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The Good Books: White Evangelical Racism
A necessary (not an alternate) history of white evangelicalism
This essay is part of my series on books I’m reading, The Good Books. This week I’m featuring Anthea Butler’s new book, White Evangelical Racism. I will be publishing my interview with Dr. Butler later this week. Subscribe to Exvangelical to make sure you don’t miss it!
Dr. Butler does not waste time, nor should she. White evangelicalism has had ample opportunity to reckon with its history of racism, but has generally demurred. And we honestly can’t afford to waste any more time.
The book begins with “Evangelical Racism: A Feature, Not a Bug,” and proceeds from there.
Let’s be clear at this point in this essay: the reality of racism in white evangelicalism, and in American society-at-large, is no surprise to Black & BIPOC readers. It is their lived experience. Writing as I am from the perspective of a white person, shaped by white evangelicalism, I can certainly tell you that the legacy of racism in white evangelical thought, practice, and belief is obfuscated—and many evangelicals rest on the laurels of 19th century evangelical abolitionists as if that excuses them from the work of examining racist beliefs in themselves and their contemporary institutions.1
Yet it is only white people for whom ignorance acts as a shield. Yet in this day, when we are so broadly aware of one another’s plights (livestreamed and tweeted, etc as they are), such claims are a pale and sickly excuse.
So white readers (though this book is not written solely for a white audience) have to reckon with what Dr. Butler presents us with. It’s the least we can do.
“Evangelicals are not naïve individuals”
White Evangelical Racism is not preoccupied with the evangelical embrace of Trump, but since we still wrestle with the consequences and implications of the Trump presidency, it’s a valuable starting point. Dr. Butler writes:
“Evangelicals are not naïve individuals who were taken advantage of by a slick New York real estate mogul and reality TV star. They were his accomplices….race and racism have always been foundational parts of evangelicalism in America, fueling its educational, political, social, and cultural mores. Evangelicals occupy an important place in the story of American religion—but they also are key to our nation’s politics of now. The set of evangelicals who believed in and continue today to believe in the inferiority of people of color are complicit in supporting structures of oppression that are antithetical to the gospel they claim to believe in.”
From this vantage point, Dr. Butler removes both ignorance and innocence as excuses for contemporary white evangelicals - and the remainder of the book demonstrates they were never naïve, from the 19th century through to today.
Racist ideas of “order”
It is the 19th century history of white evangelicalism following the Civil War that will be jarring to many white readers. We’ve sanitized and cherry-picked our collective memory of this time period (especially those outside the South), and are shocked to learn of the role of lynching, and appeals by groups like the KKK and the White League to the ““order” of the slave-owning South:”
“It did not matter that burning churches and murder were crimes. These activities were considered to be in the service of the religious ideal of restoration, of bringing back what white southerners considered the God-given right of white men to rule over all….appeals to violence were couched in the language of “civilization” and closely connected to ideas of biblical retribution and God’s favor. The ideal of “order,” which would evolve into evangelical calls for “law and order,” stemmed from harmful stereotypes about African Americans’ tendency toward violence and the supposed insubordination of people who merely wanted their freedom and their humanity respected.”
What we can gather from this history is that these racist beliefs and practices were not limited to a single branch of the white evangelical Protestant tree.2 It’s not even the roots. It is in the soil.
Sometimes we have to sit with that, do the emotional work, and change. No cozy way to tie that up. It will take a lifetime.
Billy Graham’s Gradualism
Following this look at 19th century white evangelicalism, Dr. Butler turns her focus to Jim Crow and the role of Billy Graham. Since his later ministry (especially post-Nixon), Graham’s image has been rehabilitated to appear “non-partisan” because he courted power under both Republican and Democratic administrations. Butler reframes Graham, stating that “his brand of Christian fervor, fear, and fatalism defined American evangelicalism from the 1940s to the 1970s. He exemplified a kind of religion that combined Christianity, patriotism, and politics into a potent mix of respectability that was predicated on fear of the other.” In his way, Graham “softened” fundamentalist racial ideologies “under the guise of “Americanist” culture and obedience to the law.”
Graham also conflated the Civil Rights movement with a vague threat of communism (similar to the vague right-wing talking points alleging that BLM is a “radical terrorist” or “radical socialist” organization), and believed that only God - not the political and social actions of people, even the people of God - would bring about racial justice. Infamously, following Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s “Dream” speech in 1963, Graham stated that “it would take the second coming of Christ before we would see white children walk hand in hand with Black children.”
I’ll leave it to the reader of this essay to pick up the book for more detail on Graham.
The racist origins of the modern Religious Right
If you’ve made it to 2021 believing that the modern religious right was motivated by “pro-life” anti-choice concerns, well, allow this book to disabuse you of that notion. The real motivation, which has been extensively documented, was to protect the racially exclusionary admissions practices of Christian colleges and schools. Butler writes:
“Many evangelicals and fundamentalists still clung to nineteenth-century beliefs regarding scripture, including admonitions in the Hebrew Bible to Israelites not to mix with “other” people. In a concession to the times, [Bob Jones University] began to accept students of Asian heritage, but only those who signed the university’s statement of faith promising not to participate in interracial dating. The university board opposed enrolling Black men and women due to concerns about interracial dating and marriage.”
These practices were challenged many times, but the Green v. Kennedy case found purchase with the IRS commission, and the IRS eventually moved to enforce guidelines that would require a school’s student population to have 20% minority students in order to maintain tax-exempt status.3
Enter Paul Weyrich.
This ruling displeased evangelicals. Weyrich saw an opportunity to animate a large population. And they were animated - evangelicals sent in over 120,00 letters to the IRS in protest of the policy, and the IRS backed off.
Conservatives today bemoan “cancel culture,” when a mass of people take collective action, even though they have been using similar tactics for 50 years. This history has been obfuscated, in preference for a false narrative that they were motivated to prevent abortion. Not so.
Not persecution. Not “cancellation.”
Reader, I underlined most of the conclusion of this book. I know I have already quoted liberally from this book, but permit me one final block quote:
Access to power made evangelicalism brittle, and unforgiving. Ideology trumped the gospel. Loving your neighbor turned into loving only those who believe as you do. As a result, evangelicals live in silos to keep themselves pure….as a result, evangelicals are regarded with disdain by the broader public. Evangelicals wear this as a badge of honor and as a sign of persecution of Christians. Evangelicals are not being persecuted in America. They are being called to account.”
I could not agree more. We are witnessing the end of white evangelical hegemony not because of persecution by “the world,” but because they are being judged by their actions. White evangelicalism must reckon with its history of racism. Lord knows the rest of us are.
I spoke with Dr. Butler last year, prior to the publication of her book, on Powers & Principalities. Listen here:
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I think of Michael Gerson’s evangelical lament in The Atlantic in 2018, where he uses this very tactic:
“My alma mater, Wheaton College, was founded by abolitionist evangelicals in 1860 under the leadership of Jonathan Blanchard, an emblematic figure in mid-19th-century Northern evangelicalism. Blanchard was part of a generation of radical malcontents produced by the Second Great Awakening, a religious revival that had touched millions of American lives in the first half of the 19th century. He was a Presbyterian minister, a founder of several radical newspapers, and an antislavery agitator.”
To which I say: 🙄 I also had a minisode about it, after it was published:
Methodists and Episcopalians don’t get off scot-free by scapegoating Southern Baptists or Presbyterians. All traditions are complicit.
(This is a simplification - read the book for all the details.)