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America’s Christian History Is Broader Than Its White Protestant Past
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America’s Christian History Is Broader Than Its White Protestant Past

Responding to Ross Douthat about Christian influence in America.

I was going to write today about the vaccine mandate cases at the Supreme Court, with an emphasis on how they’re a poor proxy for the culture war. Their result will tell us far more about the structure of the American government (in ways that could prove problematic to both the left and the new right) than about any American’s substantive right to refuse a vaccine. 

But I’ll wait on that, because I want to discuss a thoughtful response to my Sunday essay by the New York Times’s Ross Douthat. I love good-faith engagement on substance (I write about tough, complex issues, and I need the critique!), and it’s hard to think of anyone who does good-faith engagement better than Ross. So let’s tackle his piece.

Ross doesn’t disagree with everything I wrote, but he does take aim with this assertion from my piece: 

America has become more just—and thus closer to the ideals one would expect of a Christian nation—as white Protestant power has waned. The United States of 2022 is far more just than it was in 1822 or 1922 or 1952 or even 1982. And while white Protestants have undeniably been part of that story—they were indispensable to the abolitionist movement, for example—the elevation of other voices has made a tremendous difference.

Ross responds with a chart showing the growth in American religious membership of all Christian faiths, not just Protestants or white Protestants, with membership growing steadily since the founding, peaking around 1970 or so, and shrinking since. Then he says this (I apologize for the long block quotes, but I want you to get a robust sense of his argument):

But in other contexts, when “white Protestantism” isn’t in the dock, I’m pretty sure if you asked French whether America changed for the better or the worse, became more just or less so, between 1776 and 1965, he would say better and more just. If you asked him what actually happened to make America better and more just, I suspect he would talk about the waves of reform that swept American society periodically from the Founding era onward — the birth of small-d democratic politics, the rise of abolitionism, the various forms of industrial-era social reform, the assimilation of vast numbers of immigrants, the push for women’s suffrage, and so on down to the New Deal era and the civil rights movement. And if you looked at the history of most of those movements you would see not just Protestant influence on their efforts but a correlation with the Protestant growth charted above — as the churching of America, the periods of revivalism and renewal, very often coincided with ages of political reform.

More:

In other words, in the history of the United States from the American Revolution to Martin Luther King Jr. you see two things happening together: the private practice of faith becomes pretty steadily more robust, and the government becomes more committed to what most of us, religious and not, now consider basic elements of justice and mercy. Over this multi-generational process, you could reasonably say that America remained manifestly imperfect but came closer, however lurchingly, to the combination of widespread personal faith and greater political justice that French argues characterizes the Christian society.

Yet I don’t argue that white Protestants haven’t done great good or that they haven’t helped fulfill the American promise—indeed, I’ve mounted a vigorous Christian defense of America’s classical liberal founding—but rather that the end of the white Protestant power monopoly helped accelerate American progress. And the end of that monopoly helped accelerate American progress in part because it elevated other Christian communities along with many other American voices.

Let’s look at Ross’s timeframe: He chooses 1776 to 1965. But that includes some rather crucial years where black Protestants broke through in their long struggle for racial justice. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, for example, has to be attributed primarily to the valor and witness of black Christians. And they had to fight every step of the way against a white Protestant backlash in one of the most heavily Christian regions of the nation. 

Yes, they had allies, including white Protestant allies. But those allies included Catholics and Jews and atheists as well. If you chart America from 1776 to, say, 1954, when the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education, or 1955, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus, there is still a story of real progress—after all, the United States did defeat slavery, and its contributions to world freedom in World War II were incalculable—but it’s woefully, grievously incomplete. In 1955 the United States contained an apartheid sub-state in the South, an entire region of the “land of the free” that ruled its black citizens with a terrifying iron fist.

This is no mere footnote to the American story. The subjugation of millions of citizens was a grave violation of the American promise. The principles of the Declaration of Independence meant all too little if you were a black American in Mississippi. The Bill of Rights was a series of empty words. 

But the power of black Christian voices represents only a part of the story of American constitutional transformations in the crucial decades following Brown. It’s not too much to say that legal equality didn’t just reach Americans of all races for the first time, but also reached Americans of both sexes. 

