement was not just possible, but divinely mandated. Yet many white Christians, like myself, came of age in churches and communities where we seldom heard anything substantive or serious about the white-supremacist roots of our faith.

I was raised in a Southern Baptist family, participated actively in my Southern Baptist church, and graduated from Mississippi College, a Southern Baptist institution. But it wasn’t until I was a 20-year-old seminary student that I began to grasp the central role that my denomination, and white Christians generally, have played in sustaining and legitimizing white supremacy. I knew that there had been a split between Northern and Southern Baptists, but the narrative was vague. Baptists in the South, I was taught, were caught in larger cultural and political fights that were rending the country in the mid-1800s. And—just as I had learned from my Mississippi public-school education—the true causes of the Civil War were “complicated.” Slavery was not the central issue but merely one of many North-South conflicts precipitating the split. As the prominent Baptist historian Walter “Buddy” Shurden has pointed out, it wasn’t until the last quarter of the 20th century that white Baptist historians confronted the denomination’s pro-slavery, white-supremacist origins.

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The Baptist denominational history is not unique in American Christianity. Virtually all of the major white mainline Protestant denominations split over the issue of slavery. For example, Northern and Southern Methodists parted ways in 1845, the same year as the Baptists, producing an additional spark for the tinderbox of Southern political secession. While they disagreed about slavery, both Southern and Northern Methodists agreed that Black Methodists should hold a subservient place not just in society but also in Christian fellowship. When the branches reunited in 1939, they segregated Black congregations into a deceptively named “Central Jurisdiction,” thereby limiting their influence in the denomination for three decades, until this system was finally abolished in 1968. And while the national United Methodist Church publicly supported the civil-rights movement, most white Methodists in the pews rejected or simply ignored national denominational directives and actions. In the South, white Methodists and other mainline Protestants were hardly distinguishable from white Baptists in their support of a white-supremacist social order during the civil-rights era.

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The history of white supremacy among white Catholics is more complex, but the connection to white supremacy is equally clear. With its roots in Western Europe, Roman Catholicism has a long history of colonialism, particularly in Africa and the global South, where centuries of atrocities against Black and brown peoples were justified by the conviction that white Christians were God’s chosen means of “civilizing” the world. In the United States, Catholics and Catholic institutions were prominent slaveholders in the 18th and 19th centuries and forced enslaved people to convert to the religion. In late-18th-century Maryland, for example, one-fifth of Catholics were enslaved people owned by white Catholics or white Catholic institutions.

This post was adapted from Jones’s recent book.

Given this pervasive history, it is well past time for white Christians to reckon with the racism of our past and the willful amnesia of our present. For most white Christians, this journey will be challenging because, as I have found, it is deeply personal. My 1815 family Bible gives witness to ancestors from middle Georgia who were Baptist preachers, slave owners, and Confederate soldiers. My family moved from Virginia to Georgia after receiving land grants as a reward for military service in the Revolutionary War. This occurred while the government was forcibly removing Native Americans from Georgia and supporting the growth of white settlements.

Underneath the glossy, self-congratulatory histories that white Christian churches have written about themselves—which typically depict white Christians as exemplars of democratic principles and pillars of the community—is a thinly veiled, deeply troubling past. White Christian churches have not just been complacent or complicit in failing to address racism; rather, as the dominant cultural power in the U.S., they have been responsible for constructing and sustaining a project to protect white supremacy. Through the entire American story, white Christianity has served as the central source of moral legitimacy for a society explicitly built to value the lives of white people over Black people. And this legacy remains present and measurable in the cultural DNA of contemporary white Christianity, not only among evangelicals in the South but also among mainline Protestants in the Midwest and Catholics in the Northeast.

In my day job, I am the CEO and founder of Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts research on issues at the intersection of religion, culture, and politics. I’m a social scientist by training and have always been fascinated by the ways in which beliefs, institutional belonging, and culture impact opinions and behaviors in public space. I strive to conduct research and write as an impartial observer. In our work at PRRI, we’ve found that white Christian groups—including evangelicals, mainline Protestants, and Catholics—consistently hold views that are at odds with African American Protestants’ views. The attitudes of nonreligious white Americans, conversely, tend to be more aligned with African Americans’. For white Americans, the data suggest that Christian identity limits their ability to see structural injustice, and even influences them to see themselves, rather than African Americans, as a persecuted group.

For example, attitudes about what the Confederacy symbolizes today are one of the most noticeable differentiators among these groups. Last year, in a national survey of more than 2,500 Americans, PRRI found that 86 percent of white evangelical Protestants, along with 70 percent of white mainline Protestants and 70 percent of white Catholics, believe that the Confederate flag is more a symbol of southern pride than of racism. By contrast, only 41 percent of white religiously unaffiliated Americans and 16 percent of African American Protestants agree; approximately six in 10 religiously unaffiliated white people and three-quarters of African American Protestants see the Confederate flag mostly as a racist symbol.

Similarly, nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of white Christians see the killings of African American men by police as isolated incidents rather than part of a broader pattern. There is some daylight here among white evangelicals (71 percent), white Catholics (63 percent), and white mainline Protestants (59 percent), but the differences are more a matter of degree than kind. And there is a 26-percentage-point gap between white Christians overall and religiously unaffiliated whites (38 percent agree they are isolated incidents) and a nearly 50-percentage-point gap between white Christians and African American Protestants (15 percent agree).

