All white churches Church
ANTHEA BUTLER has spent most of her career researching the influence of white religion on black people. Formerly a Protestant Pentecostal, she studied to be a pastor before switching paths and taking a position at the University of Pennsylvania teaching religious studies and African studies. She is the ideal person to write a book like White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America, in which they block the deeply ingrained racism present in white evangelical culture of the 19th century today.
Her book is a relatively quick read, preferring direct argument to academic jargon, and challenges the reader to see the path of racism inherent in the history of white American evangelicalism. Like Butler, I grew up in a Pentecostal home in the heart of the South and later left evangelicalism altogether. I read the book from this perspective: I have observed how the prevailing culture of my community uses a veil of respectability to hide inherently racist beliefs.
Butler bravely sets the stage by defining evangelical in a political rather than a theological framework:
Evangelicals, however, are concerned about their political alliance with the Republican Party and about maintaining the cultural and racial whiteness that they have conveyed to the public. This is the working definition of American evangelicalism. American print and television media have adopted and promoted this definition, and the American public has accepted it.
For Butler, the original sin of this particularly American belief is rooted in the defense of slavery. Southern Christians used certain verses: Genesis 9: 18-27, in which Noah’s son Ham was cursed for looking at his drunken father naked and was sent to Canaan. Theologians of the 18th and 19th centuries thought that Canaan meant Africa and that this verse meant that Africans were cursed. Ephesians 6: 5-7 was used more frequently. The verse begins with “Servants, be obedient to your masters,” and goes on to compare bondage to the “Lord” with bondage to Christ. Meanwhile, enslaved people – who were encouraged to convert to Christianity – were often given Bibles in which the story of the Exodus was removed.
The “more moderate” people who supported slavery argued that at least the Bible did not forbid it. The President of the College of William and Mary, Thomas R. Dew, said:
Regarding the claim that slavery is against the spirit of Christianity, we are ready to admit the general claim, but firmly deny that there is anything in the Old or New Testament that, once introduced, would prove this slavery, should definitely be abolished, or that the master should commit some offense in keeping slaves. The children of Israel themselves were slave owners and were not convicted for doing so.
Former evangelicals will also recognize this style of reasoning on issues such as homosexuality and abortion – find verses that cling to a worldview that justifies bigotry. This politicization of religion was in full swing among American evangelicals in the 19th century.
When slavery became illegal, evangelical bigotry shifted to issues such as segregation, communism, and immigration. Most white evangelicals remained “neutral” or approved the 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 rejected their integration efforts because of it.
Evangelicals called on their entire congregations to oppose integration and civil rights. WA Criswell, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas and personal friend of the famous Senator Strom Thurmond, who advocated segregation, said at a 1953 Southern Baptist conference: “True clergymen must be passionate about government-ordained segregation efforts fight back because they deny everything we believe im. “
And what did they believe in? They believed in separating whites from blacks and maintaining white supremacy at all costs.
Of course, evangelicals knew that being viewed as explicitly racist had some downsides, particularly as progressive causes and personalities became more popular. Until Lyndon B. Johnson, a Democrat, passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, evangelicals had not officially signed up to the Republican Party. After schools were desegregated, many evangelicals sent their children to private schools, where they quietly practiced racial discrimination, until the IRS began removing their tax-exempt status. It was these 1971 policies that led right-wing thinkers of the time (such as Heritage Foundation co-founder Paul Weyrich) to unite with pastors such as Jerry Falwell Sr. and politicians such as Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan in a political campaign. They would encourage their audience to inundate politicians with letters declaring their opposition to politics.
Falwell’s moral majority also stood united against abortion, homosexuality and pornography, as well as political issues such as the equality amendment for women. They outlined a specific southern strategy with a focus on economic issues, which Republican adviser Lee Atwater clearly discussed in an interview:
You can’t say until 1968 [racial expletive] – that hurts, backfires. So you say things like uh, forced bus rides, state rights and all that stuff, and you get so abstract. You talk about tax cuts and all of these things that you talk about are totally economic things and a by-product of that is that blacks are hurt worse than whites. […] “We want to cut that off” is a lot more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than that [racial expletive].
After 9/11, many evangelicals began to point to the secularization of the United States as a reason for “punishing God” with terrorist attacks. This rhetoric continued after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when people like Pat Robertson and Falwell said it was God’s will for the “sinful nature” of New Orleans; the majority of those affected by Hurricane Katrina were black.
However, Butler believes the election of President Barack Obama in 2008, our first black president, marked a turning point in evangelical racism and ultimately led to the election of Donald Trump in 2016. Obama was born the son of a Kenyan who grew up in Islam (although he later converted to Anglicanism before becoming an atheist), so both Islamophobia and racism for evangelicals have been fully effective. Butler believes Obama underestimated this:
Obama’s naive belief that Republicans and Evangelicals would behave fairly in principle was a major misjudgment on his part – not only in the election campaign, but also in his presidency. As early as March 2008, questions were raised that Obama had studied at a madrassa as a teenager in Indonesia, and rumors were circulating that he was not an American citizen. These rumors eventually turned into the “birtherism” campaign claiming that Obama was a Muslim and not an American citizen because his father was a Kenyan.
One thing Butler seems to realize all too well is that most white evangelicals and Trump supporters today don’t actively consider themselves racists, and they certainly seem unaware of the history of racism in their religious traditions. You can hear white evangelicals lament the “riots and looting” of the Black Lives Matter marches while brushing aside or even apologizing for the police murder of blacks. Evangelical leaders like Franklin Graham speak out against BLM and call for blacks to avoid being murdered by the police by “showing respect for authority and obedience,” just like his famous father, Billy Graham, who avoided explicit racism, but dined with segregationists while remaining “moderate” on race:
Graham was concerned about the rise in civil disobedience in the civil rights movement. He had hoped the movement would continue to advocate change through the judicial system, not through civil disobedience, even if it was non-violent. Eventually, Graham began to take tougher stances against King’s efforts. He was particularly despicable after the March 1963 March on Washington when he made the aforementioned remarks about King’s “Dream” speech – that it will not be until after the return of Christ before white children would walk hand in hand with black children.
If this book has a flaw, it is in its noble purpose. Butler argues that white evangelicalism is a flawed belief system that must find real 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 be convinced of her arguments, no matter how well done 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. If Butler asks evangelicals to address the institutional racism of their churches, will anyone even listen? I am doubtful.
But armed with an accurate story, you definitely have 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, and is even criticized by Franklin Graham for its stance. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. If white evangelicals are really to address the damage white supremacy has done to their politics and religion, it has to be more dramatic. They cannot be afraid of hurting the feelings of their racist friends, and they cannot attend churches where conservative opinions are more important 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 hushing up its history as a racist institution. It exposes how white evangelicals have actively promoted the worst of all racist history in the United States, including slavery, dehumanization, KKK, lynching, racial segregation, whitewashed history, and the criminal justice system. You can’t hide from her past or the way she solidifies her beliefs and ideals in the present. But what will white evangelicalism look like in the future? This is a question best left to the white evangelicals for themselves, and which neither Butler nor I can answer. At some point they have to decide what and whom to support.