Did you know that the white, male, heterosexual conservative Protestant Christian is an endangered species? And that we should be vewy, vewy afraid of Them? Do you know why? Because Terry Jones, the Koran-burning Florida pastor, is an idiot.
If you don’t get the connection, join the club. This is the argument that Gary Laderman, the director of Religion Dispatches and religion professor at Emory University, tries to make today. See if you can make any more sense out of it than I can:
Egghead scholars and interfaith leaders, bloggers on both sides of the political aisle, and everyday Americans will surely condemn him for his outrageous actions and beliefs, and argue that Jones is an isolated, peripheral figure whose religious views are borderline paranoid delusional, if not well past that line. Are Jones’ actions motivated by authentic religion or dysfunctional psychology? Genuine fear about the threat of another religion or an idiosyncratic psychotic vision distorting religious theology in the throes of irrational hatred?
All I know is that Jones is one of the very few friends that Fred Phelps and the Westboor Baptist Church folks have. That tells me everything I need to know.
While the Wall Street Journal published a recent article that casually identifies Jones as a “Christian pastor,” and other outlets use less tame designators like “radical preacher” or “Koran-burning preacher,” the exact location of Jones within the Christian fold is difficult to pinpoint. Some place him beyond the bounds of Christian theology while others put him smack dab in the middle of engaged Christian fundamentalist activism. Yet regardless of the public disagreements over the rights and values of Preacher Jones, one thing is crystal clear: He represents a dying breed in American society and that, I think, is another if not the critical factor in understanding both his actions and his symbolic presence in the media.
If the “dying breed” is “hateful people who know nothing more of Christianity than they know of curling,” then I’d say he might represent them. And his place in the Christian continuum is “nowhere.” Jones is a cultist, like the Westboor people, and no more representative of authentic Christianity than Jim Jones.
White, male, heterosexual, conservative Christians (WMHCC from here on out) are losing their numbers in American society and could, if some projections hold true, diminish to a small minority in the next 20 years; part of a larger trend that one influential study has labeled the “vanishing Protestant majority.” In a recent analysis by the Public Religion Research Institute based on post-2010 election surveys, the number of white Protestants in America is projected to decline dramatically in the next fifty years. This is one of the most significant demographic shifts in American history.
You can take a look at the first study Laderman mentions, which in fact doesn’t have anything really to do with his conclusion–it doesn’t break data down by race or gender, and doesn’t include lots of people who don’t identify as “Protestant” but who are undoubtedly in that theological tradition; it also says nothing about “conservative” Protestants versus anything else. As for his second link, I couldn’t find what he was talking about.
One can easily see how this might lead to more individuals like Jones entering the culture wars to battle against the perceived moral and mortal threats destroying their peculiar vision of Christian America.
The real stakes in this battle are about sheer survival for these men, and their sense of vulnerability, disintegration, and impotence when facing the radical social changes taking place in 21st-century America. Fear of increasing religious diversity, shifting sexual values, and diminishing economic opportunities is transformed into and then projected out as a moral worldview that embraces bigotry, intolerance, and a commitment to violence when necessary.
Notice how easily he glides from “individuals like Jones” to “these men,” meaning the WMHCC? He doesn’t bother to establish any actual connection between them, which is not surprising, considering most WMHCCs would consider Terry Jones to be the antithesis of what they stand for. He then projects a variety of “fears” upon them, and then simply leaps a canyon and supposes that they are going to react to those “fears” with bigotry and violence. Slick.
On the one hand, this moral universe has been a driving force in US history and an all-too-familiar disposition to value hatred, as I’ve written about before. But on the other hand, and what’s so new and rife with hateful and violent possibilities, is that at this moment in US history WMHCC increasingly perceive their hold on power to be imperiled by social and demographic forces beyond their control.
The picture is indeed grim for this group, what with growing numbers of Americans preferring to identify with no religion; religious pluralism bringing more and more Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Mormons, Jews, New Agers, Muslims, and a slew of others all around them; the younger evangelical generations showing signs of greater openness to non-heterosexual orientations; myriad versions of Christianity in immigrant communities that are unfamiliar if not downright blasphemous; and a popular culture riddled with hip hop artists, filmmakers, cable comedy variety news shows, and television producers willing to openly mock and demean that moral universe.
This is the thesis: WMHCCs are losing control over society, so it’s only a matter of time before they go postal. Apparently that’s because they’re all haters who can’t deal with diversity, and who get upset at the merest hint of a slight to their faith (it was actually WMHCCs who threatened Salman Rushdie and the artists behind the Danish Muhammad cartoons, doncha know). America is simply filled with Missouri Synod Lutherans and Evangelical Presbyterians and independent Baptists ready to start a jihad over South Park and “Piss Christ.”
But even more radically distressing is the prospect of losing the cultural—dare I say hegemonic—power over American society that is as old as the republic. Is it that outrageous to claim WMHCC have generally been the primary power brokers (in government, in law, in finance, in churches) determining the course and self-definition of the nation? A few Jews here, a smattering of progressives there, and some people of color, to be sure; but if you take the long view of US history, it’s mostly WMHCC who’ve been in charge. This is certainly congruent with recent ruminations about the “triumphant decline of the WASP” most recently identified with the striking absence of white Protestants on the Supreme Court.
While it is true that a quick glance at the US Congress seems to contradict this view, the election of the first non-white president has been fraught with portentous and perilous meanings for WMHCC—to a degree that far exceeds the hysteria ignited when the first and only liberal Catholic was elected president a half century ago. What could be more telling about shifting power structures than the dynamics of the 2008 presidential elections, the selection of the symbolic head of the body politic?
The election of the first non-white president is only “fraught with portentous and perilous meanings” for leftists who are obsessed with race. The “hysteria” that Laderman asserts is solely in his own head. While there are undoubtedly some racists among those who don’t like the president, his attempt to smear an entire group with that label is as odious, and just as bigoted, as any genuine racism. Let’s all repeat so that Professor Laderman can understand it: the reason so many WMHCCs don’t like Barack Obama is not because he’s black, it’s because he’s liberal. Many of those same people are, if conservative blog comment boxes are to be believed, chomping at the bit to vote for someone like Rep. Allan West of South Carolina or Herman Cain, because they love their message and their method of delivering it. Of course, they’re black Republicans, so we all know they aren’t real black people, but you get the point.
Is Terry Jones merely on the fringes of US Protestantism or is he at the vanguard of a new cultural movement taking shape in the tattered, crumbling fragments of a once-dominant presence in the centers of power? When I look into his dull, vacant eyes I certainly see fear, but it’s not a fear of a false Abrahamic faith, or a fear of cultural differences, or a fear of growing religious diversity so much as it’s a fear of the future and an awareness of increasing powerlessness.
Personally, as an American citizen who values religious freedom and appreciates difference, I would like to ignore the reappearance of Jones on the media horizon. But as a historian of American religious cultures I’m shaking in my boots about Jones and others on the fringes who could very well creep in and radically, if not violently, alter America’s future.
Tell you what, doc. Go talk to some of the folks at First Baptist Church of Atlanta, or North Point Church, Alpharetta. They’re both full of WMHCCs who I’m sure would be glad to stand guard over your home and office and protect you from the big, bad looney preacher man and his dozen minions.