Finding a Dignified End for White Protestantism - by Robert P. Jones
The end of a life is often difficult to discern. In the natural order of things, it is most often marked not by a clear announcement but by a near-imperceptible sigh as breath leaves the body without return. In the era of modern medicine, when technology can artificially transform the inevitable into the indefinite, the end of a life may arrive long before breath or heart or organs fully cease to function.
We face death not just accompanied by our family and friends (if we are lucky) but armed with “do not resuscitate” orders, living wills, and healthcare powers of attorney. The word “dignity” has migrated into the palliative care vocabulary as a way of expressing the hope for a reasonable end, where a life is ultimately honored by foregoing “extraordinary measures” and letting it go.
Martin Luther’s religious descendants can take an appropriate sense of pride in a remarkable five centuries of freewheeling religious innovation and massive institution building. White European Protestantism became the most powerful religious and cultural force in the modern Western world. This longevity, and the sheer dominance of this movement, is something that would have astonished Martin Luther, who had a keen sense that the eschaton was near.
The success of Luther and other reformers was initially marked by the official adoption of Protestant forms of Christianity in the emerging nations of northern Europe. But it truly flowered in American soil that was tilled by religious liberty and congenial to the growth of an amazing diversity of Protestant denominations. Even as Protestant church member rates were plummeting across northern Europe’s state churches, Protestantism among Americans of European descent seemed to be an exception. White Anglo-Saxon Protestantism was the undisputed dominant demographic, cultural, and institutional power in the US up through the 1980s.
But over the last few decades, white American Protestantism’s vital signs have ebbed. The last year white Protestants constituted a majority of the US population was 1993, and that percentage has now dropped to 30 percent.1 After so much ink has been spilled charting that decline among white mainline denominations (in the last decade alone, down from 17.8 percent of the population to 12.8 percent), we now have evidence of a second wave of white Protestant diminishment – among white evangelical denominations.2 White evangelical Protestants have decreased from 23 percent of the population in 2006 to 16.8 percent today. The Southern Baptist Convention – the nation’s largest Protestant denomination – has posted losses of over 1 million members across ten straight years of membership decline.
And the likely future trends are etched in the stark generational profiles of American adults. Nearly half of seniors ages 65 and older identify as either white mainline Protestant (19 percent) or white evangelical Protestant (26 percent). But only about one in six American adults under 30 identifies as either white mainline Protestant (8 percent) or white evangelical Protestant (8 percent).3
White Protestants have also lost considerable cultural and institutional clout. For all the good work the National Council of Churches does, it is a shadow of its former self. Its gleaming, limestoneclad initial headquarters, the Interchurch Center in New York, was dubbed by its founders as “the nearest thing to a Protestant-Orthodox ‘Vatican’ that the modern world would ever see” when none other than President Eisenhower laid the cornerstone in 1958. But after years of downsizing, a reduced NCC staff left the building in 2013 to land at the United Methodist Building in Washington, DC. A growing number of white Protestant seminaries are closing, merging, tapping endowments, or selling off assets to keep the doors open and the lights on. Even among the white evangelical branch of the Protestant family tree, parachurch institutions like Focus on the Family have a fraction of the employees they had in the heady 1980s and 90s. In the elite halls of government, there is now only one Protestant – President Trump’s recent appointee Neil Gorsuch – serving on the US Supreme Court with five Catholics and three Jews.
A Legacy Continues
To be sure, there is considerable life in African- American and especially Hispanic-American churches today and among Protestant Christians of color in the developing world, who are themselves inheritors of Luther’s legacy. But because of the way racism has historically segregated the Protestant world, these institutions have by necessity developed lives of their own. The descendants of white Protestantism who deny its grim prognosis by pointing to the health of these denominations are like a person who attempts to lift her spirits by reading the chart of the healthier patient in the next bed.
The signs all point to a conclusion that is difficult for many to face: White Protestantism, as the dominant religious and cultural force in America, has reached the end of meaningful life. Though white Protestant churches and institutions are not going to disappear fully, it is time to lay white Protestantism – the infrastructure built for the days of cultural dominance – to rest. For those who have been nurtured by it, the most important act in our time may be the pastoral task of guiding it to a dignified end. Marking the 500-year arc of European Protestantism might be more productively thought about as a wake than a birthday party.
One significant challenge for the future is that there has been virtually no estate planning. If white Protestantism’s survivors can move through the stages of grief, from denial to acceptance, they could begin to have important, reasoned conversations about responsibly redistributing or reallocating enormous resources. Even in healthier institutions, hard questions – such as whether maintaining massive institutions to benefit dwindling numbers of members and students is justifiable – will have to be asked. And in struggling institutions, they will be sharper: Is spending down endowments to primarily shore up historic buildings rather than serve living people consistent with a church’s mission? White Protestant institutions have billions of dollars in assets, and they have a current window of opportunity to think about their legacy – their witness – in this time.
Such conversations are always difficult. And as is all too often the case in emotionally charged end-of-life settings, the temptation is to be more desperate than deliberate. The key difference between Luther and his white Protestant descendants today is this: Luther was convinced the end times were near, yet his legacy has endured for five centuries; today’s white Protestants are taking extraordinary measures to ensure white Protestantism’s dominance will live forever, but the end has already come. Robert P. Jones is the CEO of Public Religion Research Institute and the author of The End of White Christian America (Simon & Schuster, 2016).
1 Here and throughout, “white” refers to survey respondents who identify as white and non- Hispanic.
2 I unpack these trends more fully in The End of White Christian America (Simon & Schuster, 2016).
3 Robert P. Jones and Dan Cox, America’s Changing Religious Identity: Findings from the 2016 American Values Atlas (Washington, DC: Public Religion Research Institute, 2017).