Book Review: “White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America

Review: Butler, Anthea. White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America.
Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2021. 176 pages.

Jackson Reinhardt, Independent Scholar
In the violent dusk of the Trump presidency, a staggering reversion in American demographics occurred: white Mainline Christians outnumbered evangelicals in a recent survey for the first time in decades. Even as theologically moderate and liberal denominations—from the United Methodists to Episcopalians—are under constant threat of schism from conservative parishioners and leadership, the so-called “Mainline Decline” has seemingly stopped and slowly reversed itself amidst the current exodus in evangelical church attendance and self-identification. This study comes as a shock to church historians, sociologists, and political scientists, who took the notions of “liberal Christianity” and “dying churches” as synonymous in the twenty-first century. Evangelicals, the virtual (and frequently embarrassing) stand-in for American religiosity, appear weaker than at any moment in recent history.
However, this does not mean that evangelicals are irrelevant⁠. In fact, far from it! The immense sway evangelicals possessed over the past Republican administration (to say nothing of the previous three GOP presidencies) demonstrates that they are still solidly organized, motivated, and willing to reshape the entire political, religious, and cultural landscape of the United States, regardless of their diminishing pew participants. Thus, Anthea Butler’s new work White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America comes at an especially relevant time: not only simultaneous evangelical political dominance of the Trumpian Republican party and perennial anti-Christian right skepticism on the left, but more importantly in the aftermath of the mass protests, controversies, and the changing racial discourses of 2020. In her short work, Butler ambitiously seeks to upend scholarship on American evangelical history. Previous scholars of evangelicalism “such as Mark Noll, Thomas Kidd, David Bebbington, and George Marsden, have been concerned for much of their academic careers with defining evangelicalism via theology and history. Their projects are not expressly concerned with racial, nationalistic, and political concerns of conservative white Americans…[even though] Evangelicals are, however, concerned with their political allegiance with the Republican Party and with maintaining the cultural and racial whiteness they have transmitted to the public.” (4) Rather than portray racism in American evangelicalism as a “bug” or an exception, Butler declares that “racism and racial elements…imbue its beliefs, practices, and social and political activism.” (1). By situating race upfront in her historical analysis, Butler goes beyond now tired and staid research on evangelicalism which, at best, is too doctrinally focused and, at worst, attempts to apologetically excuses for racism via crude theological consequentialism.[1]
Butler’s history reveals the unsavory but always apparent racial dimensions of the American evangelicalism: from its originary years constructing biblical and theological defenses for slavery and black inferiority in the American south, to the post-war hostility to the civil rights and desegregation, and concluding with contemporary evangelical support of Donald Trump—whose racial rhetoric was, from the beginning of his 2016 campaign, beyond the bounds of any major two-party candidate since George Wallace. This blistering jeremiad qua historical narrative is refreshing. I cannot count how many books, peer-reviewed articles, and magazine pieces (especially during Trump’s presidency) regurgitate a narrative of early evangelical moral excellence. Randall Balmer, a notable culprit in this historiographical trend, has written tome after tome [2] extolling the various virtues of Northern antebellum evangelicals, who were a part of a “radical tradition” that promoted a number of laudable social causes: female empowerment, temperance, anti-war activism, abolitionism, financial and educational support for the socially marginalized, and nascent anti-capitalism. However, these evangelicals were a rare breed, even in the 1840s, and their allegiance to causes like abolitionism led them to be viewed with grave suspicion by the general public. Indeed, most mid-century American evangelicals were not radical but heavily indebted to the prevailing status quo.
