The Arc of White Evangelical Racism Is Long, But Complicated
Jhe last few years have not seen a slight increase in accessible academic books on evangelicals. Some of the most influential works explored the political and racial history of the movement. This is evident in books like Jemar Tisby The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in RacismJohn Fea Trust Me: The Gospel Road to Donald Trumpand Thomas Kidd Who is evangelical? : the story of a movement in crisis.
In this rich body of work, Anthea Butler’s White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America, an analysis of the past 50 years of American evangelicalism that also includes a broader history. In a way, it’s a cross between the spirit of The color of compromise and the style of Believe me. Butler argues that the persistence of racism among evangelicals (not fear, as Fea argues) explains their support for Donald Trump and conservative politics since the 1970s.
Butler, a professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, provides a solid historical overview of the depth and breadth of racism in American evangelical culture since the turn of the 19th century. A strong synthetic work intended for a popular audience, White Evangelical Racism skilfully weaves together cutting-edge research on evangelism over the past 20 years. Citing such prominent scholars as Daniel K. Williams, Joseph Crespino, Kelly J. Baker, Darren Dochuk, and Randall Balmer, among others, Butler challenges evangelicals to reject their racism and lust for political power and to work cooperatively with their fellow countrymen. Americans to build a better society.
While prominent evangelical scholars such as Mark Noll, George Marsden, David Bebbington and Thomas Kidd define the movement theologically and historically, Butler argues that it is “not just a religious group at all” , but rather of a “nationalist political movement”. Evangelicals, she writes, have been defined by their “pervasive” support for the Republican Party and its conservative quest to maintain the “American status quo of patriarchy, cultural hegemony and nationalism” – and that has made evangelicals, for all intents and purposes, culturally and politically “white”. She argues that racism and the quest for political power have defined evangelicalism for about 50 years.
While evangelicals often like to highlight the proudest moral and racial moments of their past, Butler is not concerned with bolstering their collective self-esteem. In fact, his project is designed to do the exact opposite. She wants to use the story to kick-start some serious evangelistic introspection.
To this end, she deliberately focuses on the “trajectory of evangelical history that sustained slavery, the lost cause, Jim Crow and lynching” because it is essential to understand how and why evangelicals “continue to use the Scriptures, Morality, and Political Power”. today in support of racist and conservative policies and politicians. All of this makes for a painful read, especially for those unfamiliar with the story. Butler argues emphatically and unabashedly that racism thoroughly infects all evangelicalism. “Racism,” she declares, in one of her most pungent formulations, “is a feature, not a bug, of American evangelicalism.”
Butler is at her best when she transparently exposes and weaves the long arc of racist evangelical practices from the days of slavery down to our own generation. (About half the book covers national politics in the post-1970 era.) It offers a refreshing corrective to common popular misconceptions about evangelicals and race in the 19th century, such as the idea that evangelical theology “required “that believers were abolitionists and only Southern evangelicals were racist. She unflinchingly confronts the complicity of evangelicals in American lynchings (more than 4,000, according to NAACP records), their support for the Lost Cause ideology, their history of opposition to interracial marriage and their contemporary insistence on a color blind of the race.
Butler’s analysis of the 20th century is impressively deep as it draws on a host of leading evangelical leaders, organizations and initiatives: Billy Graham, the National Association of Evangelicals, WA Criswell, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, Focus on the Family, the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, Bob Jones University, Oral Roberts, Pat Robertson, Jack Hayford, George W. Bush, Franklin Graham, John Hagee, the Memphis Miracle (a 1994 interracial gathering of charismatic denominations) and the 1995 Southern Baptist resolution repudiating racism and slavery.
For me, one of the most painful parts of the book concerns the sad story of Butler being offended while a member of Church on the Way, a watershed moment in her journey away from evangelicalism. Another involves his retelling of a pair of infamous quotes from conservative political operatives Paul Weyrich and Lee Atwater. In the 1980s, Weyrich told a predominantly Christian audience that they should do not want as many people as possible to vote, and Atwater had explained how conservative political rhetoric, while less racist in appearance than in the 1950s, still aimed at policies with a similar “by-product”: that “black people are more injured than the whites.
While Butler’s story arc is largely accurate, she occasionally omits nuance to amplify the strength of her argument. Black evangelicals, evangelicals who did not vote for Trump in 2016, and self-identified progressive evangelicals will not be well represented in this book. Although she acknowledges the existence of these groups, she makes it clear that this book is not about them. In some ways, Butler’s account either implies that they cannot be “true” evangelicals, or that they are irrelevant to the history of evangelicalism. These groups are already struggling to make themselves heard within the movement, even without writers like Butler further downplaying their existence.
Sometimes Butler pushes her point so passionately that she either implies that black evangelical is an oxymoron or that all black evangelicals have effectively become culturally white. Both views are quite disturbing. Butler’s book made me wonder if she personally knew anyone in one of these evangelical subgroups and, if so, what she would tell them.
Additionally, Butler sometimes uses dubious or out-of-context statements to support his story. His discussion of the argument that slavery resulted from Ham’s curse lacks historical context. She implies that this understanding of Genesis 9 originated with white slaveholders in the South, when in fact it began in medieval times and involved non-Christian interpreters. In discussing the evangelical response to Hurricane Katrina’s impact on New Orleans, Butler highlights quotes from such figures as Pat Robertson, Franklin Graham, President George W. Bush, and Dwight McKissic. But it omits the vast efforts undertaken by evangelical groups to come to the aid of the victims, leaving readers with an extremely simplified picture. Just because the media focuses on certain “high profile” evangelicals does not mean that grassroots evangelicals believe those individuals represent their views.
On a related note, Butler sometimes demonstrates a fragile understanding of who belongs within the evangelical fold. His definition of evangelism leads him to identify pastors Rod Parsley and John Hagee as being on the “fringe of the evangelical world”, while placing Dylann Roof, who killed nine black parishioners during a Bible study in a historic Charleston church, within it . I understand that there is some, albeit regrettable, overlap between the white supremacist and evangelical realms, but Butler offers no evidence that Roof inhabits this space.
Perhaps Butler’s most egregious statement comes when she asserts that evangelicals “have turned away from those who are poor and needy” to support powerful corporations and wealthy politicians. But plenty of research tells a different story: After Mormons, on a per capita basis, evangelical Christians are the most generous donors in the United States.
Although Butler’s book doesn’t devote much space to specifically discussing Donald Trump, he argues that white evangelical racism helps explain why so many ignored his moral failings in order to vote for him.
Overall, Butler clearly aims to be a prophetic voice awakening evangelicals to their continued racism and its implications for American society. And while there are certainly factors other than racism that explain the individual policy choices of evangelicals in recent years, Butler is right to make sure we don’t overlook the role racism has played in the bigger picture. This is definitely not a book for people who don’t want to be challenged.
Paul Thompson is a professor of history at the University of North Greenville.