Donald Trump’s staunch support from white Christians has invited a lot of handwringing throughout his political career. Why would Christians vote for a man whose life flaunts their norms? What about his treatment of women? What about his racism and his anti-immigrant policies? After nearly five years of questions, white American Christians still overwhelmingly supported Trump’s unsuccessful 2020 reelection bid.
Peter Wehner has argued in The Atlantic that “the Trump-evangelical alliance has inflicted enormous damage on the Christian witness in America.” When rare denunciations have come, such as women’s Bible study leader Beth Moore’s disgust at Trump’s bragging about sexual assault, more white evangelicals turned against critics like Moore than Trump. Evangelicals of color, in particular, have faced painful decisions. “I really, this Sunday, don’t feel safe worshiping with white people,” said author Jemar Tisby after the 2016 election. Yet, evangelicals are not alone. Most white mainline Protestants and white Catholics supported Trump over Biden. Polling also suggests majorities of white Christians across the country disagree with the ideas that systemic racism exists or that the legacy of slavery and discrimination has made it difficult for Black Americans to get ahead. As some white Christian leaders try to rescue their tradition from Trumpism, their message has largely been: This isn’t who we are.
A look at history, though, reveals that the forces of Trumpism—with its racism and sexism—run deep through white American Christianity. From the antebellum defense of slavery to postemancipation attacks on Black rights, many white American Christians have long defended racial hierarchy. In researching my book, Christian Citizens: Reading the Bible in Black and White in the Postemancipation South, I realized that white Christians after the Civil War invented many of the arguments that are now used by Christian Trump supporters. White Southerners argued that the Bible demanded that they oppose Black civil and political rights in favor of white men’s power because equal rights were a new political idea that conflicted with biblical teachings. They created their own echo chamber of white supremacist Christianity where they claimed that no Black Christians nor any white Christians who endorsed racial equality deserved their attention.
Defeated Southern Confederates made these claims first, but they grew to have national reach, despite Black Christians’ fierce denunciations. Northern white Christians, even veteran antislavery advocates, rarely denounced racial hierarchy or supported Black Americans’ autonomy. After Reconstruction, most Northern white Christians lost interest in aiding African Americans. At the same time, white Southerners spread their views nationally by defending them in race-blind language as faithful applications of the Bible against new modern trends for forced equality rather than biblical submission. Today, many Christians who defend rigid gender norms or fight LGBTQ equality use the same logic to say they must hold to biblical teachings against new, misguided social movements.
To dismantle twenty-first-century Christian white supremacy, white Christians need to take a long look at the ways that their defenses of gender norms and family values have reinforced white supremacy since the era of slavery and emancipation. Any effective white Christian soul-searching right now cannot start and end with Trump. It must take into account the long history of white American Christian support for white supremacist power.
In the years before the Civil War, proslavery theology was the single unifying feature of white Southern Protestantism. Southern ministers wrote the majority of all defenses of slavery during the decades leading to the Civil War, and they led efforts to create separate denominations in schisms from national Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian groups. Proslavery defenses drew on biblical mentions of slavery in the ancient Near East or Roman empire to argue that slavery had long existed as a biblical norm. The New Testament never said that slavery was sinful, so antebellum Southerners argued that antislavery Christians ignored the Bible when they claimed the institution was wrong. Proslavery writers did not defend the brutal specifics of American race-based slavery or even dwell much on defenses of racial hierarchy. Their white antislavery opponents argued against slavery, but not against racism, so white Southerners focused primarily on the abstract defense of slavery.
Proslavery defenses centered on gender hierarchy, especially widespread support for women’s subordination in marriage, to argue that slavery was like marriage or parents’ power over children. Considering slavery as like marriage, even deeply hierarchical nineteenth-century marriage, was a white supremacist lie that ignored slavery’s dehumanizing violence. But linking marriage, parenthood, and slavery let white Southern Christians knit together racial and gender hierarchy to legitimize white men’s power as the crux of biblical order.
The Bible seemed to support these links between slavery, marriage, and parenting because each of the four New Testament passages that instructed slaves to obey their masters appeared alongside instructions for wives to obey their husbands. White Southern Christians argued that any unbiased reading of the Bible proved that slavery was as legitimate a domestic relationship as marriage and parenthood. Opposition from Black Christians and antislavery white Christians simply proved to white Southerners that they alone valued the Bible enough to place its original intent above modern ideas of inalienable rights or human equality.
Violence was a feature, not a bug in this system. White Christians acknowledged that some enslavers were violent, but they claimed that, just as domestic violence against white wives and children did not affect the legitimacy of marriage or parental power, slavery’s violence did not delegitimize the institution. Because slavery and marriage were justified by God and the Bible, faithful Christians must endorse both regardless of the danger of violence to subordinate members of these hierarchies. To do less was to allow new political ideas to usurp the primacy of biblical authority.
In the Reconstruction South, white Southern Christians across denominations reiterated proslavery views to reinforce their opposition to Black civil and political rights. The Rev. Robert Dabney, a Presbyterian minister and former Confederate chaplain, defended slavery and secession in 1867 through hundreds of pages that barely acknowledged emancipation. Southern Methodist leaders used their General Conference in 1874 to reiterate that their antebellum views on slavery had been “scriptural” and “our opinions have undergone no change.” White Southern Christians believed they alone among American Christians defended the biblically faithful view of slavery as a godly, benevolent institution—a theological point that emancipation had not changed. Biblical orthodoxy, they insisted, demanded submission to hierarchy and dismissed equal rights as theological nonsense.
