The academic literature on American evangelicalism is broad, deep, and largely sympathetic, authored in many cases by evangelical scholars who hope to preserve and nurture as well as document the tradition. Though many writers have conceded certain flaws and failings on matters like race and sex, such problems are most often treated as exceptions to the rule—the regrettable legacy of certain bad apples or influences. In her new book, White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America, Anthea Butler disagrees. “Racism is a feature, not a bug, of American evangelicalism,” she writes.
Butler is associate professor of religious studies and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania. A popular Twitter presence, she is a frequent commentator on religion for media outlets, including MSNBC, CNN, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. She is the author, previously, of Women in the Church of God in Christ: Making A Sanctified World. In her latest book, Butler provides a sweeping survey of American history since slavery, documenting the various ways that white evangelicals have contributed, through active collaboration and passive complicity, to the racist status quo in American life.
Eric C. Miller spoke with Butler about the book recently by phone. Their conversations have been edited for length and clarity.
Religion & Politics: The book is White Evangelical Racism—three words with which we’re all familiar, but that have been variously defined. Either separately or together, what do they mean to you?
Anthea Butler: I chose this title because I wanted to set certain parameters for the book. I specified white evangelicals to show that I’m using the term in the way that it is used colloquially by the media and the political pundits, rather than in some academic sense. That popular understanding of evangelical can be traced to self-identification, to the demographic of white, Christian conservatives who consider themselves evangelical. And I included racism because it is a very particular type of racism that I am discussing. That is, the racism that hides behind “moral” issues.
I address these questions at some length in the book, exploring how the meaning of evangelicalism has changed over time, and recognizing that there are a lot of people out there who don’t realize they’re in this thing because their self-concept leans heavily on theological considerations, allowing them to pretend that they’re not political. But nobody cares about your commitment to the Bebbington Quadrilateral when you’re arguing about the Supreme Court or judges or abortion. They care about how your belief informs your politics, which candidates you vote for, and what they stand for. So I wanted to pull evangelicals out of this safe little realm in which they’ve placed themselves and press them to confront how other people see them.
R&P: That theological/political distinction seems important here, because evangelical scholars have characterized the tradition primarily in theological terms. Has that emphasis left us misunderstanding who evangelicals are?
AB: Absolutely. Here’s the thing—and I can say this, having once been a part of this movement and studied it now for many years—evangelicals care about theology insofar as it remains an internal argument. It is not the external argument. But the theological emphasis allows them to insist on a high-minded conversation that doesn’t have to grapple with racism or gender issues or sexuality or anything else. The problem is, the theological positions they’ve taken end up shaping their political positions on moral issues. Complementarianism, for example, is one way that theological beliefs drive the political discussions.
R&P: Can you say more about that example? How does a theological belief in complementarianism drive political discussions?
AB: In 2008, when John McCain selected Sarah Palin as his running mate, I recall Tony Perkins made the comment that, while she could be the vice president, she could not be the head of her home—something like that. It made me start to think about the bounds of what is appropriate for women where evangelicalism is concerned. A lot of evangelicals derive their views about gender, family, and politics from the belief that God created women to perform certain roles and men to perform others and that they complement each other in various ways. So when we talk about gender equity in public life or wages or some of these things, there’s an assumption that men should hold a privileged position because it’s part of God’s design. That theological belief is brought to bear on the political discourse, with consequences for the public.
R&P: You mentioned that you have a personal history in evangelicalism. What was your experience within an evangelical church like?
AB: It was mixed. I went to Fuller Seminary in the early 90s, and I was there during the Los Angeles Uprising—or the riots, however you want to term it—so there was a lot of discussion about race on campus, and a lot of it was constructive. But at the same time, there was also a lot of discussion about marriage, whether the seminary should tolerate divorced people or recognize second marriages, or how it should handle LGBT issues, which of course is still relevant since they’ve now been taken to court by some former students. In my view, this sort of thing was less constructive. So, I had some really good professors, and some really good conversations, but I was also exposed to the warts. One of these concerns the various ways that evangelicalism is constructed as white.
In 1994, when George Marsden’s Reforming Fundamentalism came out, there was a big celebration on campus. The book was a history of the establishment of Fuller, and the bigger story about the fracturing of fundamentalism and the establishment of new (neo) evangelicalism. For me, though, both that book and that event demonstrated the extent to which this story about evangelicalism was white, and the extent to which non-white people were really marginal within that narrative.
R&P: My sense is that, throughout the book, you restate the caveat that not all evangelicals are racists while observing that most evangelicals are conservative, and one of the things that conservatism seeks to conserve is racial hierarchy. Is that accurate?
AB: Yes, I think so. A lot of readers will find this troubling because they would prefer not to think about it. But if you look at evangelicalism as a political movement, in addition to a religious group, you have to grapple with the various ways that whiteness can be reinscribed. It’s not just that the movement is led by a bunch of white guys. It’s that there is a cultural whiteness at the heart of evangelicalism that anyone who enters the community has to receive. I try to show, from Billy Graham onward, how this inherent whiteness works, often by way of color blindness. Officially, evangelicalism claims to be committed to a series of beliefs and values that are higher than and so uninvested in questions of race, and yet their political conservatism really seems to limit their tolerance for non-white input, even from peers and leaders who share their belief system.
Let’s think about Raphael Warnock, for example. He’s the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, has a Ph.D. from Union Theological Seminary—the same school where Reinhold Niebuhr taught—and yet white conservatives have been very disdainful of his Christianity. They’ve repeatedly picked apart his statements and questioned his faith. Now I ask you—what does this mean? To me, it’s an example of how the goalposts always get moved for Black evangelicals in a way that never applies to white evangelicals.