Additionally, and importantly, there were many evangelicals in the American south, and this Butler describes with all the necessary brutality and racism. Southern evangelicals—whose legacy survives in the Southern Baptist convention—had the same theological and social activist bona fides as their Northern counterparts: they were firmly literalist in their understanding and communication of the bible, as well as advocated temperance and opposed the worst excesses of industrial capitalism, even if through a distinct ideological vantage point. Yet, they also vehemently endorsed slavery. Not just any type of slavery, of course, but perpetual chattel slavery of imported Africans (for it was, according to their hermeneutics, divinely ordained in the Scriptures). When the 13th Amendment abolished the inhumane practice, Southern evangelicals continued to march in lockstep with postbellum anti-black terrorist organizations (e.g., the White League, Ku Klux Klan, etc.) and strongly supported the practice of lynching—many times on church grounds! Butler’s book finally paints the other side of 19th-century evangelicalism: one that was entrenched in racist ideology and fought tooth and nail (including a devastating civil war) to keep its white power intact. Indeed, Butler’s narrative of the twentieth-century evangelical political activities: from Billy Graham’s belief that racial integration would not occur (and should not occur) until the second coming of Christ to the fervent Southern conservative activism to keep private Christian schools and universities white-only, demonstrates to all the anti-Trump defenses of evangelicals—who claim that the movement was one of integrity, honesty, and racial reconciliation until it was, someway somehow, co-opted by a faux-billionaire narcissist—are badly ahistorical. From their roots onward, the historical American evangelical movement is awash with leaders, ideologies, and institutions that have actively and violently promoted white supremacy, or at least the continuation of white-led power over and against that of non-whites.
In fact, Butler does away with defining evangelicalism as a cohesive system of religious and theological beliefs. Butler’s book does not reference Bebbington’s famous quadrilateral (i.e., an evangelical is a biblicist, conversionist, activist, and crucicentric) or other crucial definitional scholarship from D.G. Hart to Alister McGrath, et al. To Butler, evangelicalism is decidedly not a religious movement or theological system. Instead, it is an oppressive political operation that employs the trappings of righteous religion to legitimate the hoarding of power in public and private spaces, between white men and the rest. She writes that evangelicalism’s very core is a “nationalist political movement whose purpose is to support the hegemony of the white Christian men over the flourishing of others” (138). This construction, however, reveals a notable flaw in the latter portion of Butler’s history, which focuses on the rise and solidification of the so-called “Religious Right” in contemporary American politics. By framing evangelicalism as only white evangelical racism (in her words: “[e]vangelicalism is synonymous with whiteness” (11)), her history devolves into a series of conflations and tenuous connections whereby seemingly every adverse, off-putting, and rhetorically distasteful action, behavior, and belief of contemporary conservatives connects back to “evangelicalism.” The infamous 1988 election Willie Horton political advertisement is not seen as a racially insensitive, dirty political trick to discredit the crime policies of Michael Dukakis as Massachusetts governor but as a depiction of black bestial male hood directly influenced by nineteenth-century evangelical concerns of freeman criminality. Evangelical disapproval of Obama did not derive from concern over healthcare, foreign policy blunders in Libya, or worries over the ever-increasing national debt, but, first and foremost, his race: “the darkness of Obama’s skin was what they believed would cause the country to go dark” (119). Where does Butler derive this sentiment? A quote from American Family Association founder Donald Wildmon, who said, alluding to the rhetoric of Ronald Reagan, that “this ‘city on a hill’ which our forefathers founded, will do dark.” (119). Lastly, Butler claims the current United States predicament is directly due to evangelicalism: “More people go hungry today than ever before. Inequality is mounting. Calls for law and order mean Black and Brown bodies dead at the hands of the police. The nation’s infrastructure is failing. Disdain for science has left America behind during the pandemic… [Evangelicals] helped make the carnage we now experience.” (146). I do not deny that the racism constructed in the 19th-century by evangelicals had a role in the various racially insensitive ploys and politics of contemporary Republican conservatives. Still, Butler’s argument rests more on unpersuasive assertions and implications rather than concrete evidence or scholarly consideration of given examples that, evidently, do not directly relate to evangelicalism.
