December 6, 2022

How can religious pluralism defeat the forces of polarization?

Robert P. Jones, founder and president of the religion research firm PRRI, warns about the resurgence of Christian white nationalism.

In This Episode...

Robert P. Jones, president and founder of the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), notes that white evangelicals now comprise 14.5% of the U.S. population, down from 25% two decades ago. He and Eboo reflect on the impacts of this demographic shift and what Americans really think about living in a religiously diverse nation.

About Robert P. Jones

Robert P. Jones is the president and founder of Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and the author of “White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity,” which won a 2021 American Book Award. He is also the author of “The End of White Christian America,” which won the 2019 Grawemeyer Award in Religion. Jones writes regularly on politics, culture, and religion for The Atlantic online, NBC Think, and other outlets. He is frequently featured in major national media, such as CNN, MSNBC, NPR, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and others.

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How can religious pluralism defeat the forces of polarization?​


Eboo Patel: This is the Interfaith America Podcast, and I’m Eboo Patel. 


Patel: You want religion and controversy, this episode’s going to give you religion and controversy. You want religion in numbers, this episode’s going to give you religion in numbers. You want conversations about religion and race, you have come to the right place. I’ve got with me my friend Robert P. Jones, who I think of as one of the great chroniclers of religion in early 21st century America because he has the numbers, because he has sharp and profound views, and because he is such a great storyteller about what is happening with religion in America’s diverse democracy. 

Robbie and I have known each other for over a decade. We are close personal friends. I have the highest admiration for him in his capacity as President and Founder of the Public Religion Research Institute. He is the author of “White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity,” which won a 2021 American Book Award. He’s also the author of “The End of White Christian America,” which won the 2019 Grawemeyer Award in Religion. 

Before we get into some of the important controversies taking place and some of the conflicts and the healing, let’s dive into the shifting demographics of religion in America. That’s the stage where everything else is playing out. Robbie Jones, it is a thrill to be with you on the Interfaith America Podcast. Thank you for joining me. 

Robert Jones: Yes, really glad to be here. 

Patel: You and I are close friends, so I know about how your early formation affects your work, but I’d love for you to share that with our audience. Tell us where and how you grew up and how that led to the building of the Public Religion Research Institute and to the books you write.  

Jones: Great. Yes. Well, I grew up as a Southern Baptist in Jackson, Mississippi. Until my 30s, I never lived north of Interstate 20, so my people go back like six generations into the Red Clay of middle Georgia so very, very steeped and southern culture Baptist preachers all the way back multiple generations. This is the world from which I come. I have a degree from Southern Baptist Seminary and then did a PhD in Religion at Emory University where I was able to put together– I’ve always been interested in this intersection of religion and politics, how they connect with one another, and really the why question. 

I think the curiosity piece of it, it’s always been interesting to me, like so why do certain political issues hold together? How do they connect with people’s deep beliefs? Then I think going to, Public Religion Research Institute, founded that in 2009 and I think the real reason was that while we had all kinds of great data from places like Pew and Gallup and others, there were always these underlying questions that particularly were about culture, about values, deeper questions that I wanted to get to that we weren’t always getting from these other sources, and finally a little light went off and realized “Oh, well there’s an opening here to create some of that data” and to get deeper understanding of these interconnections between religion, culture, and politics. 

Patel: You are that rare person who happens to be an excellent writer, who is a quant person who develops surveys and puts them into the field and can interpret them, and you have a theology degree from a conservative Christian seminary. That’s a rare combination. Part of what I want to talk about here with you is shifting American demographics, particularly when it comes to religion. It’s widely known that American demographics are shifting, but the vast majority of the public discussion about that is about race and ethnicity. It’s about the United States becoming a majority-minority nation. 

Super, super important but there’s also an awful lot of movement happening when it comes to religious identity and diversity, and one of the things I love about your work, and one of the reasons for our friendship and our partnership together between our institutions is because of the way you center religious identity and diversity in how it affects a variety of areas of American life. Let’s ask the numbers questions. What are some of the key data points that highlight the expansion of American religious diversity or the changes in American religion demographics over the past generation or so? 

Jones: Yes, thanks. This is really important and I think in some ways, the numbers as big as they are, right, that we know, yes, within the next generation, we will be a majority non-white country so just looking at ethnicity tells us part of the story, but I think it has not told us what’s perhaps the most important part of the story, and that is how ethnicity connects with culture, connects with religion, connects with identity, and it’s this shift in identity with the country, particularly this idea, right, of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. 