R&P: Let’s consider some cases. If we go back to the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, would we have found strong evangelical support for slavery and Jim Crow?
AB: Evangelicals who have written their history have asserted that, yes, we were abolitionists, we opposed Jim Crow, we were for temperance, and we worked hard to push reform on all these social issues—and much of that is true. But what I wanted to do was to show the various ways in which they also accepted the social and structural racism embedded into society. Denominational splits happened because of slavery. In the Reconstruction period, the “Religion of the Lost Cause” lamented the end of slavery and asserted that Black people were inferior. The missionary movement asserted that foreigners were “heathen” in need of civilization, which was invariably couched in white expressions of Christianity.
These are important issues, and they explain why I started the narrative in the nineteenth century. I wanted people to see the historical arc of how racism inflected almost every point of evangelicalism along the way. If I started in the twentieth century, people may simply say, “Oh, that’s modern-day racism.” But we need to see the underpinnings of what happened in the movement to understand the very clear throughline of racism connecting the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries.
R&P: In the 1940s and 50s, evangelicals were consolidated in and around the National Association of Evangelicals, Billy Graham, and a patriotic “Americanism.” What did these have to do with race?
AB: They had a lot to do with race! Patriotism, first of all, was codified through whiteness. The National Association of Evangelicals was comprised entirely of white denominations. Based on theology, a lot of Black denominations would have fit with the NAE, but they were not invited. Billy Graham was talking about communism as an existential threat to America, at a time when the charge of communism was easily tainted with a racial brush, so that anyone who was Black, and working on integration issues or civil rights—including Martin Luther King, for example—was easily branded as a communist. And there’s much more. Essentially, I’m trying to show that modern American evangelicalism has been constructed on racial ideas and assumptions, even though these may not always be explicitly stated.
R&P: In the 1970s and 80s, the Christian Right became a political force by advocating “moral issues” and “family values.” As you note, the movement was also reliant on racism. Tell us more about that.
AB: There’s a prevalent belief around evangelicalism that the movement was formed in the 70s in response to Roe v. Wade. In actuality, though, it had a lot more to do with taxation, and specifically with the federal government’s decision to strip segregation academies—and significantly, Bob Jones University—of their tax exemptions. This prompted huge letter-writing campaigns, and mobilized evangelical activists led by Paul Weyrich, among others. It wasn’t abortion that fired them up—it was integration, taxation, busing, and similar issues. You have to understand that, while Brown v. Board happened in 1954, integration didn’t happen immediately. In many parts of the country—including the town that I grew up in—integration didn’t happen until the middle of the 1970s. And in those places, racism was not a problem for evangelicals so much as a rallying cry that they could organize around.
Shortly before Ronald Reagan told evangelicals that he “endorsed” them, he launched his campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, not far from the place where Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman were murdered. Why do it there? Because it communicates, to anyone who is paying attention, that Ronald Reagan is for “state’s rights.” He’s not going to interfere in southern states, and his government is not going to interfere. His candidacy was a direct rejection of 1960s governmental action on civil rights, and it played directly into evangelical disdain for such governmental action. If integration was going to happen, evangelicals wanted it to happen on their terms, and not the way the government wanted to do it.
R&P: Early in the twenty-first century, evangelicals positioned themselves behind George W. Bush, against Barack Obama, and emphatically in support of Donald Trump. It seems impossible to separate race and politics and religion from that support.
AB: In 2000, one of the tactics used by the Bush campaign against John McCain was to spread the rumor that he had fathered a Black child, when really it was his adopted daughter from Bangladesh. In South Carolina, where the primary was being held, this deep-sixed McCain’s campaign. And where did the smear originate? With a professor from Bob Jones University. We don’t even have time to cover all things they did to Barack Obama. There was the deployment of race in the claim that he was born in Kenya; that he was a secret Muslim. The sound of his name made him a target for the same sort of Islamophobia that evangelicals embraced after 9/11. Billy Graham’s son, Franklin, was immediately on board with Trump’s birtherism, demanding that America’s first Black president produce his birth certificate to prove that he’s a real American.
It is naïve to think that these things are not racialized. Because if you think that, then you are complicit in this larger evangelical project, which is to make us believe that they are this benevolent and patriotic group working for America’s flourishing, when in fact they are interested only in their own.
R&P: You’re part of a cohort of academics—I’m thinking also of Jemar Tisby, Kristin Kobes du Mez, and Beth Allison Barr, among others—with recent books taking evangelicalism to task for its sins where matters of race and sex are concerned. Given how ancient and entrenched these problems are, do you think that historians can change them?
AB: Yes, I do think we can change them. For so many years, this was a project for white, male, evangelical historians—to document and define what evangelicalism is and has been in American life. And I think that they have been largely unwilling to look at the implications of this movement, whether those be political, cultural, racial, sexual, or something else, because they recognized that these are minefields. But they wanted to do serious work and they wanted to be taken seriously outside of their circles—there’s a reason Wheaton is known as the “Harvard of Evangelicalism”—so they wrote themselves into a valorous history, a history without complications, a history that elides the pockmarks. What we are trying to do, as scholars, is to say, “there are some other things to write about here, and you all are not the gatekeepers of this history anymore.” And that’s not to besmirch them. It’s just to say that this is a different day, we have some different tools in our tool kit, and it’s time for us to use those tools to take stock of what really happened.