Moreover, the end of virtually all forms of invidious discrimination on the basis of race and sex doesn’t end the legal revolution. We take for granted the way in which the Supreme Court breathed real life into the Bill of Rights in the years since 1954. If you’re born after, say, 1965 you’re part of the first American generation that enjoyed truly meaningful and enforceable access to the liberties promised and secured in our most important founding documents.

The 1960s brought Americans the right to counsel, robust protections against self-incrimination, robust protections against cruel and unusual punishment, and robust protections against unreasonable search and seizure. 

A First Amendment revolution occurred later, and it’s still ongoing. It’s not just that Americans enjoy greater freedom from state censorship now than at any time in American history, it’s that a fundamental principle of justice—legal equality—is a cornerstone of that jurisprudence. Americans’ rights to free speech or free exercise don’t depend on their race or their religion. 

So when I look at American justice since 1954 or 1955—the moment when black Christians courageously launched a movement that righteously upended American law—I see a fundamental, not incremental, transformation. 

Many readers are no doubt shouting, “What about Roe!” The Supreme Court’s decision in 1973 stands as a great counter to the idea that American justice has advanced by leaps and bounds since the mid-1950s. And I agree. Roe is a black mark on American jurisprudence, and a moral stain on our nation. 

But here’s the sad reality: The white Protestant past regarding abortion rights is deeply mixed. In fact, it has been a surge of Catholic influence into Protestant spaces that has helped empower American Christian opposition to abortion. I was certainly pro-life before I read John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae, but that document has influenced my pro-life philosophy more than anything I’ve ever read from any single pro-life Protestant thinker.

Americans have also largely forgotten that multiple Protestant denominations supported abortion rights at the time of Roe. Even the Southern Baptist Convention supported abortion rights. A 1971 resolution supported abortion rights in the case of rape, incest, and fetal deformity, but also to preserve the “emotional” and “mental” health of the mother, along with her physical health. 

The American Protestant religious landscape has changed a great deal since 1973. Catholics—with an assist from thoughtful Protestants—have largely won the Christian pro-life argument, and pro-life activism is now an important (though not important enough) aspect of Evangelical cultural and political engagement. 

Writing today, Rod Dreher says, “French contends that by many measures America has become more authentically Christian as Christian power has receded.” But that’s not my argument. It misstates my argument. My piece was about the end of the white Protestant monopoly. In fact, America has become more just as other Christian voices have come to the fore, both black Protestant and Catholic, that white Protestants often actively suppressed. 

In fact, I said that in my piece. I highlighted the black Christian witness in the civil rights era. I highlighted the Catholic influence on the pro-life movement. 

America needs an authentically Christian political witness. And history teaches us that this witness will come from many different kinds of Christian voices—and that other traditions can teach us lessons as well. A healthy Christian movement should be characterized by open, humble hearts. It should be committed to learning at least as much as it is to teaching. 

What I strongly question is whether the current dominant political expression of white Evangelicalism is consistent with that authentically Christian witness and is open to competing Christian voices. We’re talking about a movement that has the virtue of attachment to the pro-life cause, but also the vices of disproportionate attachment to some rather toxic personalities and positions. 

I don’t need to run through them all, but white Evangelicals are now the least committed to personal character in politicians of all major religious sub-groups, the most committed to vaccine rejection (a position that is taking a terrible toll in American lives), and disproportionately attached to destructive conspiracy theories about the most recent American election. Each of these commitments has imposed a real and meaningful cost on our country. 

And I also strongly question the attachment to misremembered history. While not so prevalent in Evangelical intellectual circles, Evangelical populism possesses a powerful nostalgia for an American past that was much worse for America’s most vulnerable communities. And that past demonstrates that Christian power does not always yield Christian justice. Christian identity does not always yield Christian virtue.

I want to emphasize (just so no one mistakes me) that at every step in American history there have been American Christians of all races and sects who’ve lifted their voices to courageously condemn injustice and who’ve called on America to live up to its professed ideals. As I noted in my Sunday piece, there are white Protestants who’ve given their lives to advance racial justice. 

Because America is a majority Christian nation, American progress has depended on Christian action. But also because America is a majority Christian nation, American oppression has depended on Christian action as well. And a movement that’s disproportionately white and Christian needs to remember that sobering fact. Their powerful past is not the present we should desire.

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.