We even have this acronym for WASP that this group has been the dominant demographic group, really from the country’s founding forward. We are looking at the first time in American history where that’s no longer true so just to give you a couple of numbers. If you just go back 20 years ago, white Christians were comfortably, and this is all white Christians together, were comfortably, about 6 in 10 of the American population. That number today is only 44%, so just in the last 20 years, we’ve gone from being this majority white Christian country, demographically speaking, to one that’s no longer a majority white Christian country and it’s fairly dramatic. 

You can look at every white Christian subgroup, white evangelicals who get a lot of press and a lot of attention, for example, have gone during that same period from being nearly a quarter of the U.S. population, down to only 14.5% of the population. This is a fairly dramatic cultural identity shift in the country. A real milestone and a sea change that I think we’re still grappling with. 

Patel: In addition to the decline in the white Christian population, what jumps out to you about maybe other numbers about the shift in American religion demographics? 

Jones: Well, the bookend to this is as white Christians of all kinds of all denominations have really declined over the last 20 years, the other story is the rise of the religiously unaffiliated who have gone from single digits at the turn of the 21st century up to a quarter of the population, and then one other way to thinking about this, especially if we’re thinking about this identity shift in the country, is to think about like how groups are in size relative to white Christians. 

For example, talking about the unaffiliated, if we look at white Christians relative to religiously unaffiliated Americans in 1990, that number was nine to one in 1990, and it’s only two to one today, and talking about religious pluralism as well. If you look at members of non-Christian religious groups, so Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains, et cetera, in 1990, using that benchmark again, there were 14 times more white Christians than members of these other non-Christian religious groups and that ratio has been cut in half over the last three decades. 

Patel: That’s a huge part of what we’re interested in at Interfaith America, the organization, is what this growing religious diversity means for the nation. How it stacks up in terms of cultural influence. What is it going to mean in terms of the visibility of different groups? What’s it going to mean in terms of how high schools are run and how city councils have to do zoning and how college campuses run their office of religious life, and how companies have to figure out the food they serve in their cafeterias? I’m curious what do you think some of the most important implications of growing American religious diversity looks like? 

Jones: Yes, you put your finger on it. It is the growing visibility, and not just the growing visibility by themselves but that relative to this dominant group, they’re just a more– All these other non-white Christian groups are relatively more visible and so the lack of dominance of this one group, so for example, like school calendars. I grew up in Mississippi and when I was there and went to public schools in Jackson, Mississippi, we didn’t have winter break, we had Christmas break, and that’s just what it was called and it was just this assumption that that would be fine for everyone there, but we see these things shifting and I think all over the country see these things shifting. 

One other way of looking into the future I think is in public opinion surveys and demographic changes can only measure the change we’ve seen so far but there’s a couple of little windows that we can use. One of them is to look at the median age of current groups today, and we’re thinking about what they’ll look like 20 years from now or 30 years from now. One thing that’s pretty striking here is that white Christian groups as a whole, the median age of all of them is in their mid-50s. The median age of white Catholics is 57, the median age of white mainline Protestants, 55, median age of white evangelical Protestants 54, but what does that look like if we look at non-Christian groups in the country? 

It’s quite dramatic. The median age, for example, among Buddhists is 48. It is 37 among Hindus and is 36 among American Muslims, so what does that tell you about– It tells you something quite dramatic about the future of this group that’s coming of age as white Christian groups are aging out and graying, this other group, having kids, becoming more a part of the American religious landscape. 

Patel: Right. You think about if you are in your mid-50s, you probably don’t have kids in elementary school or even high school, right? 

Jones: Right. 

Patel: If you’re in your mid-30s and you have started a family, you’ve got kids who are in third grade, fifth grade, eighth grade, and what happens in the school calendar really matters to you, right? Do you have Eid off? Do you have Yom Kippur off? Does the school recognize Diwali? Does the school only serve pepperoni pizza? I remember growing up and oftentimes, there were only pork options in the cafeteria, and my parents just felt I think too much a part of a minority to complain about that so it was basically figure out what else you can eat, kid. 

The median age I think really, really matters. It’s also a sense of where people are in their professional life. Who’s making partner at a law firm, who’s running companies, and how they’re going to bring their identity into those positions?  

Let’s talk about attitudes for a second here. There is an awful lot of talk about the growth of white Christian nationalism and the attraction of that to large groups of people. What does the American population think about the growing religious diversity that is increasingly apparent at everywhere from schools to television shows? 

Jones: I think we’re just at a moment of transition, and if you think about these changes we’ve been talking about, they have accelerated really over the last 15, 20 years. In terms of demographic change, that’s super fast. Usually, these things move very slowly. I think on the one hand, most of the country is leaning into these changes, embracing these changes. 

