Book Review: White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity by Robert P. Jones

[1] Several years ago, I was finishing up my STM and in the last stages of the candidacy process, looking at paperwork for congregations that were hoping to call a new pastor. As the reality of this hit me, so did the weight of my studies. Instead of feeling excited, I felt dread. There are a lot of personal reasons for this, but there was also a theological millstone I was bearing with tremendous difficulty: I didn’t really believe in the church anymore. I had written a whole thesis on an institution I had believed in with my whole heart. But the church I was going to serve looked little like that institution.

[2] In America, much of the church gained power by remaining silent in the face of the sin that helped to build and maintain the nation’s power: racism. Much of the church abdicated its calling and its responsibility in order to gain numbers, wealth, influence, and, yes, power.

[3] Robert Jones sees our current moment as a pivotal time when American Christianity can choose between two distinct paths. He draws on our history to highlight the roots of our current conflict, asking us finally to confront these realities to end the cycle and make possible a better future. Jones does so by telling his own story of learning the history of denominations and churches he called home. He does not condescend to the reader; he brings the reader along on the journey that he is also taking. Jones accepts the responsibility of his task by locating himself in the middle of this struggle with us, feeling the weight of racism and the systems that have enabled it, as well as experiencing the hope that comes with imagining a more just world and a more just church.

[4] Jones is the founder and CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, and this work reflects solid research without presenting as overly academic. His research draws from history, current events, polling data, and more to offer a well-rounded, but not exhaustive, look at how we got here and where we actually are. Even the more familiar sections of his writing have the gift of his perspective, and they are balanced with details and insights that are enlightening and disturbing (his inclusion of Dylann Roof’s sketch of a white Jesus is particularly memorable). This is not a pure history or social study, but it is a text that has “done its homework.” Jones makes a clear case of the church’s role in American racism in a way that is unavoidably uncomfortable but should not scare off a curious reader willing to give him a chance.

[5] The book is structured to walk the reader into the depths of the problem.  Jones covers, for example, the historic splits in Protestant denominations between Northern and Southern churches over the issue of slavery; the leadership of white Christians in systems of racial inequality; the use of biblical interpretation to justify slavery; the elevation of personal salvation over addressing social sins.  He notes that high scores on a racism index are positively correlated with white Christian identity and he examines factors of church attendance and regionality.

[6] Jones then highlights a possible path forward. This follows a similar trajectory to my own journey in confronting racism, and I imagine that many readers will likewise relate. I appreciate Jones’s moral center here. This is not biblical interpretation or theology; it is a moral argument profoundly concerned with our values. Jones worries that we are on a trajectory to become corrupted beyond repair. In the face of this, he is still hopeful. Somewhat surprisingly, his hope seems to come from the depths of his despair. For Jones, facing the real depth and power of white supremacy in Christianity becomes like saving a host from a parasite. Echoing James Baldwin (as he does in the title), Jones tells his presumably white audience that we, too, have a great deal at stake in setting things right (236). We do not have the luxury of silence because our very morals are at stake. In this moment, we either act or give up completely.

[7] On matters of justice, many authors paint pictures that are either despairingly bleak or superficially rosy. If an author leaves me feeling only ashamed or absolved, I am ultimately unchallenged or unchanged which allows me to give up. Jones calls us to confront our shameful past and its shadow on the present directly so that we might be changed. This is our responsibility and our opportunity. I love being dared to imagine, and White Too Long dares us to “awaken to see what has happened to us, and to grasp once and for all how white supremacy has robbed us of our own heritage and of our ability to be in right relationships with our fellow citizens, with ourselves, and even with God” (236). After centuries of silence, these are the sermons we need. This is how we begin to participate in a better world for everyone.

[8]Jones pulls no punches but is also understanding and gentle. This combination will make White Too Long a good choice for a small group discussion or for any reader looking for hopeful realism. Jones is part of a long legacy of truth tellers deeply concerned with our souls, not in a shameful ploy to fill church pews but rather in an earnest attempt to compel us out of them and into a world we have harmed. He invites us to begin the healing process with ourselves. White Too Long is an easy recommendation for anyone looking for discomfort, growth, and hope.

Michael Pickett

Michael Pickett, M.Div., STM, is a former youth and campus minister dedicated to building transformative, healing communities for spiritual outsiders.