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Are Trump Supporters Nostalgic For A Fading White, Christian America?


"The End Of White Christian America" is the provocative title of a new book by Robert P. Jones. He heads the Public Religion Research Institute here in Washington. According to Mr. Jones, the '50s were the apex of white Christian America's power in this country, including the power to choose presidents. But Mr. Jones says, in his book, that has ended. He joins us in our studios. Welcome.

ROBERT JONES: Thanks, I'm happy to be here.

WERTHEIMER: You were so convinced that white Christian America is basically over that you include both an obituary and a eulogy in your book. What happened?

JONES: Yeah. Well, you know, I began to look at both the numbers but also just what I was seeing in public life and began to sort of scratch my head along with a bunch of other people. And, you know, we were getting these numbers from demographers and the Census Bureau saying that 2042 we were going to be a majority, quote, "minority nation." But that still seemed pretty far off.

And when I started to look closer, I realized that we had actually crossed a pretty important threshold in this country, that if we just look back to the beginning of Barack Obama's presidency in 2008, the country was 54 percent white and Christian. That number today is 45 percent.

WERTHEIMER: You say that the high point of the power of this group was in the '50s.

JONES: Yeah. When I use the term white Christian America, it has a demographic thing - meaning, but it also has - it's - I use it as a metaphor really for this whole cultural world that was built by white Protestants all the way back from the founding of the country that really did serve as a kind of civic glue for the country but has now kind of faded from the scene.

WERTHEIMER: Now, you describe on page 38 - I'd like you to read this - who these people are, what - and sort of what their power meant in the middle of the last century.

JONES: Here's what I wrote. (Reading) White Christian America had its golden age in the 1950s, after the hardships and victories of World War II and before the cultural upheavals of the 1960s. June Cleaver was its mother, Andy Griffith was its sheriff, Norman Rockwell was its artist, and Billy Graham and Norman Vincent Peale were its ministers.

WERTHEIMER: And then came civil rights, feminism, assassinations, civil and political unrest and the beginning of the end for these people you're talking about.

JONES: You know, that's right. I mean, one of the more, I think, compelling polling questions that we've examined is actually a question exactly about this. We actually asked Americans, do you think that American culture and way of life has changed for the better or changed for the worse since the 1950s? So it turns out the country is evenly divided on this question. But if you look at the people who are most concerned and disturbed about the direction the country has gone, 7 in 10 white evangelical Protestants, the more conservative wing of the white Protestant world, say it is absolutely changed for the worse, as do 6 in 10 white mainline Protestants, the more progressive or liberal end of that world.

WERTHEIMER: Your Presbyterians, Episcopalians.

JONES: That's right. So really among both of the kind of segments of white Protestants in the country, you have this kind of deep sense of, really, nostalgia for a kind of maybe mythical golden era and this kind of longing to kind of go back to a time that seemed simpler and that also, you know, it should be worth saying, where they had their hands more on the levers of power than they do today.

WERTHEIMER: You wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times which basically grows out of this book. And in it, you ask the question, how have white evangelicals values voters become such big supporters of Donald Trump? I mean, this is a man who has married three times, who owns gambling businesses. He would not appear to be their kind of guy. What is the answer to that question?

JONES: (Laughter) You know, this has been, I think, one of the questions, if not the question, of the election campaign so far. Trump has essentially appealed to this group, not on the basis of values but on the basis of his willingness to, quote, unquote, "make America great again," right? And the most important piece of that is that last word, again, this harkening back. So Mr. Trump saw this early on.

Back in Iowa, when he was campaigning at the very beginning of the primary seasons, he made a speech at an evangelical college in Iowa and he said, I'm going to restore power to the Christian churches. We're not going to be saying Happy Holidays. We're going to be saying Merry Christmas again in this country. And it is this kind of direct appeal, and I think it's the power of that that really let him get leverage over Ted Cruz, right?

So Ted Cruz should have been the evangelicals' candidate by so many measures. He's southern Baptist himself, his father's a Baptist preacher. But yet I think the difference that people saw, ultimately, was that Ted Cruz was promising to carve out exemptions for evangelicals to the new realities while Donald Trump was promising to restore them to power. You know, Ted Cruz was trying to say, I'm going to find us a respectable retreat strategy, while Donald Trump was saying, no, I'm going to turn back the clock.

WERTHEIMER: Robert P. Jones' book is called "The End Of White Christian America." Thank you very much.

JONES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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