JULY 18, 2021
ANTHEA BUTLER HAS spent the bulk of her career studying the influence of white religion on Black people. Formerly a Pentecostal evangelical, she studied to become a pastor before switching paths and taking a job at the University of Pennsylvania teaching religious studies and Africana studies. She’s the ideal person to write a book like White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America, in which she explores the deep-rooted racism prevalent in white evangelical culture, from the 19th century and the Southern Christian defense of slavery to Trump evangelical voting bloc today.
A relatively quick read that favors direct arguments over academic jargon, her book implores the reader to see the path of racism inherent in the history of white American evangelicalism. Like Butler, I was raised in a Pentecostal home in the heart of the South and later left evangelicalism entirely. I read the book from that perspective: I’ve watched my community’s dominant culture use a veil of respectability to cover inherently racist beliefs.
Butler sets the stage boldly by defining evangelical in a political rather than theological frame:
Evangelicals are, however, concerned with their political alliance with the Republican Party and with maintaining the cultural and racial whiteness that they have transmitted to the public. This is the working definition of American evangelicalism. American print and television media have embraced and promoted this definition, and the American public has accepted it.
The original sin of this particularly American faith, for Butler, is rooted in its defense of slavery. Southern Christians used particular verses: Genesis 9:18–27, in which Noah’s son Ham was cursed for looking upon his drunken father naked and sent into Canaan. Theologians during the 18th and 19th centuries thought Canaan meant Africa and that this verse meant Africans were cursed. Ephesians 6:5–7 was used even more often. The verse begins, “Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters” and goes on to compare servitude to one’s “master” to servitude to Christ. Meanwhile, enslaved people — who were encouraged to convert to Christianity — were often given Bibles with the story of Exodus removed.
The more “moderate” people who supported slavery argued that, at the very least, the Bible didn’t prohibit the institution. The president of the College of William and Mary, Thomas R. Dew, said:
With regard to the assertion, that slavery is against the spirit of Christianity, we are ready to admit the general assertion, but deny most positively that there is anything in the Old or New Testament, which would go to show that slavery, when once introduced, ought at all events to be abrogated, or that the master commits any offence in holding slaves. The children of Israel themselves were slave holders, and were not condemned for it.
Former evangelicals will recognize this argument style surrounding topics like homosexuality and abortion as well — finding verses to adhere to a worldview that justifies bigotry. This politicizing of religion was in full force among American evangelicals in the 19th century.
Once slavery became illegal, evangelical bigotry shifted into issues like segregation, communism, and immigration. Most white evangelicals remained “neutral” or affirmative on Jim Crow laws. During the Civil Rights movement, protests for equal access to public education, housing, and transportation were tied to the vague threat of “communism.” Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders were regularly smeared with this label, and evangelicals dismissed their integration efforts because of it.
Evangelicals called their entire congregations to fight back against integration and civil rights. W. A. Criswell, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas and personal friend of famously pro-segregation Senator Strom Thurmond, said at a Southern Baptist conference in 1953: “True ministers must passionately resist government mandated desegregation efforts because it is a denial of all we believe in.”
And what is it that they believed in? They believed in keeping white people separate from Black people and maintaining white supremacy at all costs.
Of course, evangelicals knew there was some drawback to being seen as explicitly racist, especially as progressive causes and figures became more popular. Until Lyndon B. Johnson, a Democrat, passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, evangelicals had not yet officially tethered themselves to the Republican Party. After schools were desegregated, many evangelicals sent their kids to private schools, where they quietly practiced racial discrimination until the IRS began pulling their tax-exempt status. It was this 1971 policy that got right-wing thinkers of the time (like Heritage Foundation co-founder Paul Weyrich) to unite with pastors like Jerry Falwell Sr. and politicians like Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan in a political campaign. They would encourage their audiences to flood politicians with letters declaring their opposition to the policy.