For example, survey work that you and I did together at PRRI and Interfaith America, we found 7 in 10 Americans saying they’re proud to be part of a country that’s becoming more religiously diverse. On the other hand, we do have this minority of the country that is fearful about it and is particularly among white conservative Christians that have been part of that demographic majority until the last generation. 

For example, I think one of the more alarming questions that we’ve asked is when we ask a question that’s essentially defining the definition of white Christian nationalism, and the question reads like this, “God intended America to be a new promised land where European Christians could create a society that could be an example to the rest of the world.” Now, only 31% of Americans agree with that statement, but if we look, for example, at white evangelical Protestants, I think the group that’s having, frankly, the most difficult time adjusting to their newfound minority status, it’s 52% who agree with that statement. 

I think we’re at a moment where the change is here, the future, the writing is pretty clearly on the wall, and it really is putting the question right before all of us. It’s like, do we really mean it when we say that we have religious liberty in this country and that there’s non-establishment of religion and that all religions are welcome, and or is it going to be a fight, right, to claim a exclusive Christian claim on the country? 

I think we see this in recent Supreme Court decisions, and I’m hopeful that we’re just at this change point that if we can get through it, we can move forward together for the next 10 years. We may get through it, but I think we may be in for a rocky ride because there are those who are really afraid of these changes. Even if it’s a minority, it’s a very vocal minority and a minority that is at times willing to resort to violence to preserve that more exclusive Christian vision of the country. 

Patel: I’d love to take this in two different directions. The first is on the Supreme Court. I think religious liberty cases at the Supreme Court have basically had a 10 or 15-year run where the people who were arguing on behalf of religious liberty, whether that’s Hobby Lobby or Dobbs or religious schools in Maine or praying on the 50-yard line after a high school football game at a public high school, that group of people has won virtually every case at the Supreme Court. 

I’m curious if you think that a case in which a group of Muslims were praying in the end zone after a football game at a public high school, if that would’ve gone differently in the Supreme Court or in the court of public opinion. 

Jones: I’m glad you asked this question. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this and some writing about it too. In that case, the Bremerton case that was about a high school– public, high school coach praying on the 50-yard line directly after the game and was “voluntarily” — put that in quotes — joined by members of the team while they were still in uniform. He still has a coaching garb on. The stands were emptying, but it’s directly after the football game so they’re all kneeling at the 50-yard line in a very public way. 

The coach’s name was Kennedy. He’s an evangelical Christian coach. I am quite convinced that if that, instead of it being evangelical Christian Coach Kennedy, if it had been Hindu Coach Patel or Muslim Coach Mohammed, that this case would not have moved forward as it did and certainly would not have been decided as it did. The main evidence for that is actually in the decision itself. 

I think one of the more troubling things to me as someone who’s watching these separation of church and state cases for a while is to see this court just run roughshod over 70 years really of careful judicial thinking around things like the Lemon test, Reasonable Observer tests that even Sandra Day O’Connor, a Reagan appointee, came up with. There’s still room to disagree even with these principles, but the problem is they threw out really more than half a century of judicial principles and substituted in this ambiguous concept of history and tradition, and that’s literally the term they have in the case, and located somewhere in the second half, sort of before the second half of the 20th century. 

What does that mean? It means that if you could imagine such a practice occurring and it was common let’s say in 1950, then it’s more defensible. Of course what this does is it privileges Christian practices and particularly Protestant Christian practices over every other religion because in the 1950s, if you had prayer at a football game, it wouldn’t have been a Hindu prayer, it wouldn’t have been a Muslim prayer, it wouldn’t have been a Jewish prayer. It wouldn’t even have been a Catholic prayer. It would’ve been a Protestant prayer at a public school. That’s the vision of history and tradition that this court has evidently set up as the metric for what deserves protection. 

Patel: Let me throw you a twist on this because there are parts of America in which other religions, non-Christian religions, are actually dominant. Dearborn, Michigan is one of these places. There are certainly neighborhoods, West Rogers Park in Chicago. In Dearborn, Michigan, there are mosques in which the adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, is actually sounded from the loud speakers and you can hear it on the street. You could say that that is religion interfering in public and political life. 

I’m curious, it’s totally plausible that a Muslim football coach at a high school in Dearborn, in fact, there was a film about this called “Fordson” about a largely Muslim football team. If a Muslim football coach said, “I’m going to pray salat before football games and I’m going to do it publicly,” and half of that football team was Muslim and half of the high school was Muslim. You have dozens and dozens of people joining that Muslim football coach in praying the midday prayer before a football game. Does the Supreme Court agree with that Muslim football coach? 

