White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America
There is no mistaking the purpose of this book, as well as the author’s awareness of how this purpose will be received by her audience. In her opening sentence, Anthea Butler makes both clear: “White Evangelical Racism tells a concise history of the evangelical movement and—here is the hard part—the racist and racial elements that imbue its beliefs, practices, and social and political activism” (1). By the end of the book’s first paragraph—during which Butler connects nineteenth-century evangelical support for slavery, Klan violence, and lynching to the more contemporary sins of religious bigotry and turning “a blind eye to children in cages at the border” (2)—the hard part of her purpose has grown into an even harder thesis: “Racism is a feature, not a bug, of American evangelicalism” (2). In the pages that follow, Butler challenges those who “cannot or will not deal with the racism at the core of evangelical beliefs, practices, and political allegiances” (5), framing her task as an attempt to “tell the story evangelicals won’t” (12). While the brevity of this book is both a strength and a weakness, and sympathetic readers can object in good faith to some of Butler’s contemporary examples, there is no mistaking the strength and urgency of her thesis. White Evangelical Racism is a timely jeremiad, posing hard truths that must be reckoned with. Along with such recent works as Robert P. Jones’s White Too Long and Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise, Butler’s contribution provides yet another forceful reminder that, to paraphrase James Baldwin’s famous admonition, nothing can be changed until it is faced.1
Butler’s first two chapters cover a lot of territory, from the racist foundations of evangelicalism in the nineteenth century to the rise of Billy Graham. Any such sketch must paint in broad strokes, but Butler is writing for a broad audience. While academic historians might want a more nuanced account of how evangelicals engaged with slavery, post-emancipation racial violence, and the emerging civil rights movement of the early twentieth century, the force of Butler’s argument holds. Drawing from a variety of sources that have already laid bare the racism structured into American evangelicalism across the centuries, Butler acknowledges that she begins her narrative with a choice. As a historian, she writes, “I know that American evangelicals made important and substantial contributions to the abolitionist movement and the education and uplift of African Americans during Reconstruction,” but “I am deliberately focusing…on the trajectory of evangelical history that supported slavery, the Lost Cause, Jim Crow, and lynching” (15-16). This confession of choice is then followed by a clear explanation: “My reason for shaping this book around this trajectory—which I have no doubt is extremely painful to both Black and most white evangelicals today—is that this history is key to understanding how evangelicals used and continue to use scripture, morality, and the political power they gathered across the course of the twentieth and, now, the twenty-first centuries” (16). This deliberate foregrounding of narrative choice-making complements Butler’s larger thesis about evangelical history—that is, history is a matter of deliberate choices, and just as historians make deliberate choices that have narrative consequences, so too do the actors in history. Across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Butler argues, evangelicals deliberately chose to support racism and white supremacy, and those choices continue to have consequences in the present. Understanding contemporary evangelicalism comes down to understanding the history of those consequences.
Few readers will challenge Butler’s scathing account of evangelical support for slavery, the Lost Cause, Jim Crow, and lynching. Where her argument may get hard for her audience is when she begins to build a pathway from the past to the present, refusing to allow evangelicalism’s old sins to remain old. Her choice to make Billy Graham the link between past sins and new bigotries seems intentionally provocative, but Butler defends her choice: “The creation of twentieth-century evangelicalism—and its relation to racial politics—are best interpreted through the story of its great representative, Billy Graham, ‘America’s White Jesus’” (34). Aware that Graham did challenge some of the era’s racist practices, Butler nonetheless sees him as crafting a new form of evangelicalism that allowed “fundamentalist racist ideologies” to survive “under the guise of ‘Americanist’ culture and obedience to the law” (35). Unwilling to break with the racial status quo, Graham merely softened the edges of white prejudice, developing an “evangelical gentility” centered on a color-blind Christology that defended gradualism and the need for individual conversion over structural change, all the while masking support for “the southern relational culture” (44). This is why, in the end, Graham rejected Martin Luther King, Jr. and his movement. And it is also why Graham served as a model for a new generation of evangelicals who understood that gradualism and color-blindness could be effective tools for frustrating the rights of African Americans.