Truly, Butler’s entire framing of White Evangelical Racism as basically modern-day right-wing conservatism makes one wonder why use the former term when the latter is more applicable? If White Evangelical Racism is merely a political movement to secure white male hegemony, what makes it distinct from similar, broader movements? That it uses religious language to justify its power? That cannot be the case regarding the Willie Horton ad or even most calls for law and order: the religious language is absent. In Butler’s analysis of the Tea Party fad, a frequent figure discussed is Glenn Beck, a devout Mormon. In the eyes of many evangelicals, however, the Latter-Day Saints are a heretical “cult.” Indeed, contemporary conservatism is made up and was established not merely by evangelicals, but Catholics, Mainline Christians, Jews, Mormons, and even anti-communist secularists. Butler’s reduction of white male attempts at political hegemony within the purview of evangelicalism ignores the large black, Latino, and East Asian evangelical communities that have flourished in the United States over the past century (and frequently vote for conservative candidates and policies). Her conflation distorts the genuine political, theological, and cultural influence of non-evangelicals in the development of a right-wing, pro-Trump Americanist ideology. It does little to explain what evangelicalism has to offer beyond its supposed socio-political goals. Why do frail Arkansas meemaws, unaware of politics beyond the dinner table, and born-again felons without the right to vote still attend evangelical churches if they have no concern or ability to participate politically? Might there be a community, a theology, and/or a culture in evangelical churches across the United States (and the globe) that inspire a wide, diverse swath of people to attend and do so proudly— independent of any motives to seize control over political institutions? Butler does not speak to these matters. She ends her book with a suggestion for evangelicals to dissociate from the term and movement, as it is rotten to the core. Even to evangelicals outside her definition, this suggestion speaks to another problem in the conceptual homogenization of evangelicalism with one type of politics. As Crawford Gribben notes, “evangelicals do not share a common political vision…[it is a] voluntarist and radically decentralized sequence of competing communities, evangelicalism lacks the infrastructure of compulsion or coercion by which such a political program can be rolled out.” [3] While many evangelicals are conservative, the type of politics they advocate for, even within that broader ideological placement, can be drastically different: from politicized anti-cultural separatism to apolitical cultural transformationism and everything in between. There is no grand collective or personal poohbah of evangelicalism (especially since the death of Billy Graham). The plethora of in-group political, theological, and cultural distinctives factually presses hard against any attempt of Butler’s to neatly categorize the movement as advocating a singular goal. While it is not incorrect to frame evangelicalism as heavily political⁠— Bebbington’s consideration of evangelicals as activists demonstrates the importance of this-worldly action⁠— to discuss it only in that manner results in a flawed analysis that failed to adequately account for either modern conservatism or historical evangelicalism.
Further, I must mention a problem in what Butler chooses to demonstrate as “evangelical” racism and what he does not mention⁠— much to the detriment of her argument. The author admits that the latter half of the 20th-century did see evangelical groups and denominations⁠—most famously the Southern Baptist Convention in 1995⁠— engage in racial reconciliation campaigns rather than assaulting civil rights groups or hoveling into IRS-proof, discriminatory institutions. She writes, “White evangelicals may have begun to change their social attitudes and habits in order to accommodate African Americans in churches and schools, [while] in the political realm white evangelicals supported candidates and positions that were unremittingly conservative and designed to keep African Americans and other ethnic groups out of positions of power” (94-95). Thus, evangelicals desiring racial forgiveness are, indirectly, racist, while the brazen displays of evangelical racism are at innocuous events like anti-tax rallies.
Yet, the post-1970s evangelical scene was not just faux-anti-racist reconciliation campaigns and indirect racism by way of conservative politicians and politics. Overt racist beliefs, tendencies, and thinkers still flourished in the United States. The Presbyterian Church in America⁠— the second largest denomination of its kind, with over 300,000 members and 2,000 congregations⁠— was not primarily founded on issues over liberal theology and doctrines but on a belief that the southern Presbyterian Church had not adequately defended the institution of segregation. Liberalism, to the original PCA founders, was not necessarily a denial of biblical inerrancy but advocacy of “[r]acial integration.” The justification for an entire denomination—the denomination of televangelist cultural warrior megastar D. James Kennedy—was opposition to racial integration, ecclesial and political. Many of the influential intellectual sources for the Presbyterian Church of America in particular and Christian right politics⁠ generally— particularly on issues related to the antipathy of evolution, support for decriminalizing homeschooling, and opposing the separation of church and state⁠— derives from extreme racists like the 19th-century systematic theologian and Confederate apologist Robert Dabney and 20th-century pseudo-philosopher R.J. Rushdoony. Further, one of the most prevalent ways white evangelicals interact with people of color is not with domestic minorities but on overseas mission trips. Evangelicals view many nineteenth- and twentieth-century colonialists and colonial apologists as faithful heroes who spread the gospel to savage brutes in strange lands. Thus, much of American evangelicalism’s relationship to the outside world is one of a “white savior complex,” which still manifests itself in church mission boards. Finally, the most repulsive element of Christian religious culture is the Christian Identity adherents. While never as influential or widespread as the PCA or even Christian Reconstructionists, Christian Identity has included Churches from across the country that preach a gospel of flagrant racism: a belief in the White, pure, Adamic race in cosmic conflict with the evil Cainite Jewish serpent race, and their multiracial anti-white allies. These beliefs, while extreme, are prevalent amongst the American far-right⁠— as the individual perpetrators of recent Synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh and San Diego expressed evangelical and anti-Semitic beliefs. Identity theology is prevalent in North American prisons, rural outposts, and the increasingly politically radicalized internet. Butler’s work includes none of the above examples of vicious and violent racism, even though they have seriously impacted American religious culture regarding race (and still do!). It is difficult to find value in a text on modern-day evangelical racism which simultaneously discredits reconciliation attempts– however phony or ingenuine one may feel they are in intent or consequence–while ignoring the violent deaths of Jews at the hands of gun-wielding, theologically orthodox evangelicals.