Falwell’s Moral Majority also stood united against abortion, homosexuality, and pornography, as well as political issues like the Equal Rights Amendment for women. They outlined a specific Southern strategy focusing on economic issues, which Republican consultant Lee Atwater discussed plainly in an interview:
By 1968, you can’t say [racial expletive] — that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites. […] “We want to cut this” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than [racial expletive].
After 9/11, many evangelicals began pointing to the United States’s secularization as a reason for “God’s punishment” via terrorist attack. This rhetoric continued in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina, when people like Pat Robertson and Falwell said it was God’s will for the “sinful nature” of New Orleans; the majority of people affected by Hurricane Katrina were Black.
But Butler believes it was the 2008 election of President Barack Obama, our first Black president, that was a turning point in evangelical racism and eventually resulted in Donald Trump’s election in 2016. Obama had been born to a Kenyan man who was raised in Islam (though later converted to Anglicanism before becoming an atheist), so both Islamophobia and racism were in full effect for evangelicals. Butler believes Obama underestimated this:
Obama’s naïve belief that Republicans, and evangelicals by default, would play fair was a major miscalculation on his part — not just in the campaign but in his presidency. By March 2008, questions were already being raised about Obama having studied at a madrassa as a youth in Indonesia, and rumors were circulating about him not being an American citizen. These rumors eventually morphed into the “birtherism” campaign, which claimed that Obama was a Muslim and was not an American citizen because his father was Kenyan.
One thing that Butler seems to recognize all too well is that most white evangelicals and Trump supporters today don’t actively think of themselves as racist, and they certainly don’t seem to be aware of the history of racism in their religious traditions. You may hear white evangelicals bemoaning the “riots and looting” of Black Lives Matter marches while brushing aside or even excusing the murder of Black people by police officers. Evangelical leaders like Franklin Graham speak out against BLM and call for Black people to avoid being murdered by the police by having “respect for authority and obedience,” just like his famous father Billy Graham, who avoided explicit racism but dined with segregationists while remaining “moderate” on the issue of race:
Graham worried about the increasing levels of civil disobedience deployed in the civil rights movement. He had hoped to see the movement continue to advocate for change via the justice system, not through civil disobedience, even if it was nonviolent. Eventually, Graham began to take tougher stances against King’s efforts. He was especially disdainful after the March on Washington in August 1963, when he made the aforementioned remarks about King’s “Dream” speech — that it would take the second coming of Christ before we would see white children walk hand in hand with Black children.
If there is any flaw to be had in this book, it lies in its noble purpose. Butler argues that white evangelicalism is a flawed belief system that needs to find true racial reconciliation on a massive personal and political scale. I agree with that. But I wonder if any white evangelicals who actually read this book would find themselves convinced by her arguments, no matter how well made they are or how many sources she cites to back them up. They are already used to ignoring facts and feelings in favor of their beliefs. When Butler begs evangelicals to address the institutional racism of their churches, will anyone even listen? I’m doubtful.
But armed with accurate history, one definitely has a better chance of convincing white evangelicals. After all, I was once a card-carrying Republican and an active Pentecostal myself. Christianity Today — ironically, the magazine founded by Billy Graham — seems somewhat motivated to impress the issue of racial reconciliation between Black and white evangelicals, even finding themselves criticized by Franklin Graham for their stances. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. If white evangelicals really want to address the harm that white supremacy has done to their politics and religion, it must be more dramatic. They cannot be afraid of hurting their racist friends’ feelings, and they cannot attend churches where conservative opinions matter more than Black lives.
At the end of the day, Butler just wants you to see white evangelicalism for what it is — no more excuses, no more covering up its history as a racist institution. She lays bare the ways that white evangelicals have actively driven the worst of the United States’s most racist history, including slavery, dehumanization, the KKK, lynchings, segregation, whitewashed history, and the criminal justice system. They can’t hide from their past or the way that it cements their beliefs and ideals in the present. But what will white evangelicalism look like in the future? That’s a question best left to the white evangelicals themselves and one that neither Butler nor I can answer. At some point, they are going to have to choose what, and who, they support.