American Christianity Must Reckon With Legacy Of White Supremacy, Author Says

Jul 30, 2020

Growing up in Texas and Mississippi, author Robert P. Jones was a very active member of his Southern Baptist Convention church. Between youth group, Bible studies and prayer services, he spent about 6-7 hours each week at church or doing church related things.

But in all that time, he never really heard about the church's history — including the fact that Southern Baptists split from the North around 1844 because the Northern Baptists opposed slavery.

"I was 20 years old before I got a hint of that history ... and even had the possibility of beginning to think about what the implications of that were," Jones says.

In his new book, White Too Long, Jones examines the legacy of white supremacy among Southern Baptists and other Christian denominations.

Jones says the Southern Baptist Convention tends to focus on each individual's interior relationship with God — and "essentially screens out questions of social justice."

"I cannot remember a single sermon calling attention to racial inequality, racial injustice [or] the struggle for civil rights," he says.

As the U.S. begins to grapple more seriously with issues of racism and white supremacy, Jones says the time has come for churches to be more in vocal about social justice.

"There's so much work still to be done," he says. "White Christians have been largely silent ... and have hardly begun these conversations."


Interview highlights

White Too Long, by Robert P. Jones
Simon & Schuster

On how the Southern Baptist Convention split from the North around 1844 because of slavery

The precipitating event was really whether someone who was being called as a missionary to spread the gospel could simultaneously be a slave owner and still be a church member in good standing. And the members of the churches in the South actually put this issue forward very intentionally, to test what their Northern brethren would say about this. And the North responded very clearly, and Northern Baptists said, "No, you know, under no circumstances will we be behind this." And that really was the precipitating split. And just a few short months later, the Southern Baptist Convention was formed very intentionally with the word "Southern" and the front of it to indicate its allegiance really to this slave-owning society.

On how the Southern Baptist Convention used the Bible to justify slavery

The slave owning argument really had more of the Bible on its side, at least read literally. You know, there's plenty of things to point to in the Bible where there's slavery mentioned [and] it's not condemned. The whole book of Philemon in the New Testament ... talks about slaves obeying their masters and even returning to their masters, a slave who's escaped is commended to return to slavery. And so the more straightforward arguments out of the Bible were simply there. And then read into that, I think, also was this idea of white supremacy, ... that God's design for human society was that whites of European descent would really be the vanguard of society, and at the top of society. And their goal was to "civilize" everyone else from their place at the top of the political and cultural hierarchy.

On how the Southern Baptist Church maintained its stance after the Confederacy lost

The term that historians use is ... "lost cause religion," and that sounds like an admission of loss, but what that term really means, it was not at all a concession. It was really about keeping these embers burning, and this idea that ... from the ashes of defeat there would still be a rise of the South and a rise of victorious Southern religion. And you can see this in the Confederate monuments, for example, that sense of: Yes, political defeat, military defeat, but not really admitting a kind of religious and cultural defeat. ... Again, it was about this idea that God was still behind this vision of society.

On how some Northern churches imposed segregation even after the Civil War

the Catholic Church had long had a practice of African Americans sitting in the back. [They] couldn't come and take part of the Eucharist until all the white members had done so. - Robert P. Jones

It wasn't just in Southern evangelical churches or Baptist churches. ... Even when [the Methodists] admitted African American churches into the larger Methodist denomination, they segregated them into one jurisdiction. It was essentially a version of religious gerrymandering so that they would get one bishop instead of possibly competing for power in other jurisdictions; they were all locked into one jurisdiction, so their voice inside the denomination will be smaller.

And even among white Catholics, the Catholic Church had long had a practice of African Americans sitting in the back. [They] couldn't come and take part of the Eucharist until all the white members had done so. New York, for example, did the same thing, and actually segregated the African American Catholics into a single parish and also made only one Catholic school available to African Americans and made it a segregated school. And these practices continued in the middle of the 20th century, even even among Catholics in the North.

