The Crystal Cathedral and The End of White Protestant America

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In 1980, one of the most opulent and magnificent churches ever built opened in Garden Grove, Calif. Aptly named the Crystal Cathedral, it featured a shimmering glass exterior, which would glow bright red during a California sunset as if God himself lived inside of it. 

The cathedral was commissioned by Robert Schuller, one of the great megachurch pastors of his day. Schuller was hugely influential for his "power of positive thinking" brand of Protestant Christianity. Positive Christianity was an offshoot of the "Prosperity Gospel," a strand of Christianity which stated that material wealth and the teachings of Jesus go together like ice cream and pie. The largely white and people of Orange County ate up "the power of positive thinking" as their spending power increased, mostly because Schuller was reinforcing their lifestyles. Here was a man telling his congregation that positivity and making money were God's virtues. At the height of his powers in 1977, Schuller, whose congregation was at least 8,000 strong, commissioned the Crystal Cathedral for $18 million dollars.

This Is The End

Fast forward over 30 years later to 2011. Schuller is retired and his congregation is trending downward. And his organization has enormous debt for a series of real estate deals caused by the Great Recession of 2008. So Schuller's church does the unthinkable: they sell the Crystal Cathedral to the Catholic Church.  

What happened in those 30 years? Well, as Robert Jones, the author of "The End of White Christian America" points out in his book, the demographics of the country and specifically, Orange County changed drastically. Orange County, which was once an entirely White county, had seen a large influx of Latinos and Asians in the 2000s who generally had no traditions in Protestant theology. 

The Latino population is the real key here as Latino countries almost always are Catholic. And Garden Grove was lacking in enough Catholic churches for these people. So a deal was struck with the struggling megachurch. The Catholic Church bought the Crystal Cathedral for a ridiculous $57.5 million dollars. 


The End of White Christian America

Jones writes in "The End of White Christian America" that what happened with the Crystal Cathedral is a metaphor for what is happening in the United States: the disappearance of White Christian America. It's a remarkable to believe that this is happening because the U.S. has always been a White Christian nation. But if you look at the demographic information, it's true. The United States is becoming browner and less Christian with each passing year, and it has scared a lot of White Christians as they believe they are losing their country.

In this context, the election of Donald Trump makes a lot of sense. Some may say Trump's election was White Christian America regaining control of their perceived loss of power by electing a racist white nationalist president, who told them that he would make their country great again, as it was once not long ago.

But I see it differently. It feels more likely that this is the dying last gasp of an American way of life. I don't think White Supremacy will fully ever die. But it's possible that its stranglehold on American culture is fading as our country continues to get browner and browner.