Many white women, especially those born into wealthy enslaving white families, embraced this rhetoric, including their own subordination, because their racial and class privilege gave them an elevated status that they wanted to protect. Much as white women have numbered among the most powerful opponents of late twentieth- and twenty-first-century gender equality, late nineteenth-century privileged white women threw their lot in with their husbands and fathers in an effort to recreate their elite status before the Civil War. Women who prayed for Confederate victory and lamented their lost wealth in the form of the persons and the unpaid labor of enslaved people later eagerly built monuments to imagined visions of the antebellum past through the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Doing so strengthened the white supremacist structures that destroyed Black lives and families in the name of protecting white women.
As they reimagined proslavery logic after emancipation, white Southern Christians defended family order as the linchpin of a godly society, but white families were the only ones that mattered. The Rev. Benjamin Palmer, a Southern Presbyterian leader, warned against “the monotony of equality” in Reconstruction as a sinful disordering of society. He insisted that “the gradation of rank in the Family”—where white men ruled their wives, children, and servants—gave the white household “value as a school for training” individuals for their roles in civil society. White Southerners valued duties of submission over rights of equality.
Through these arguments, white Southerners legitimized the violent disenfranchisement of Black citizens as a necessary component of biblical Christian theology. In 1890, as Mississippians debated the first state constitution explicitly designed to disenfranchise Black men, they paused their deliberations for a day of prayer for God’s guidance on their plans for poll taxes and literacy tests. Across denominational lines, white Mississippi ministers eagerly prayed for the constitutional convention’s work to restrict political power to white men only.
Black Christians countered these arguments at every turn, but they found no hearing from Southern leaders. Elevating the logic of proslavery theology and defending white supremacist hierarchies required that white Christians dismiss Black people as neither true Christians nor equal citizens. Black Christians argued that the Bible taught that racial prejudice was sinful and that the amended U.S. Constitution and Reconstruction laws decreed that racial hierarchy was unlawful. AME Church Bishop John M. Brown preached that Black and white ministers “as brethren beloved” must root out “Negro hate” and fight “against the sins of caste, prejudice and wickedness in high places.” For him, opposing white supremacy was a Christian duty. Formerly enslaved people whose families had been destroyed by white enslaving families thought it nonsensical that white Christians were somehow defenders of Black families.
Black citizens understood intimately the danger that they faced from unrepentant defenders of slavery after emancipation, but their Northern white so-called allies mostly ignored them. Black conventions gathered to demand that white Americans universally reject “the corner-stone of a bastard republic,” the Confederacy’s conviction “that slavery was divine.” Yet, many white Northern religious and political figures failed to heed Black Christians’ warning about the danger of durable proslavery logic, not least because most were wary of Black political equality.
White supremacist Southern Christianity gained a national audience through fundamentalist Christianity in the early twentieth century. Theological leaders of the fundamentalist movement, like J. Gresham Machen, brought these movements together in their own lives as they urged biblically faithful Christians to resist new modern trends. Machen’s Georgia-born mother was active in the United Daughters of the Confederacy as she raised Machen in a Southern Presbyterian Church in Maryland. The Bible-reading practices Machen learned from her no doubt shaped his fight against so-called modernism. Postemancipation white Christianity would cast a long shadow over the twentieth century, with echoes to our day.
White Christian racism did not start with Trump nor will it end when he leaves office. It is inextricably tied to arguments over Christian family and gender norms. White evangelicals, who have argued vociferously for women’s subordination in marriage, churches, and society, may firmly defend Trump or claim to be “baffled” by evangelicals’ support for him. But the history and the postemancipation logic of proslavery theology shows that it is precisely when white supremacy is linked to gender subordination that it is most powerful. Evangelicals will need to ask how gender hierarchy, “traditional” gender binaries, and opposition to same-sex marriage have aided the cause of Christian white supremacy over the past two centuries if they want to root out white Christian racism.
There is much to learn from postemancipation Christian debates as we navigate the aftermath of the 2020 election. Then as now, those closest to the pain—of this administration or of racist theology—have important lessons to impart. Evangelicals of color are far better situated to understand the damage done by white evangelicals’ full-throated support of this president. White Christians outside the evangelical tradition should recognize their own historical and present support for racist policies. Antebellum A.M.E. Church leader, Jarena Lee, defended women’s equal right to preach by asking, “If the man may preach, because the Saviour died for him, why not the woman?… Did not Mary first preach the risen Saviour?” Much as David Walker, an antebellum Black abolitionist, pressed critics of slavery to recognize that the root evil was not slavery but the unbiblical racial prejudice that even antislavery white Americans shared, today’s Black, Latinx, and AAPI Christians can best counter white Christians’ defenses of racist and sexist policies designed to benefit only some Americans in the name of religious and family values.
Yet perhaps the fact that these arguments are not entirely new is part of what might be hopeful here. Black Christians have been making explicit arguments that all racial hierarchy is sinful at least since the antebellum period. White Americans would do well to listen.
Elizabeth Jemison is assistant professor of Religion in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Clemson University. She is the author of Christian Citizens: Reading the Bible in Black and White in the Postemancipation South, now available from University of North Carolina Press.