On the contradictions within white churches that supported the civil rights movement

The United Methodist building here in Washington, D.C., was the staging ground and playing a lot of supporting roles for the March on Washington in 1963. The Christian Century, the kind of flagship magazine of the mainline Protestant world, was the place where Martin Luther King's Letter from Birmingham Jail was originally published. He was on the editorial board of essentially this white mainline Protestant magazine. So there's certainly very prominent figures, places that showed up and helped in organizing, but [also] this huge gap between the official statements, leaders who showed up in those things, and the vast majority of folks on the ground.

At the same time The Christian Century is publishing A letter from Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King and his wife apply for their son, Martin Luther King III, to attend a private Episcopalian school in Atlanta. And he's turned down on the basis of race. At the same time there's a very mainline denomination helping support the march on Washington ... another wing is denying his [son's] admission to a school on the basis of race. It's a very mixed bag. ... The symbolic things that were done and even courageous leaders that were out in the front of the civil rights movement never quite fully brought the great bulk of people in the pews with them.

Sam Briger and Joel Wolfram produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Robert P. Jones is the author of the new book "White Too Long: The Legacy Of White Supremacy In American Christianity." The book opens with this sentence. (Reading) The Christian denomination in which I grew up was founded on the proposition that chattel slavery could flourish alongside the gospel of Jesus Christ. Its founders believed this arrangement was not just possible but also divinely mandated.

Jones grew up in Texas and Mississippi. His family belonged to the Southern Baptist Church. Although his new book focuses on the South, it also examines how white supremacy infected churches in the North. Jones is the founder and CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, PRRI, which he describes as a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts research on issues at the intersection of religion, culture and politics. He was trained in theology and the social sciences. He has a Ph.D. in religion from Emory University and a Master of Divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Robert P. Jones, welcome to FRESH AIR.

ROBERT P JONES: Oh, thanks, Terry. I'm thrilled to be here.

GROSS: So the church you belonged to when you were growing up, the Southern Baptist Church - that was actually founded in around 1844, when the Southern Baptists split from the North. Why did they split?

JONES: Well, it's very clear in the historical record. The precipitating event was really whether someone who is being called as a missionary to spread the gospel could simultaneously be a slave owner and still be a church member in good standing. And the members of the churches in the South actually put this issue forward very intentionally to test what their Northern brethren would say about this. And the North responded very clearly and said - Northern Baptists said, no. You know, under no circumstances will we be behind this. And that really was the precipitating split. And just a few short months later the Southern Baptist Convention was formed very intentionally with the word Southern in the front of it to indicate its allegiance, really, to this slave-owning society.

GROSS: And how did the Southern Baptist Convention use the Bible to justify slavery?

JONES: You know, it's maybe hard, I think, today to think back about this. But, you know, what it looks like is that in - the slave owning argument really had more of the Bible on its side, at least read literally. You know, there's plenty of things to point to in the Bible where there's slavery mentioned. It's not condemned. The whole Book of Philemon in the New Testament that talks about slaves obeying their masters and even returning to their masters the slave who's escaped is commended to return to slavery.

And so the more straightforward arguments out of the Bible were simply there. And then read into that, I think, also was this idea of white supremacy; that is, that God's design for human society was that whites of European descent would really be the vanguard of society and at the top of society. And their goal was to civilize everyone else from their place at the top of the political and cultural hierarchy.

GROSS: And is it fair to say that the founder of the Southern Baptist Church was Reverend Basil Manly?

JONES: He was certainly one of the main architects. You know, it was a kind of group, you know, process. But he was one of the leading members. He was very prominent. He was chancellor at University of Alabama. He was a very prominent Baptist leader in the South. And, you know, he was literally in the room where it happened, to kind of borrow the phrase from "Hamilton." When the Alabama secessionist articles were drawn up, he was there.

When Jefferson Davis was sworn in as the president of the Confederacy, he was the one who gave the invocation and called the blessings of God on the great states of the Confederacy, you know, as he put it, and kind of went on and on about how this was God's design - best design and best hope for American society. He was also, you know, one of the key architects of that split from the Southern Baptist Convention. And he was the founding president of the board at Southern Seminary, which is the oldest Southern Baptist seminary in the convention.

GROSS: And in a sermon he gave called "Duties Of Masters And Servants," he told slave owners, God has made you their masters, placed them under your protection, made you their guardians, the conservators of their lives and happiness. So was that the view he tried to project - that, like, you're helping your slaves; you're protecting them?

JONES: It's a very paternalistic and hierarchical view of society. And it has, you know, literally white men at the top of this by - and this is all, again, you know, by God's design. This is God's design for the ideal human society with white men at the top, white women under that and then people of color and certainly African American slaves well down toward the bottom of the chain.

And the idea was a very paternalistic one - that God had appointed white men to be at the top of this pyramid. And their job was to - yes, to kind of help civilize, educate to a point, right? But it wasn't so that they could eventually become equals. Everyone had their roles to play - white men at the top and African Americans at the bottom. And those roles were there by God's design, and society worked best in this view when everyone knew their place and stayed in it.

GROSS: And it wasn't just the Baptist church that split over slavery. Other churches did, too.

JONES: That's right. That's really important. Virtually every protestant denomination split, you know, over the issue of white supremacy and its expression and most kind of strongest expression in the 19th century of slavery. So the Methodists split. The Presbyterians split. The Episcopalians split. So it's not just, you know, the bodies that are the most dominant in the South, but even those that had more of an anchor in the North also split over the issue of slavery. So this was certainly not something - just a kind of evangelical problem. These other denominations are often kind of grouped together under the umbrella term the mainline denominations that have more Northern roots and more urban anchors. But even these denominations, their Southern portions also split off in this period as well.

GROSS: After the Confederacy lost the Civil War and slavery was outlawed, how did the Southern Baptist religion change now that it no longer could justify slavery because slavery didn't exist anymore? So that aspect of the church had to change in some way. And also, they were the losers.

JONES: (Laughter) No, that's right. Well, you know, the term that historians use is this term lost cause religion. And, you know, that sounds like an admission of loss. But what that term really means was not at all a concession. It was really about keeping these embers burning and this idea that literally, from the ashes of defeat, there would still be, you know, a rise of the South and a rise of victorious Southern religion. And, you know, you can see this in, like, the Confederate monuments, for example, that sense of, yes, political defeat, military defeat but not really admitting a kind of religious and cultural defeat. There was really a sense that this - the torch would continue to burn until there was a time where, literally, the South could rise again.

Again, you know, it was about this idea that God was still behind this vision of society. And I should say that one of the other things that came up after the war was that many of these denominations that split very rapidly mended fences - so the Presbyterians, the Methodists, the Episcopalians - much to the dismay of people like Frederick Douglass, who thought, you know, we just fought this bloody, bloody war over the issue of slavery and to settle the issue of slavery, which I think Douglass and many African American abolitionists thought that they were also burying white supremacy when they were burying slavery and were very quickly, you know, disillusioned about that.

One very prominent example was Presbyterian minister Charles Finney, who was a very popular preacher in the day. He had a young protege that, after the Civil War, was making arrangements to actually have African Americans join the white Christian worship service and integrate the church. And he got reprimanded by Finney, who said this. He said, you err in supposing the principle of abolition and amalgamation are identical. Abolition is a question of flagrant and unblushing wrong, a direct and outrageous violation of a fundamental right. The other is a question of prejudice that does not necessarily deprive any man of any positive right.

So even someone like that who had been on the abolition side still was hanging on to this idea that the way society should be organized was to the benefit of white Americans, who were at the top of the social pyramid, and to the detriment of African Americans, who should be, even though slavery's been abolished - should still be down the chain of being from white Christian Americans.

GROSS: So even after Northern and Southern churches got back together again after the split before or during the Civil War, Black people were not welcome in most of those churches.

JONES: That's exactly right. And again, it wasn't just in, you know, Southern evangelical churches or Baptist churches. I mean, this was largely true - you know, the Methodist, which was the largest, you know, mainline Protestant denomination, for example - even when they admitted African American churches into the larger Methodist denomination, they segregated them into one jurisdiction. It was essentially a kind of version of religious gerrymandering so that they get one bishop. Instead of possibly competing for power in other jurisdictions, they were all locked into one jurisdiction so their, actually, voice inside the denomination would be smaller.

And even among white Catholics, you know, the Catholic Church had long had a practice of African Americans sitting in the back, couldn't come and take part of the Eucharist until all the white members had done so. And New York, for example, did the same thing - actually segregated the African American Catholics into a single parish and also made only one Catholic school available to African Americans and made it a segregated school. And these practices continued in the middle of the 20th century even among Catholics in the North.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Robert P. Jones, author of the new book "White Too Long: The Legacy Of White Supremacy In American Christianity." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLOWBERN'S "WHEN WAR WAS KING")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Robert P. Jones, author of the new book "White Too Long: The Legacy Of White Supremacy In American Christianity." He's also the founder and CEO of PRRI, the Public Religion Research Institute, which conducts research, including polling, on issues at the intersection of religion, culture and politics.

So you grew up in the Southern Baptist church. Were you aware of the split in the church and how the church upheld slavery and the Confederacy when you were growing up?

JONES: No, that was wholly lost on me. You know, and I was - I should say I was this kid - I was at church five times a week, you know, even as a teenager. I was very active in our youth group, you know, went on church trips. I, you know, heard two sermons a week at a minimum. I was there for prayer service, Bible study, you name it. You know, so, you know, probably six, seven hours a week, I was at church or doing church-related things. And through all that time - and this is one of the things that was really remarkable reflecting back on this, I mean, working on the book over the last few years - is through all that time, I cannot remember a single sermon calling attention to racial inequality, racial injustice, the struggle for civil rights.

You know, I don't remember any of that coming through in a Sunday school lesson, in a sermon or as - you know, as a challenge, you know, for us to think about our place in history. I didn't really know the story of the beginning of the denomination in 1845. And so it wasn't really until I was well into seminary - you know, so I was, you know, 20 years old before I got a hint of that history that was back there and even, you know, had the possibility of beginning to think about what the implications of that were.

GROSS: Did you hear any echoes of white supremacy in sermons when you were growing up or in the practices of the church?

JONES: You know, I know that I did, but it was one of the testimonies to how powerful I think this worldview is that it wasn't apparent to me, you know? And I think that's the real challenge - is that it has been so deeply institutionalized, you know, in everything from theology to hymns to rituals that it's, in some extent, invisible, I think, to kind of your average white Christian. Its - I think its function really is in as much as what it hides as to what it says explicitly.

GROSS: And how was that reflected in the sermons that you heard?

JONES: Well, you know, I think if you hear anything - certainly in evangelical churches - you know, maybe on a weekly basis, it is this idea of a personal relationship with Jesus. And it's taken me a while to kind of unpack this. And this being so central, one way it functions is to make salvation and, really, the core religiosity hyper-individualistic. It really is about an individual and their interior relationship with God and Jesus - and so personal piety, personal morality, a very individualist way of evaluating what it means to be religious, what it means to be - have an authentic faith. It essentially screens out questions of social justice.

And so I think, you know, my experience growing up was this - you know, reflecting back on it now, what it looks like to me is this very nurturing environment for those of us white Christians who were inside the church and inside those stained-glass windows and, you know, viewing out that nonetheless was doing great harm in the community around us. And those lines, you know, from Martin Luther King where he was asking, you know, in - from "Letter From Birmingham Jail," like, who are these white Christians sitting behind their anesthetizing stained-glass windows? I think that's a pretty apt description of the function of that kind of theology that really makes the beginning and the end of religiosity about a personal relationship and personal piety, where questions of racial justice and social justice and vast inequality really get screened out from one's consciousness.

GROSS: Some churches have issued apologies for their role in segregation and racism and slavery. In 1968 the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus opened with the statement, the Catholic Church in the U.S. is primarily a white, racist institution, has addressed itself primarily to white society and is definitely a part of that society. In 1995 the Southern Baptist Convention apologized for its perpetuation of racism, its role in defending slavery and Jim Crow and its failure to support the civil rights movement. What changes did those statements lead to? Those are, like, official statements.

JONES: Yeah. I think these official statements, you know, they're important. They're symbolic. But in both cases, you know, the real question asked is, what substantively changes after these statements? You know, in the case of the Catholic bishop statement, they're - you know, what's notable there is that that statement gets issued in the '60s. It gets issued again in the '70s. It gets issued again in the '80s. And in each of those statements, they basically say, look. We issued this statement 10 years ago, and not a lot has changed. And here we still are.

And when surveys have been done, for example, of white Catholics about who heard these statements - did they get - you know, did they get from the hierarchy down to people in the pews? The answer is really no, that few Catholics, for example, have heard - you know, heard sermons based on those statements after they came out. So they didn't really get disseminated down into kind of the grassroots in the way that I think would have led to kind of more action, more change.

In the case of the Southern Baptist Convention, I think there's a little microcosm in the way that story, you know, fell out. So the convention - it's 150 years after the convention is formed that it issues this statement - and it's, again, formed on the issue of slavery - issues this apology for that. And there's some real substantive, you know, statements in the apology. But if you look at what happened and the way it happened inside the convention that year - so they read the statement. It gets voted on and passed by the convention delegates. And then they arrange for an African American minister, who was one of their own - you know, one of the very few African Americans who were members of the Southern Baptist Convention to come up and accept. And he stands at the podium, and he says that I accept this apology on behalf of my African American brothers and sisters. I accept your apology. And the place erupts into raucous applause.

And so - and this took about 15 minutes. So you literally have 150 years of resistance to the abolition of slavery, resistance to the building up of Jim Crow, resistance to Reconstruction, resistance to integration. And all of that is seemingly swept away in 15 minutes with this acceptance. And I think the challenge is - like, that shouldn't be the closing of the book. That should be the opening.

GROSS: You know, some white churches did help support abolition and were active in the civil rights movement. Can you speak a little bit about that?

JONES: Yeah. You know, I certainly - that's certainly right to acknowledge that, you know, the United Methodist Building here in Washington, D.C., you know, was a staging ground in playing a lot of supporting roles for the March on Washington in 1963. The Christian Century, the kind of flagship magazine of the mainline Protestant world, was the place where Martin Luther King's "Letter From Birmingham Jail" was originally published. He was on the editorial board of essentially, you know, this white, mainline Protestant magazine.

So, I mean, there are certainly very, you know, prominent figures, places that showed up and helped in organizing. But the challenge to that is this huge gap between the official statements, leaders who showed up and those things and the vast majority of folks on the ground. You know, at the same time The Christian Century's publishing "Letter From Birmingham Jail," Martin Luther King and his wife apply for their son Martin Luther King III to attend a private Episcopalian school in Atlanta, and he's turned down on the basis of race, you know, at the same time.

So there's a very, you know, mainline denomination helping support the March on Washington at same time another wing is denying his son admission to a school on the basis of race. It's a very mixed bag. Many of these official statements, the symbolic things that were done and even courageous leaders that were out in the front of the civil rights movement never quite fully brought the great bulk of people in the pews with them.

GROSS: Well, it's time for another break. Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Robert Jones. He's the author of the new book "White Too Long: The Legacy Of White Supremacy In American Christianity." We'll be back after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAYLOR HASKINS' "ALBERTO BALSALM")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Robert P. Jones, author of the new book "White Too Long: The Legacy Of White Supremacy In American Christianity." He's also the founder and CEO of PRRI, the Public Religion Research Institute, which conducts research on issues at the intersection of religion, culture and politics. Jones grew up in Texas and Mississippi in a family of Southern Baptists. He was trained in theology and the social sciences. He has a Ph.D. in religion from Emory University and a master of divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Let's talk about some of the public opinion research that you do. One of the things that you do is polling for what you describe as a racism index. What is the racism index?

JONES: It's basically a combined variable that I created to try to get a handle on attitudes towards structural racism, so beyond just personal views, for example, of do you feel warmly toward African Americans - those kinds of views that often get used in public opinion research. So what I wanted to do was to build a more composite variable that would cover a lot more ground.

One of the reasons for that is that, obviously, asking people about their views on race is a very sensitive thing. And so allowing for a broad range of opinions to be expressed is one way of kind of getting more accurate measures, where - people may be one place on one question, one place on another, but if you - kind of measure their average responses over a number of questions. So the racism index that I developed has 15 different questions, and it covers things like attitudes about Confederate symbols, African American economic mobility or the lack of it and the causes of it, treatment of African Americans in the criminal justice system and just some general perceptions of race, racism and racial discrimination.

So just a couple of examples that you can see in the individual questions, some of these patterns, we asked whether - and this is a question from 2018 - whether the killing of unarmed Black men by police are isolated incidents or whether they are part of a pattern of how police treat African Americans. And one of the things we find on this question is that white Christians are nearly twice as likely as religiously unaffiliated whites to say the killing of unarmed Black men by police are isolated incidents. That is, they see this as, you know, a few bad apples. They don't connect the dots between one event and the other.

White Christians also, on the question of, like, the Confederate flag - something else that's been in the news a lot - are at least 30 percentage points more likely than whites who are religiously unaffiliated to say the Confederate flag is more a symbol of Southern pride than it is a symbol of racism. So these are just patterns in two of the 15 questions that we see.

But this pattern where whites who identify as Christian have significant difficulties connecting the dots, seeing, you know, things that I would describe as structural racism, compared to whites who are religiously unaffiliated and people of color in the country who, overwhelmingly, see these things as related and the result of structural racism in our history.

GROSS: So what's your conclusion?

JONES: Well, again, the patterns are really, really stark. And one of things I find using this composite measure - that, you know, white Christians overall measure higher median scores on this than whites who are not religious. And it's true not just for white evangelicals, but it's also true for white mainline Protestants. Again, those are more populous in the Midwest. White Catholics are more populous in the Northeast. The differences between these groups are really more a matter of degree than kind.

And there's usually two objections that are raised to this kind of data. One is, well, maybe this is a correlation that is accounted for by other things, right? So maybe it's because they're more Republican, or they're older, or they're more likely to live in the South or the Midwest, which are more conservative areas of the country. So I actually tested for this in the data and put them in a model where I could control for all of these other attributes. And so even when I controlled for some of these other attributes that could be alternative explanations, even holding those attributes constant, it turns out that this relationship between holding racist attitudes and white Christian identity is an independent one.

And then the other, I guess, objection that folks often raise to these kinds of findings are that, OK, well, these are just people who claim to be Christian, may be Christian in name only, right? But they don't really attend churches. And so if you look at people - the argument goes, if you look at people who attend religious services more often, the data looks different. It turns out that that's actually also not true, that even when you, again, have these models that are controlling for all kinds of other attributes, they pretty handily refute the assertion that attending church makes white Christians less racist.

And, in fact, among white evangelicals, the opposite is true, that the relationship between holding racist views and white Christian identity is actually stronger among more frequent church-attenders than among less frequent church-attenders among white evangelicals.

GROSS: So you're often asked, how has President Trump won over Christian voters, particularly evangelical Christians, in spite of his own lifestyle, which is in so much conflict with what is often described as the family values that evangelicals support? And you say that what he did was go from values and value voters to nostalgia voters. Would you describe what you're saying there?

JONES: Sure. Yeah. You know, I've argued that I think this is the best way to understand Trump's ability to hang onto white evangelical voters, you know. As you said, I mean, they have billed themselves as values voters. I mean, if you go back to the George W. Bush election, for example, they - you know, there they had websites, ivotevalues.com, you know, for example, to vote - to register people to vote. So this is very much the way they have sort of marketed themselves and, I think, even understood themselves.

And I think that set up very much a clash with this candidate, Donald Trump. And, you know, we see partisanship at play here. But I think Trump had a real appeal to them. I don't think it was just utilitarian and partisan. That was certainly a big part of it, but Trump's appeal was real and genuine to this group.

And I think the key to it - you can hear, even in his, you know, slogan that's on all these red hats everywhere, you know, make America great again. And it's that last word - again - that has, I think, the real power and this nostalgic pull back to a previous time when white Christians were more at the center of political power, more at the center of, you know, cultural power and the demographic majority.

GROSS: How have demographic changes led to what you're talking about?

JONES: So in 2016, I wrote a book called "The End Of White Christian America," and that book traced the demographic changes in the religious landscape in the country. And what's remarkable is that we passed this milestone just before Trump is on the scene, running for election, that is that we shifted from being a majority white Christian country to one that was no longer a majority white Christian country. So at the beginning of Barack Obama's presidency in 2008, as he was running, the country was comfortably majority white and Christian, 54%. By the time we have the Trump-Clinton election in 2016, that number is down in the mid-40s, right? So we've lost nearly 10 percentage points just over that decade. The number is 42% today. So the numbers continue to shift.

And I think that shift from being a majority white Christian country to one that was no longer majority white and Christian while we had an African - our first African American president was, in many ways, I think, set off a moment of panic among this group. And part of that is just the sense of ownership that white Christians have had in the country, especially with the word America, right? When you think of America, I think this white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant cultural core was there. I mean, FDR, for example, was - infamously said, you know, this country is a white Protestant country. Everyone else is here by sufferance.

And that sense of ownership, I think, runs silent and deep among white Christians in the country. And it's part of why Trump's anti-immigrant agenda is powerful and why his ambivalence and wink-and-nod kind of politics around white supremacy and Confederate symbols also has its appeal. Now, the country as a whole - you know, last time we polled in this in the fall, nearly 6 in 10 Americans say that President Trump's actions and behaviors are encouraging white supremacist groups. Like, that's, you know, nearly 6 in 10 Americans. But very few white evangelicals say that.

And it's also important to remember that his vote in 2016 was - I think everyone knows that, like, nearly 8 in 10 white evangelicals supported President Trump. But what I think people forget is that - or don't even know - is that nearly two-thirds of white Catholics also voted for President Trump. And 57% of white mainline Protestants also voted for President Trump. So he got the white Christian vote across the board. Again, not just among the kind of South-heavy evangelical groups, but among Catholics and mainline Protestants as well.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Robert P. Jones, author of the new book "White Too Long: The Legacy Of White Supremacy In American Christianity." We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE MOUNTAIN GOATS SONG, "PEACOCKS")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Robert Jones, author of the new book "White Too Long: The Legacy Of White Supremacy In American Christianity." He's also the founder and CEO of PRRI, the Public Religion Research Institute, which conducts research including polling on issues at the intersection of religion, culture and politics.

I want to talk a little bit about your upbringing. You were raised in the Baptist church. You went to a Baptist Theological Seminary. And you were raised in Mississippi and Texas. And you say when you were growing up, there were Confederate symbols and rituals all around you. And this was in the '70s and '80s?

JONES: Right. So I was in high school in the late '80s. And, you know, literally, there were symbols all around me in my high school, which was a public, integrated high school at the time that I went in the sort of, you know, mid-to-late '80s. Our mascot was - we were the Rebels. And our mascot was a Confederate colonel complete with a cane and, you know, kind of looking - kind of an aristocratic, plantation-class person. The band would play "Dixie" when the football team scored a touchdown. And our cheerleaders would run up and down the track with a big Confederate flag.

I mean, that was the public, again, integrated - it was about 50-50 white and Black when I went there. You know, I'm sort of appalled and maybe even a little embarrassed to even say this now. But, like, at the time, this was, I think, the power of this kind of white Christian, you know, worldview. I hardly interrogated it. I mean, it was something that rarely bothered my conscience, that I can only remember in the most ephemeral of ways, really creeping into my consciousness as something that I really ought to think about very hard.

GROSS: Did you ever talk to any of the African American students in your school about how they felt about the presence of the Confederate flag and that the school was nicknamed the Rebels and the mascot was, as you describe, you know, a Confederate colonel?

JONES: So I played sports. I played soccer. I didn't play football. But, you know, we still had Rebels on our thing. And it was an integrated team. And, you know, again, I'm embarrassed and a little appalled to say, like, no. The answer is no. I never brought it up. It was never a topic of conversation. The one time in my sports playing it did come up was when we were a little bit younger. But we were looking for a swimming pool at the end of our soccer season to celebrate. And we had - it was the Moose Lodge in Jackson, Miss. We had it booked.

And we found out about two days before the party that we weren't going to be able to use it because our team's integrated. You know, this would've been 1980 or so. They still had on the books a rule that there was no mixed bathing, is the way the rule went. But they wouldn't allow African Americans in. And we did talk about that a bit. And we moved the party, you know, somewhere else where we could have it. But those moments were fairly rare growing up. And I think that's one of the reasons why, you know, I'm convinced that so much work is still to be done because, these conversations, white Christians have been largely silent on them and have hardly begun these conversations.

GROSS: You got access. You found your sixth great-uncle's will. So you know what was in his estate when he died. And he was a slaveholder - didn't have many slaves. He had - what? - like, four slaves, I think?

JONES: Yeah.

GROSS: And how much land did he own?

JONES: About 200 acres.

GROSS: Was that considered big or small?

JONES: You know, I think it's considered maybe just a little beyond subsistence. So, you know, you could certainly get what you needed out of that and - plus have enough to sell. But not huge - I mean, this was not, like, a huge, you know, "Gone With The Wind"-style plantation. I would put it as kind of lower-middle class. For example, when his estate was settled - and this is the record that I have - it was, you know, around $50,000 in today's money, all of his worldly possessions. So we're not talking about, you know, someone who - of great wealth. But what was shocking about it, I think, when we looked at it is that nearly three-quarters of his assets were tied up in just a handful of slaves that he had. So it made up, you know, the vast majority of that family's worldly possessions.

GROSS: When you discovered this will - and you discovered the will through your own research - what was your reaction to seeing, like, that part of your family history, like, displayed on paper in financial numbers?

JONES: Yeah. Well, I had known just through my own, you know, family discussions that, on my mother's side of the family, that our ancestors had owned slaves. But there's something about seeing it in print that - you know, I literally just stared at it, you know? And when you read the lines, you know - and I'll read - you'll get a better sense of its effect on me as I read it. You know, it reads one Negro woman named Naomi $800 dollars and one named Susan at $450, totaling $1,250. And on the line below that, one named Eliza at $275 and one named Bird, a boy, at $150, totaling $425.

And I must have read those lines 20 times, just trying to take this in. They're women. The last two are most likely children, valued at less money. But, again, just the proportion they took of the estate and just seeing them by - you know, not just by value, but by name. And seeing a name and a value put next to a name, a human being, was just moving and appalling to read that and to know that that's - you know, that's the truth of a part of who I am and the part of the history from which I come.

GROSS: You grew up in the Southern Baptist church, and you were very immersed in the church. You were very active in the church. You have a master of divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. I don't think you identify as Southern Baptist anymore. And your book is so much about how the Southern Baptist Church justified slavery and broke away from the rest of the Baptist church in order to be able to support and justify slavery. At what point did you leave the church?

JONES: You know, I wouldn't say I've left the church. If we think about it in a bigger thing, I still consider myself, you know, sort of protestant broadly and Christian. But I think I left the Southern Baptist fold probably in graduate school. I was actually at - my last semester at Southwestern Baptist Seminary was a time of great turmoil, actually, where the president was fired, and there was a kind of fundamentalist takeover of the seminary. And in many ways, that was my sort of shift to looking for a different kind of denominational home, after kind of experiencing, you know, that set of events.

So I've been to various other, you know, Baptist churches and also have been a member of an interfaith congregation. My wife is Jewish. So we have an interfaith family. So, you know, but I think of myself as still deeply connected to that. I think there's enough of a sociologist in me to know that, like, even if I have left the Southern Baptist fold, it hasn't left me. I've been formed by that tradition. I still feel very connected to it in that way. And I think it's why, you know, when I began the book - the first since of the book has the word I in it, and the last sentence in the book has the word us in it. So, you know, this is still very much a story, you know, I feel a part of.

GROSS: Robert Jones, thank you so much for talking with us.

JONES: Thank you.

GROSS: Robert Jones is the author of the new book "White Too Long: The Legacy Of White Supremacy In American Christianity." After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review two novels she recommends for summer reading. This is FRESH AIR.

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