Jones: No. I think on these grounds they don’t, because if they’re locating history in tradition somewhere in the 1950s or 1960s, even Dearborn didn’t look like that in 1950s or 1960s so I think it wouldn’t. I really do think it privileges the dominant religion of the country by that measure. The other thing to say is, I played high school sports and I think the other troubling thing here is, and the reason why I think even that case too I think would not be appropriate for a football coach at a public school who’s a paid government employee to do that on public grounds while they’re in school paid-for uniforms, at a school event. 

All of that means that there’s a pressure that gets put on the players who, let’s say in this case, who are not Muslim to come join and pray. I certainly remember doing everything I could possibly think to do to please my high school, in my case, it was soccer coach. Show up early, help clean up the locker room. You do these things to get noticed and to show that you’re working hard, you’re willing to go the extra mile. It’s all about getting slotted into the game, which if you’re trying to get a college scholarship, could have really big implications whether you don’t get the playing time. Some parents even said this was the case, even in the Bremerton case, that their kids felt pressured. 

Patel: Sure. 

Jones: Even though there was no official– 

Patel: I totally buy that. I think the interesting question is in cases in which other religions are the dominant religion in a small part of the country. If they were to do something similar in their institutions, that in my mind is the analog to the football coach in Washington. Is a Muslim principal saying, “Hey, listen, I’m going to be doing the daytime prayers, falls twice during the school day, I’m going to be doing them in the auditorium. Anybody can join me.” If a third of the school is Muslim and you have hundreds of students showing up, is that okay, or is it the same and we shouldn’t allow it as in the case of the evangelical football coach or because it’s a religious minority that just happens to be the majority in a particularly geographical area but it’s a minority across the nation? Is it different? 

Jones: Here’s where I’m– I’m just going to speak personally here. I’m not a constitutional scholar but I think that, to me, that still makes me deeply uncomfortable. I think because, again, it’s a state employee during a school day where he is getting paid by the state, it’s students who are forced to be in that institution because it’s school, I have to show up, compulsory attendance. It’s a captive audience situation where I think the way to be hospitable, the way to be inclusive, I think is not to privilege one religion like that just because half the school or that particular administrator happens to be of that religion. It seems to me it isn’t an appropriate thing for the state actor to do. 

Patel: Yes. I think we have slightly different views on this. I’m certainly sensitive to the concern you bring up. I can absolutely see a case, both my boys play sports. I can absolutely see a case, and they want to do everything they can to please their coaches. Where a coach crosses the line and encourages students to engage in Christian prayer in the name of Jesus Christ. I want my kids to be perfectly respectful and lean in on a whole range of diverse cultural and religious things but we don’t pray in the name of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, but I can absolutely see my kids feeling coerced to do that. 

On the other hand, it is also the case that religious communities establish institutions in the public that serve others, college, hospitals and the like. The establishment of Christian development corporations was inspiring to Muslims to build Muslim development corporations. One of the things I think about is, and I understand that this is, if not pollyannaish, it’s a very positive take on the situation. Does the high school football coach in Washington’s Christian prayer encourage people from other religions to make public prayers? In other words, does it help the public square become more diverse or does it make the public square more coercive? I think that that has everything to do with the culture of the particular geography. 

Jones: The only distinction I would make there is, again, I think all this hinges on the fact that this is a public school and that these are state actors because they are public employees of the public school. They’re paid by the state by tax money. I think that’s where if Coach Kennedy, for example, in the Bremerton case wanted to after school start his own 501(c)(3) that has Christian principles and he wants to pray, and he wants to inspire his player, and he invites them to come be a part of this after school program, that’s totally fine. He could pray all he wants there. 

I think to me the key difference is, and that would be I would say, count as a positive contribution. It’s someone acting on their own principles, they’re going to do some civic good in the community, but that’s really different than acting in his official state role to me. 

Patel: Super important distinction. Thank you. Let’s pick up on the second route I wanted to take based on your previous comments which was really about the other eras in American history in which white Christian nationalism was a really dangerous force, a violent force, and how actually interfaith leaders in that period, I’m thinking about the 1920s and 1930s, an era you and I talk about a lot, actually came up with a response to white Christian nationalism in the 1920s, it was in the form of the KKK, that basically said your vision of America is not going to define the nation. 

We’re not going to have an exclusive vision that at that time excludes Jews and Catholics. We’re going to have an inclusive vision and our response to you is going to be more attractive to the nation than your force towards Christian nationalism. Do you have any hope that that can occur today? That basically the forces of pluralism can defeat the forces of exclusion? 

Jones: I do. I think we’re going to get there. I really do. I think there are moment we are at another one of those moments, though, where fear and a lot of change happening in a short amount of time is very real. I think the fears are real, the dangers are real. I’m certainly more concerned. I’m usually, I think, like you, a glass-half-full kind of guy typically. Not prone to believe conspiracy theories or worry about conspiracy theories, but I can tell you, I’m more concerned about the basic institutions of our democracy surviving the next 10 to 12 years than I ever have been in my life and I’m 54 years old. That’s real. 

I do, though, think that we have the resources to continue to build something here. I’m going to just draw on your recent book, [“We Need to Build”], and this line you have in there about we absolutely need to resist things that we think are tearing down American institutions or threats to democratic values. If we only think about tearing down and resisting those things, and we don’t think about what we need in their place, I think we are left, like you so eloquently say in your book, with a bunch of rubble. 

I think it is time to do both of these things. We clearly have to resist what I think are accurately called the fascist movement in the country, but we got to think about what we want in its place. That example you give is a really good one because I think you and I are both fascinated with that moment because there is this resurgence of the KKK in the country and by– 

Patel: 1920s, yes. 

Jones: Yes, and by the way, that resurgence is a white Christian movement. It is a– If you go and read their literature in the 1920s, it was a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant appeal to America. It literally said and also it was anti-Jewish and anti-Catholic. It was a pro-Protestant Christian and racist vision of the country. Against that, right, there was this other move to pluralism, as you said, that pulled together, no, we’re going to include Jews who were explicitly being targeted by the KKK. We’re going to include them in this vision explicitly where this concept of Judeo-Christian America. 

There’s also Will Herberg’s book “Protestant-Catholic-Jew,” which took another step, right? Explicitly pulling Catholics in by name in this three-legged stool. They’re all people of the book. Now it’s time for us to do another step, right, with that, where we have to think beyond that. What is the vision that pulls in not just people who can tie their views directly to the Old Testament or the New Testament, but to other books like the Quran or the Bhagavad Gita or other sacred texts. How do we make room for that? How do we build a moral and public imagination that’s big enough to embrace the full diversity of the country? That’s new work really, that this generation has to do. 

Patel: Yes, I love that. One of the things you and I talk about is just how intensely Americans understand their nation in religious terms. In mostly Christian terms, but some Jewish as well. Beloved Community, City on a Hill, Better Angels of Our Nature, New Jerusalem, and as these other religious communities, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains, et cetera, as they move more to the center of American life, they have religious symbols also and they’re going to be talking about those symbols; Medina, Sangha, Rashtra, in public. I think of America as America, those symbols become a part of the way the nation understands itself. 

American Medina, in my mind, is an analog to New Jerusalem. Again, if America is America, the forces of pluralism do defeat the forces of exclusion that is part of the process. Robbie, I’m going to ask you a really blunt question. Why do the forces of exclusion pay so much more attention to religious identity than the forces of pluralism? 

Jones: Wow, that’s a great question. I don’t think we’ve actually talked about this in that way. 

Patel: It’s fun to have a podcast. 

Jones: Yes. [chuckles] Here’s one reason I think, and this is troubling as someone who comes from this white Christian world. I think part of the reason why that works on the right and the far right is because of the particular history of this country, the people who are resisting, the people who are fearful, and the people who feel like they’re losing, basically have one thing in common, they have thought of themselves as white and they believe themselves to be Christian. That identity that white Christian identity has proved to be fairly powerful way to activate these folks and to attach to it fear. 

Fears about you’re being replaced, like in Charlottesville, people chanting “Jews will not replace us,” right, in Charlottesville, and this idea that the country belongs to them. I think that’s the thing that is going to be the hardest for white Christians to let go of, is this idea that they are the exclusive, divinely ordained owners of America and that everybody else is second class. I think it’s easy to generate fears and there’s a shared identity there that can be leveraged with those fears. 

Whereas, on the left, it is a much more pluralistic thing. There’s not one set of symbols. There’s not one set of theological terms, there’s not one set of sacred scriptures. There’s a plethora of those, right, that can be tapped in various ways. I think there’s just a way in which it’s more complicated on the left to leverage religion because you’re having to leverage not just one religion but a bunch of them. That’s just tactically harder to do. 

Patel: Yes, and the great figures of inclusion in American life, and I actually don’t necessarily think of this as a left-right thing. Often, it falls out that way, but the great figures of inclusion have used religious language. Jane Addams called Hull House “Cathedral of Humanity,” right? Lincoln speaks about God on both sides, King in the Beloved Community, and even figures who are on the right but had an expansive vision of America. 

I think of Ronald Reagan speaking of the City on a Hill in a way much more expansive than John Winthrop meant it in the early 17th century. Speaking of the City on a Hill as windswept and God blessed and home to people whose hearts beat with freedom, and if it had to have walls, let there be doors. It’s just interesting how powerful religious symbols, religious language, the engagement of diverse religious communities, are towards inclusion, and yet how apprehensive so many people who believe in inclusion and pluralism are in engaging that. 

I would even say this is the case in intellectual life, so even center-left publications, “The New York Times,” et cetera, there has been a history where they have ignored religion, and one of the things that I just think is so powerful about your work is you’re not just saying, “Look, here’s how different racial communities break down when it comes to their voting patterns.” You’re breaking it apart along the lines of religious identity also and I think that you know that your workaround, for example, Hispanic Catholics and Hispanic Protestants and the vast difference in their voting patterns is so insightful, such an important way of understanding the nation. 

Jones: Well, thanks for that. I do think it’s right. I think one of the things that’s happened is that towards the rise of the Christian right in the ’80s, ’90s, and even in the early 2000s, I do think there was a reaction on the left and this reaction on the left saw that version of Christianity as religion writ large and then reacted against it and said, “Okay, we don’t want to be that.” 

I think it has meant that for many on the left, there’s been a reticence to even go anywhere near religion because we don’t want to do that. We don’t want to use the religion that’s connected to a Christian nationalist triumphalism or racism or anti-LGBT bigotry, or those kinds of things that I think for many young people, in particular, religion has been associated with that. All the stuff it’s against. 

One of the reasons I was really glad to see the tack you took in your new book is this call, right, to the next generation to really think, and Kelly Brown Douglas uses this term, to enlarge our moral imagination, that we have to tap some creativity. That’s what Lincoln did. You’re right. That’s what King did. It’s what James Baldwin did. We really do need a new vocabulary, and somebody is going to have to invent that. Somebody’s going to have to build it and I think that’s where we are. 

We’re at this new moment of effervescence where the old things are dying off, new things struggling to be born, right, and I feel like I’ve gone back to that quote a lot that that’s where I feel like we are in this hinge point but I do think it’s going to take creativity and courage to really create new institutions and a new way of speaking about the vision of the country that we want to live into. 

Patel: Yes, I appreciate that and one of the things I love about the book that you’ve been telling me you’ve been working on is it’s about how communities with deep racial trauma and divides have healed and are creating a collective vision forward, and this is absolutely the key theme of my book, “We Need To Build,” which is that social change cannot principally be about burning down a system. That way does not lie paradise. That way lies chaos. Social change has to principally be about being an author and architect of something better. What does good look like? How do we achieve it and how do we do more of it? 

I really do think religion provides a guide to that. I think religion at its best is an articulation of an ideal. In Christian language, the Kingdom of God, and then a religious community building a set of institutions which instantiate that ideal, both as a model and as a direction towards that ideal. I think this is something we share in our religious formation is we’re perfectly aware of the ways in which religion goes off the rails in ugly ways and not shy about talking about that and still, there’s an awful lot that– one of the things I write about in “We Need To Build” is imagine if all the institutions built by religious communities disappeared tomorrow, let’s see what’s missing in your city. 

Jones: Yes, that’s right. I’m just thinking the things that linking together is this movement for reckoning and justice, but that it’s got to be linked up to an idea of flourishing and community, both of those things. I think religion at its best, even Christianity at its best, has that vision. The foundation of all of it is absolutely justice and we certainly know– a lot of my writing has been about the things that white Christianity in this country has to reckon for, right? 

Patel: Right, no. In “White Too Long.” It’s powerful. 

Jones: That’s really an initial absolute first step. We can’t get to reconciliation, we can’t get to flourishing our community if we don’t reckon with this really terrible past in many ways. The new book I’m working on is looking at three communities that are trying to do that, trying to tell the truth, but with an eye toward healing and community at the end of the day. 

Patel: Robbie, let’s dig into that for a second. You just wrote “White Too Long” and it is really about how white American Christianity was perhaps the key sustaining force of American racism really for centuries, and it is a battering book. It is beautifully written and it is deeply emotional and you’re personal. You’re personal about your own family history, and then you’re taking this next step in your new book, which is, hey look, we need to look hard at the past. We need to be honest about it. The past has to be faced, as Baldwin said, and actually, there’s progress that’s been made and change and let’s chronicle that process. 

Why don’t you build a bridge between these two books? Tell us a little bit about “White Too Long” and tell us a little bit about the new book, maybe a particular example of a hopeful process of progress and change that you’re in the middle of writing about. 

Jones: Well, I just got to keep bringing you along because that’s a pretty good bridge that you just built between the two. “White Too Long” and the subtitle that is “The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity,” was really the first book I wrote anything like a memoir, and it really was trying to tell my own family’s history, make sense of my own faith, frankly, and its history, particularly in the American South as this vehicle for carrying forward white supremacy in the country. It’s not an external finger-wagging book. It really is my wrestling with my own family’s history and story here and how to make sense of it. 

Along the way, one of the key insights at the end was this realization that many white Christians are aware of that past but really want to move directly to reconciliation with African Americans and their communities, but don’t really want to deal with that past. One of the key insights I think from that, from “White Too Long” was that you really can’t skip the hard part. You have to actually reckon with that past. You have to think through and deal with issues of justice and repair, and there’s actually a good model for that in Christian theology. 

Any good Christian theology of repentance isn’t simply just moving past it and saying, “Ookay, we’re good now.” It really is about reckoning with what happened, trying to make restitution where you can as a way of healing and repairing the damage before you can even think about moving forward into a better relationship. The new book is taking that insight and trying to look at places in the country where that’s happening. I’m looking at Duluth, Minnesota, Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the Mississippi Delta. I’ll, I’ll just give you a quick example from there. 

The story of Emmett Till, who was a 14-year-old who was murdered in 1955 in the Mississippi Delta for supposedly whistling at a white woman in a store. That story is known around the world, but if you had gone 20 years ago to where it actually happened in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, there was only like one lonely road sign there telling that story and nobody would talk about it. For the last 20 years, there’s been this real effort to try to tell this story that’s known internationally, but to tell it at the local level and to actually bring the local community into that story. 

It’s really an amazing story of how Black and white people in this community have come together. They actually issued an apology to the Till family, the county did, for this miscarriage of justice, which was an amazing event. The Till family came down for the event, and they’re on the verge of hopefully getting the National Park Service to designate this area in Tallahatchie County, along with some areas in Chicago, as a joint site national park to help tell this story. It’s been used at the local level for clearing the air and bringing the community together across racial lines. 

One example of how religious leaders and groups are actually part of this healing process is actually at the end of August, there’s going to be a memorial service where they’ve identified the barn where Emmett Till was killed, and that’s been sitting on private property. It’s going to be purchased and made part of this landmark, but to dedicate it, they’re going to have a service. It’s sponsored by the Episcopal diocese in Mississippi, and it’s going to be about taking a public responsibility for, again, this miscarriage of justice and for the ways in which white Christianity played a role in it. 

Then we have this contemporary scene where white Christians are playing a part in healing the divide by going through this process of telling the truth, confessing, and then trying to play a part in healing the divides and the damage. 

Patel: Yes, the Emmett Till story was probably the first time I remember seeing the picture of his face, I think in a high school history textbook. I think it’s the first time I understood just the brutality of American racism. There’s, of course, he was from Chicago, and so that story lives here and I’ve seen a number of Black pastors preach in which Emmett Till is an archetypal story and so I feel deeply connected to that. 

One of the things I just want to highlight in what you said, Robbie, is how a religion can be a sustainer of deep ugliness like racism. You are not shy about highlighting how white Christianity was that but also how there is wisdom and processes within that tradition for healing and reconciliation. Bryan Stevenson talks about this, right? 

Jones: Right. 

Patel: He talks about his work with the Equal Justice Institute as basically a religious process in public, a process of confession, repentance, reconciliation, healing, moving forward. I just think that so often we only know the bad stuff about religion, and we should know that. We should not hide that, but to not recognize the beauty and the contribution and the wisdom, we would just be leaving so much behind. I love how your work holds both of those together. 

Let’s end on a concrete example that we actually did together which highlights the importance of taking religious identity seriously. I’m talking, of course, about the Faith in the Vaccine Ambassadors Program that we ran together, and that was really launched with survey research led by the Public Religion Research Institute. Thank you for your partnership on that. 

In short, what those surveys demonstrated was just how intensely people’s religious identities impacted their view of the vaccine and just how influential religious interventions were in encouraging people to consider vaccines. Can you just summarize some of the key numbers from those surveys we did about religious identity and the vaccine, and then we’ll get into how those numbers helped shape a concrete program, which led to probably tens of thousands of vaccinations? 

Jones: Yes. It was an exciting project and one of the things when we talk about it that we were so excited about is that it wove together really groundbreaking research with critical programs on the ground so that it was literally research to practice, and then we used that. What we learned from people, all the programs that Interfaith America ran on the ground to come back around and say, “Okay, well, what else do we need to know so that we could do more research here?” One of the things we found is that we looked at people who were vaccine-hesitant, was really at the time what we were really worried about and helping people move from being vaccine-hesitant to being vaccine-acceptant. 

