Toward True Repentance and Transformation
A Feature Review of
White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity
Robert P. Jones
Hardback: Simon & Schuster, 2020.
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Reviewed By Joel Wentz
“American Christianity’s theological core has been thoroughly structured by an interest in protecting white supremacy.” (6) So asserts Robert P. Jones in the opening pages of his searing, provocative, and impassioned new book. In the veritable deluge of writings that are being released on the subject of race and American history right now, there are a few specific elements of Jones’s work here that merit specific attention. First, it is a unique combination of historical reporting, sociological research, and vulnerable memoir that doesn’t squarely occupy any one of those single categories. Second, it is truly focused on all of American Christianity, and not only Evangelicals. Third, it is relentless and uncompromising in a very specific examination of Christianity’s role, as a social institution, in perpetuating harmful racial doctrines throughout American history. In other words, if Jones is correct, even those white Christians who acknowledge the devastating impact of racism in American history cannot blame it squarely on forces outside of the church. Overall, White Too Long is an urgent plea for the American church to interrogate it’s deep entanglement with white supremacist thinking. Many will find the book unsettling, and some may take issue with a few of Jones’s historical judgements, but I’ll tip my hand at the beginning of this review and assert that every white Christian in America should read it.
In addition to being a writer, Jones is the CEO and founder of the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), and therefore has access to ample sociological data. Certain sections of the book, especially chapter five (Mapping: The White Supremacy Gene in American Christianity), read like an updated continuation of the argument laid out by Emerson in Smith in their landmark work Divided by Faith, which is now 20 years old. Distinct from Divided, however, Jones broadens his examination beyond the Evangelical arm of American Christianity. Catholics and Mainline Protestants are also implicated in the research the PRRI has conducted, and provide insightful comparison points. The data is thorough, and Jones’s explanation quite lucid. Appendices are also included for those who would like to examine the findings further.
But White Too Long is not simply a sociological project. It’s also historical, theological and deeply personal for Jones, who grew up in the Southern Baptist Convention. While individual chapters are themed around specific subtopics, like defining terms, tracing historical events, examining theological concepts, and exposing racist symbols, the memoir element is a consistent through-line. Jones repeatedly returns to his own story, lending a heartfelt and personal tone to what could otherwise be an abstract intellectual exercise. Even for those who did not grow up in the deep South of America, his personal reflections are memorable and relatable.
The historical and theological work in White Too Long is centered on the story of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and it’s entanglement with the Confederacy, with a particular focus on Christian leaders like Basil Manly Sr., who vociferously supported racial segregation with theological and religious rhetoric and also paved the way for influential theological notions like individualistic accountability for sin and a personal relationship with Jesus, the interlocking nature of which is explored in a chapter devoted to theology. While the story of the SBC, as a denomination that was explicitly founded to protect the institution of chattel slavery, may seem an “easy target,” Jones is careful to point out similar histories with denominations like Methodists and Presbyterians. Jones does contend, and produces striking data in support, that the SBC has been influential in American culture writ large, but also representative of the ways in which American Christianity has been unable to divest itself fully of white supremacist thinking, effects of which can still be observed in our cultural moment.
For example, in a convincing, even-handed examination and critique of Al Mohler’s leadership of the Southern Baptist Seminary, Jones identifies what he calls the “White Christian shuffle,” in which Christian leaders today, when confronted with undeniable institutional sins of the past, offer seemingly heartfelt repentance, apologies and public statements, but struggle to put meaningful action behind them. The result is a harmful but “subtle two-steps-forward-one-step-back pattern of lamenting past sins in great detail, even admitting that they have had pernicious effects, but then ultimately denying that their legacy requires reparative or costly actions in the present.” (56) In this way, white supremacy is named, but not dismantled. The reluctance of leaders like Mohler to take the hard steps such dismantling requires is an implicit acknowledgment of the sheer power white supremacy continues to wield.
In a chapter that initially seems to come out of left field (Marking: Monuments to White Supremacy), Jones takes an historical detour to trace the path of how the Confederate “Lost Cause” mythology became enshrined in public symbols, particularly flags and monuments. The role of the church eventually comes into view, however, as an institution that undeniably participated in the effort to prop up these symbols (in some cases, enshrining figures like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson on massive stained-glass windows in prominent church buildings) and further perpetuating the legacy of the Confederacy in the broader American consciousness. As Americans continue to wrestle with the role of monuments and historical legacy, this chapter is crucial reading.
In one word, White Too Long can be summarized as: bold. A book that is bold in its historical judgements, in Jones’s personal confession to how white supremacy shaped his own imagination as a child and young adult, and in its call for the church to both fully cast off the shackles of its racial legacy and to work actively towards repair. Jones does end on a constructive note, recounting stories of churches and organizations around the country that have implemented promising initiatives towards these ends, as well as imminently practical suggestions for those in influential roles in the white American church. His work is a powerful companion piece to books like The Color of Compromise by Jemar Tisby, I’m Still Here by Austin Channing Brown, and The Christian Imagination by Willie Jennings and serves as another effective and urgent call for the white American church to honestly face it’s troubling roots, experience true repentance and transformation, and finally become a repairer of the breach.
Joel Wentz is currently the Executive Pastor at Missio Dei Church in Portland, Maine. He previously served in college campus ministry with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. In addition to reading and writing, his passions include tabletop gaming, music, and coffee. His favorite book genres are epic fantasy and epic theology. He lives in Portland, Maine with his wife and son, and his personal writing and podcast are at: joelwentz.com