Butler’s next two chapters show how this “color-blind gospel” (58) provided cover for evangelicals as they organized against the federal government’s support for the civil rights movement. To achieve this, they had to reject the purportedly apolitical nature of mid-century evangelicalism and forge an alliance with Republicans, the party most open to their aims. Key to this alliance was “whitewashing” (57) the racial motives behind this emerging partnership and the growing political activism of the faithful. Concurring with Randall Balmer and others, Butler locates the origin of evangelical political activism not in Roe v. Wade but in Green v. Kennedy, the 1970 Supreme Court decision stripping tax-exempt status from “segregation academies,” many of which were posing as private Christian schools. Although evangelicals want to obscure the importance of the Green decision in order to hide their racist social, cultural, and political agenda, this agenda repeatedly betrays itself. As examples, Butler points to the way evangelicals responded to Ronald Reagan’s defense of states’ rights in his infamous Neshoba County Fair speech of 1980, as well as to the manner in which evangelical churches have learned to make cosmetic changes to their denominations, churches, and schools in order to appear diverse without surrendering “the structural forms of white supremacy” (88).
The political alliance evangelicals forged with Republicans was a deliberate choice motivated by a desire to maintain the advantages of whiteness in the aftermath of the civil rights movement, and, because choices have consequences, evangelicalism has become, according to Butler, a purely political movement with little to no moral compass. When the alliance with the Republican Party was first formed, evangelicals “cloaked themselves in morality, respectability, and power” (98), a posture they maintained through the presidency of George W. Bush. But with the coming of Donald Trump, evangelicals made a true deal with the devil, becoming a “potent voting block awash in racism and racial animus” (99). Butler provides a litany of decisions made by evangelicals in the past two decades that led to such a fate, and while there is room to argue with some of her examples (for instance, the evangelical response to the Emmanuel AME Church massacre in Charleston was more complex than her brief discussion suggests), she is nonetheless correct that a “willful blindness” to racism continues to define evangelical political activism. How else, Butler contends, can we account for the behavior of a conservative Christian voting block that helped to elect a “thrice-married, casino-owning reality TV star” and “unrepentant racist” (136)?
In her opening chapter, Butler promised to tell hard truths about the racism that still eats at the core of American evangelicalism, and in her concluding chapter she understands that the hard truths she has just told in her book will likely make evangelical readers feel attacked, and thus victimized. But she will not let those readers take the easy route of victimization, wearing her critique as a “badge of honor and a sign of persecution” (144). No, she insists, evangelicals are not being persecuted when they are being called out for participating in and capitulating to racism; rather, they “are being called to account” and “have been found wanting” (145). If Christians are to be known by their fruits of their labor, “Evangelical fruit—the results of evangelicals’ actions in civic life—today is rotten” (145). Does Butler sometimes overstate her case? Well, yes, if we consider that evangelicals, like all Americans, are motivated by more than just racial animus or the protection of their class and social privileges, and that their labors, like the labors of all, produce varied fruit. But when we consider the full trajectory of her thesis—that evangelicalism’s long embrace of white supremacy, with its repeated use of scripture, morality, and governmental power to defend that supremacy across centuries, has turned today’s evangelical movement into a largely political phenomena tied, for perhaps the wrong reasons, to the agenda of a single political party—here, it is hard to argue she is overstating. In the end, Butler’s hope is that her harsh accounting of evangelical civic life, and the racism that has rotted it, will be transformative, that her “words [will] find root” (148). This kind of transformation, of course, will depend a great deal upon the soil into which Butler’s words are cast. White Evangelical Racism makes for tough reading, but we would do well to drop our defenses, to listen, and to see what grows.