These patterns—of nonreligious white people holding attitudes closer to African American Protestants’ than white Christians’ of all stripes—persist in question after question on issues of racial justice. In order to see this more clearly, I developed a Racism Index comprising 15 separate questions that cover four broad areas: attitudes about Confederate symbols; racial inequality and African American economic mobility; racial inequality and the treatment of African Americans in the criminal-justice system; and general perceptions of race and racism.

Analysis of the composite Racism Index confirms the general pattern: White Christians are more likely than white religiously unaffiliated Americans to register higher scores. The median scores reveal similar attitudes among white Christian groups. Not surprisingly, given their history and strong presence in the former states of the Confederacy, white evangelical Protestants have the highest median score (0.78) on the Racism Index. But the median scores of white Catholics (0.72) and white mainline Protestants (0.69) are not far behind. These numbers stand out compared with the median scores of the general population (0.57), white religiously unaffiliated Americans (0.42), and Black Protestants (0.24).

Even when employing more sophisticated statistical models that control for a range of demographic characteristics, holding more racist attitudes is independently predictive of identifying as a white Christian and vice versa. The results of these models lead us to some remarkable and damning conclusions:

  • White Christians think of themselves as people who hold warm feelings toward African Americans, while simultaneously embracing a host of racist attitudes that are inconsistent with that assertion.
  • Holding more racist views is a positive independent predictor of white Christian identity overall and for each of the three white Christian subgroups individually. By contrast, holding more racist views has only a very weak effect on white religiously unaffiliated identity, and that effect is in the negative direction.
  • Attending church more frequently does not make white congregants less racist. On the contrary, there is a positive relationship between holding racist attitudes and white Christian identity among both frequent (weekly or more) and infrequent (seldom or never) church attenders.
  • When we reverse the analysis to predict racist attitudes, being affiliated with each white Christian identity is independently associated with an approximately 10 percent increase in racist attitudes. By contrast, there is no significant relationship between white religiously unaffiliated identity and holding racist attitudes.

Putting this in plain language, our models reveal that the more racist attitudes a person holds, the more likely he or she is to identify as a white Christian and vice versa.

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Today, 400 years after the first enslaved African landed on our shores, and more than 150 years after the abolition of slavery in America, a combination of social forces and demographic changes has brought the country to a crossroads. We white Christians must find the courage to face the fact that the version of Christianity that our ancestors built, “the faith of our fathers” as the hymn celebrates it, was a cultural force that, by design, protected and propagated white supremacy. We have inherited this tradition with scant critique, and we have a moral and religious obligation to face the burden of that history and its demand on our present. Inaction is a tacit blessing on white supremacy’s continued presence as a Christian habit and virtue. Doing nothing will ensure that, even despite our best conscious intentions, we will continue to be blind to the racial injustice all around us.

Members of West Point Baptist Church pray during a service at Pleasant Valley Elementary School in Jacksonville, Ala. (Calla Kessler / The New York Times / Redux)

White Christians must seek justice, rather than reconciliation, as the goal. Even when white Christians try to engage in this work, too many reach immediately for racial reconciliation, which they believe can be achieved through a straightforward transaction: white confession in exchange for Black forgiveness. For example, when the Southern Baptist Convention’s leaders issued a formal apology for defending slavery, opposing civil rights, and “condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism in our lifetime” at their national convention in 1995, they coupled it with a piece of contrived cultural theater that seemed to imply that a kind of magical reconciliation had instantaneously occurred. Reverend Gary Frost, a Black minister, rose to the podium to accept the apology and issued this brief declaration: "On behalf of my Black brothers and sisters, we accept your apology, and we extend to you our forgiveness in the name of our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ." The overwhelmingly white delegates erupted into applause. In less than 15 minutes, 150 years of Southern Baptist white supremacy was seemingly absolved.  While some African Americans supported the apology, others were skeptical that it reflected meaningful change. This approach is really a strategy for making peace with the status quo, since it allows white Christians to move past the thornier issues of repair and restitution that real repentance requires.

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If we are finally going to live into the fullness of the promise of liberty and justice for all Americans, we will have to recover from our white-supremacy-induced amnesia. Confronting historical atrocities is indeed difficult, and at times overwhelming. But if we want to root out an insidious white supremacy from our institutions, our religion, and our psyches, we will have to move beyond forgetfulness and silence. Importantly, as white Americans find the courage to embark on this journey of transformation, we will discover that the beneficiaries are not only our country and our fellow nonwhite and non-Christian Americans, but also ourselves. We will understand that this project is not an altruistic one, but rather a desperate life-and-death struggle for our own future.

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As James Baldwin provocatively said in a speech nearly 50 years ago, the genesis of the civil-rights movement was when an oppressed and despised people began to wake up collectively to what had happened to them. The question today is whether we white Christians will also awaken to see what has happened to us, and grasp once and for all how white supremacy has robbed us of our own heritage and of our ability to be in right relationships with our fellow citizens, with ourselves, and even with God. We have to accept, given the way in which white supremacy has burrowed into our Christian identity, that refusing to address this sinister disorder in our faith will continue to generate serious negative consequences not just for our fellow Americans but also for ourselves and our children. Reckoning with white supremacy, for us, is now an unavoidable moral choice.

This post was adapted from Jones’s recent book White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity.