Of mosques, Donald Trump and the waning of white Christian America

Hundreds of Newton County residents wait in line outside the historic courthouse for the second of two town hall meetings of the night, due to overflow crowds, on plans to build a mosque and cemetery in the county on Monday. Curtis Compton, ccompton@ajc.com

Hundreds of Newton County residents wait in line outside the historic courthouse for the second of two town hall meetings of the night, due to overflow crowds, on plans to build a mosque and cemetery in the county on Monday. Curtis Compton, ccompton@ajc.com

Another mosque has jumped into view in a small Southern enclave. This time it’s Newton County.

We have seen this movie before. Faced with an angry crowd, a county commission declares a moratorium or rejects a zoning request for the new congregation by other means. A lawsuit is threatened.

The county attorney quietly buttonholes commissioners, letting them know that a mountain of case law, never mind the First Amendment, extends freedom of worship to people other than Baptists and Methodists. Millions of dollars in taxpayer cash are about to be wasted on lawyers.

The governing officials then reverse course, or a judge does it for them. (This latter development has not yet occurred in Newton County, but it will.)

There is a reason that these fights have become so commonplace that they’re very nearly a cliché. And yes, there is a strong Donald Trump connection.

White Christian Protestants, the religious demographic group that has dominated American history and culture for nearly four centuries, are losing their grip on the machinery of this nation. Even in the South, we WASPs are being supplanted by multiracial Catholicism, old religions brought newly into our midst, and the rise of the unaffiliated and unchurched.

This is not really news. Denominational number-crunchers have seen it coming for years, if not decades. This summer, the Southern Baptist Convention condemned the public display of the Confederate battle emblem. It is no coincidence that the nation’s largest Protestant denomination — overwhelmingly white — is in its eighth straight year of membership decline. If they are to survive long-term, Southern Baptists must become more racially diverse.

To quote Stu Rothenberg, a political analyst who addressed the Georgia Chamber in Macon this week: “I’ve looked. The Lord has stopped making old, white men.”

A long Labor Day weekend approaches. Your homework assignment is to read one of two books. Your first choice is “The End of White Christian America” by Robert Jones (Simon & Schuster, $28), which begins with a faux obituary:

“The cause of death was determined to be a combination of environmental and internal factors — complications stemming from major demographic changes in the country, along with religious disaffiliation as many of its younger members began to doubt (white Christian America’s) continued relevance in a shifting cultural environment.”

Jones will be a featured speaker at Emory University on Sept. 7.

But if you want to invest in a growth stock, I would point you to David Gushee, a professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University who made waves two years ago when he famously changed his mind and declared himself in favor of LGBT rights.

His new book, “A Letter to My Anxious Christian Friends” (Westminster John Knox Press, $15), will be published next week. Gushee began the work last fall, when Trump had just begun to show his ability to thrive by violating political norms.

“It was becoming clear that white Christian anxiety was one of the predominant stories of the campaign, and that there was increasingly less clarity about the distinction between being white and being Christian and being anxious. It was all in there together somehow,” Gushee said in an interview at the university’s Macon campus.

Waking up and realizing that you’re about to become a minority in a nation you have long dominated can be “disorienting and scary,” Gushee admitted. Toss in the economic dislocation of an aging white working class, and the stew thickens even more.

In that sense, white Protestantism becomes “more a tribal marker, a vague identity marker — it’s almost ethnic,” he said. But like others, Gushee reminds panicking white Protestants that they’ve been here before.

“That is really where we began. Christianity was a minority community. We were a small outpost in the Roman Empire,” Gushee said. “We had no idea what power would taste like because we didn’t have any. So we had to have influence through other strategies.”

But to successfully shift from owning the table to merely having a seat at it, new alliances will be required of evangelicals. Gushee recommends that evangelicals look beyond the sexuality-based culture wars and end their lockstep alliance with the Christian right and the Republican Party.

Specifically, evangelicals will have to adjust their emphasis on the U.S. Supreme Court and abortion. Abortion, he said, is a cultural problem that can’t be solved by court rulings or legislation.

“A Supreme Court justice is not going to change the fact that sex outside of marriage is routine, that lack of adequate or any use of birth control is routine, that unstable marriages and boyfriend-girlfriend relationships are routine, and that people have come to rely on abortion as an after-the-fact form of birth control,” Gushee said.

But decoupling evangelicals from 40 years of allegiance to the Republican Party is no easy task, the Mercer professor admitted. He expects evangelicals to vote in the same numbers for Trump as they did for Mitt Romney in 2012 or John McCain in 2008.

There is a romance to losing that evangelicals should be wary of. Southerners know it well. “It’s Lost Cause stuff. You can be mad as hell at all those pagans who are ruining our country,” Gushee said. “And the more we lose, the more we can resent those who keep shoving their irreligion down our throats. There’s energy in that, and you can organize around that.”

But only for so long. Whether you’re quoting the Book of Ecclesiastes or The Byrds, every season has an ending.


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