Robert P. Jones is CEO and founder of Public Religion Research Institute. Jones’s family moved to Jackson in 1975 as he entered the third grade. He grew up in Woodville Heights Baptist church, graduated from Forrest Hill High School, and majored in Computing Science and Mathematics at Mississippi College. Jones then went to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he earned a Master of Divinity degree, then on to Emory University for a Ph.D. in religion.
Jones’s personal experience and education combine to give him a unique perspective on the evangelical Christianity of his formative years. He has a kind of double vision that guides his deep concern for the future of American Christianity. He has seen and embraced both the good and the bad of his religious heritage.
As he put it in his 2020 book, White Too Long, The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity, “This sensibility—that God and the community had our backs—instilled in me a resiliency that has stayed with me throughout my adult life” (p. 75).
Speaker of the House Phillip Gunn and Governor Tate Reeves have not been shy about their embrace of evangelical Christianity, and clearly, they absorbed much of the positive religious culture that Jones did. However, the price for that security and safety, as Jones skillfully recounts in the book, was insulation from the history and traditions that shaped and still drive evangelical Christianity.
Throughout the book, Jones puzzles over this contradiction: how could Christians condone and engage in such heinous acts and casual cruelty? First, there were 250 years of slavery. Then, as historian William Sturkey has reminded us, “Between 1890 and 1910, White Mississippians lynched 350 African Americans.” Public schools were segregated by race and by law until 1954 and much later in Mississippi. Separate public water fountains and restrooms persisted into the 1970s. Registering to vote was a dangerous act for African Americans until the 1965 Voting Rights Act protected it.
All this was done in the interest of protecting the white population’s privilege and power; and the mostly Christian population supported these practices with its silence and with its votes. How could this be?
Many thoughtful people have tried to figure it out. In his book, Jones recounts a 2000 study by sociologists Michael Emerson and Christian Smith. They conducted thousands of interviews and surveys of both black and white Christians on questions of race. The researchers found that white evangelical Christians, even today, employ a particular kind of “cultural toolkit,” to make sense of race relations. That toolkit contains three main ideas, but one, “freewill individualism,” is key. The term captures the belief that persons have free will, are individually accountable for their actions and behave independently of social structures and institutions.
Nowhere is “freewill individualism” more in evidence than in the Governor’s and Speaker Gunn’s opposition to expanding Medicaid. It appears that the majority religious culture of Mississippi, evangelical Christianity, has funneled “freewill individualism” into every corner of our political culture.
According to a recent, comprehensive study by State Economist Corey Miller (Mississippi Today, September 14, 2021), approximately 230,000 Mississippi citizens currently without insurance would be served by expanding Medicaid. Most are the “working poor,” people who have jobs but cannot afford health insurance. Miller’s analysis shows that the state can afford the expansion due to the federal government’s financial match plus increases in state employment and tax revenue that an expansion would bring.
Governor Reeves and Speaker Gunn must believe that the actions of those quarter million Mississippi citizens are the main causes of their inability to afford health insurance. They must believe that the trajectory in life of those working poor was unaffected by their parents’ income and educational level, by their race or gender, by the county where they were born, the neighborhood they grew up in, or the schools they attended. That’s freewill individualism: the working poor chose to be the working poor.
However, if those same state leaders believed that most of the working poor are also working against great odds (see above), they would want to give them a hand up. They would move the machinery of the state to lift the burdens of sickness and untreated illness from them. They would hasten to pass Medicaid expansion.
Dick Conville is a retired university professor and long-time resident of Hattiesburg. He can be contacted at email@example.com