Nevertheless, I do applaud Butler for her provocative book, one that, in its early chapters, brings to light an element of evangelicalism that is understudied and often ignored in the standard glorifications of the movement. Evangelicals do need to examine the roots of their beliefs, their denominations, and their political support. Are they advancing a gospel of equality under God, or is there a latent white supremacist vision within the bible study program and ballot box option? This politico-theological introspection is difficult work, no doubt, but I feel publications such as Sojourners or organizations like Christians for Social Action (formerly Evangelicals for Social Action) have been performing such internal critiques for decades now that it should not be hard to find resources and like-minded seekers.
Butler’s text sadly fails in its later chapters, when it verges into niche political polemic against disparate elements of the contemporary conservative movement rather than critically examining racism in the thought, theology, and teaching of white evangelicals. A book’s brevity should not be a pretense for lacking pertinent information to help inform and nuance an argument. There is very little evangelical (even if quite racist) about Glenn Beck’s Fox News chalkboard or Willie Horton attack ads, even indirectly. Yet, is it not relevant that 18th-century Congregationalist preacher Jonathan Edwards, a noted slave owner, is still regarded as the theological crown prince of the “Young, Restless, and Reformed” movement? Is it not relevant that Banner of Truth—an English evangelical publishing house that sells widely in the United States—still prints the work of Robert L. Dabney? Is it not relevant that prominent evangelical theologians regularly attack so-called “woke” and “social justice” Christianity, eerily redolent of some kind of ecclesial McCarthyism? These examples need to be investigated. I concur that white evangelical racism exists (instead of Butler’s “White Evangelical Racism”), but supporting Trump or voting for a Republican is only a single indication of that phenomenon. What needs writing is a thorough analysis of the ideological contours and theological underpinning of white evangelical racism beyond the problematic and overly broadly characterization of caucasian men wanting nebulous “hegemony.” This new history needs to show that, beyond short-term conservative power, there are evangelicals whose presuppositions and theological paragons may lead them to affirm deeply disturbing doctrines⁠— ones that can lead to deadly consequences. Maybe after several years of witnessing shootings, a Capitol storming, internet radicalization, and the revitalization of antiquated, intolerant theologies, those racial reconciliation campaigns of the 1990s were not so regressive after all.
[1] One of the more egregious examples of this is Douglas Sweeney⁠— dean of Beeson Divinity School, a Southern Baptist seminary⁠— who wrote in his own history of the movement that “despite such undeniable moral failure, God has used the evangelicals to promote the gospel of grace among literally millions of African Americans. Ever since the Great Awakening, white evangelicals have engaged in Christian outreach to black people⁠— never adequately but faithfully and consistently. Some early slaveholders led the way.” Douglas Sweeney, The American Evangelical Story: A History of the Movement (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 113. Emphasis mine.

[2] As recently as last year, in fact. See Randall Balmer, Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2021).

[3] Crawford Gribben, Survival and Resistance in Evangelical America: Christian Reconstruction in the Pacific Northwest (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021), 145.

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