It was remarkable that we found, for example, that among some groups like Latino Protestants, for example, in our first– and we did it multiple ways with the survey so we could track through the year that they actually moved, and African American Protestants, actually moved when they had someone that they trusted, that included some faith-based interventions that we actually tested in the survey. Things like seeing a religious leader you trust getting the vaccine, a local religious congregation hosting an information session about the vaccine, being able to get the vaccine in the parking lot of a nearby religious congregation that you trust. 

What we found, for example, is that among Latino Protestants, for example, that attended services regularly, a majority of them said that one of these faith-based approaches actually made them more likely to get vaccinated. It was 42% of African American Protestants, nearly half of Latino Catholics, and even among a group like white evangelical Protestants that were the most resistant, we had one in four of them say that one of these faith-based approaches actually made them more likely to get the vaccine. It was able to see it like right on the ground and the impact of, I think connecting it to our previous conversation, religious communities, religious congregations, really as a piece of social capital, an asset to the community that could be leveraged in a real time of crisis. 

Patel: Also, religious identity and how it influences the decisions people make, right? 

Jones: Yes, right. 

Patel: Up until that time, virtually all the survey research on the vaccine was on how people’s other identities, racial identities, class identity affected their view of the vaccine. It was just so clear that the public health system, elite newspapers, and publications were totally missing out on the potential influence of religious identity on the vaccine and it turns out to be huge, both in terms of how people view the vaccine and also what would’ve made them more likely to consider it. 

I think that together we made a significant contribution to American public discourse in that moment. Then we took the next step, which is I think such a special part of the Public Religion Research Institute-Interfaith America partnership, which is we shaped a concrete program where we trained something like 2000 Faith in the Vaccine ambassadors to be able to have conversations with people within diverse religious communities about their religious identity and the vaccine. 

Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit and keeping it healthy is really important, and the vaccine is a way of doing that. You have an obligation to the common good, a very important dimension of Islam, and taking the vaccine is a part of keeping other people healthy. It’s part of Maslaha, part of your obligation to the common good. I really hope that in the years to come, both the forces of inclusion take religious identity and diversity more seriously. But also, the people who are responsible for education and public discourse in the nation; universities, museums, newspapers, they are paying attention to religious identity and diversity. I don’t think it’s more important than race or gender or sexuality, but I don’t think it’s less important. 

Jones: I think that’s right. 

Patel: Leave us with a final word, Robbie. 

Jones: The thing I do want to put an exclamation point here is we are in a time of unprecedented mistrust of public institutions, right? What we find, though, is that the closer you get to the ground, the more people trust things, right? People trust their local government; they trust their state government more than they trust the federal government. I think one of the beautiful things about this project is that it went all the way down to the local level, right? It had a Faith in the Vaccine ambassador connecting to their congregation. They were a trusted messenger and that broke through, I think, a lot of the general mistrust. 

I think that that model, yes, is one that could be translated to a number of other things. It’s certainly one of the things during these pandemic times, this project was certainly one of the things that I know our team felt the most proud of, because we were opening up a new aperture into how to understand how faith communities can be an asset in a moment of crisis, and with Interfaith America’s work, seeing it put on the ground in real time. 

Patel: Yes. Thank you, friend. I think you’re one of the great public intellectuals in the country. I appreciate the way you weave together religious identity and diversity, race the American past, the American present, the American future. I’m proud of our partnership. I’m grateful for our friendship. Thank you for your time on the Interfaith America podcast. 

Jones: Oh, thanks. I’m really glad to be here. All of that back to you and it’s so funny to hear you sitting on this side of the mic. I’m usually hearing you answering all these questions and all of that. I’m going to take my last moment here just to say there is a lot more where this comes from in Eboo’s new book, which you all should read. 

Patel: You are the best. Thank you, friend. 

Jones: All right. 


Patel: One of the reasons I’m so happy to talk with my friend Robbie Jones is because as much as we discuss diversity in America, the hugely important dimension of religious diversity is too often left out. Robbie brings that right to the fore and he does it in a powerful, intersectional way, bringing in race and gender and other things as well. We have to talk about religion. It is such an important part of American diversity and American democracy. Robbie lays out everything from the data to the controversies to the possibilities. I hope that you felt the inspiration of where we could go in American life and some of the hazards of where we currently are. 

To read more about this conversation and to find resources and stories about bridge building in our religiously diverse democracy, visit our website, I’m Eboo Patel. 


Intro/outro music provided by Mysterylab Music and composed by Mott Jordan.

Credit music provided by Die Hard Productions.

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