White Evangelical Racism

White Evangelical Racism March 25, 2021

Anthea Butler’s White Evangelical Racism is a tough, hard-hitting book. She pulls no punches. There’s no spoonful of sugar accompanying this medicine. This is a book that sears without soothing.

“Racism,” she begins, “is a feature, not a bug, of American evangelicalism.” What is American evangelicalism? While other historians point to theological definitions or situate the subject within a particular historical movement or moment, Butler employs the “working definition” in the contemporary United States. American evangelicalism is white. And conservative. And the heart of the matter is not religion, but politics, patriarchy, and racism. Evangelicalism, she maintains, “is a nationalistic political movement whose purpose is to support the hegemony of white Christian men over and against the flourishing of others.” Elsewhere, she writes that “evangelicalism is synonymous with whiteness … not only a cultural whiteness but also a political whiteness.”

This is an impassioned and prophetic engagement with American evangelicalism. Butler identifies herself as a “former evangelical.” White evangelicals treated her like an outsider within their spaces, and so she eventually left those spaces. She inhabited an evangelicalism that was rotten and wanted to flourish outside of it.

I can’t separate myself from this history either. I grew up within the subculture of American evangelicalism, in YoungLife, in InterVarsity, within an evangelical-leaning Presbyterian congregation. That was my world, and it was in that world that I developed my own faith in Jesus Christ. I haven’t spent as much time in evangelical spaces in recent years, but evangelicalism very much remains part of who I am. I am grateful for my time in those spaces and for the people who inhabited them with me.

And so it’s hard not to bristle a bit when they’re defined as part of a white nationalist movement. Surely those places, where I felt myself flourish, were good, are good. Surely they are not primarily focused on the “hegemony of white Christian men over and against the flourishing of others.” Piety and evangelicalism very much seemed to be the focus .

At the same time, I know that most white evangelicals voted for a misogynistic racist for president. Fool them once, shame on him. Fool them a second time… Maybe they weren’t fooled. And shame on them the first time, actually. White evangelicals supported President Trump’s immigration policies, feeling little concern when children were separated from their parents at the border. Compared to most other Americans, even many other white Americans, white evangelicals consider racism at most a minor problem in contemporary America.

So which is the real evangelicalism? The evangelicalism I experienced, or the one Butler experienced and described?

Here we have to dig into the meat of Butler’s concise book, because the answers to those questions don’t hinge on Donald Trump and his evangelical supporters. “Trump isn’t the reason why evangelicals turned to racism,” she asserts. “They were racist all along.”

That assertion requires a quick journey through the last two hundred years, especially “the trajectory of evangelical history that supported slavery, the Lost Cause, Jim Crow, and lynching.” As Butler observes, there were other trajectories, including “substantial contributions to the abolitionist movement and to the education and uplift of African Americans during Reconstruction.” Butler’s decision to focus on one trajectory over the other leads to an obvious objection. Why focus on proslavery southern evangelicals and the Religion of the Lost Cause instead of on their northern counterparts? As Butler notes, many northern evangelicals were also “affected by ideas about the superiority of white European civilization and a sense of Christian duty that at times was expressed in ways that demeaned the very people they wished to help.” She might have made this point more strongly to forestall the above-mentioned objection. Although most northern white evangelicals were anti-slavery, most were also anti-abolitionist and in no way accepted the political and social equality of Black people.

Onto the twentieth century and Billy Graham. Surely it gets better here. “If evangelicals believed in saints,” Butler comments, “Billy Graham would be balanced on the top.” Graham was a “moderate” on race. What did that mean? He did integrate his crusades, but he felt increasing “disdain” for Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement. “On the one hand,” Butler observes, “evangelicals wanted souls to be saved. On the other, they wanted everyone to stay in their places.” It’s no wonder Graham became an enthusiastic supporter of law-and-order Richard Nixon.

The next section of the book is the most decisive, because here it’s easy to lose sight of evangelical racism. Between the seventies and the nineties, Butler explains, evangelicals preached a “color-blind gospel … encompassing their cultural acquiescence to the inclusion of African Americans in their churches, revivals, and schools while simultaneously fighting against the gains of the civil rights movement in the political and legal arena.” In the process, white evangelicals leaders engaged in a long courtship with conservative Republican politicians, and evangelical votes followed. Any overtures to racial reconciliation “were shortlived and cosmetic at best.”

I found myself bristling at several points during White Evangelicalism Racism. I don’t agree with the seeming equation between “conservative” or “Republican” and “racist.” I do see many evangelical spaces as first and foremost theological and religious. I would put more space between a figure like Billy Graham and a figure like Billy James Hargis than does Butler. I cannot reduce an organization like InterVarsity to white Christian nationalism.

It’s so easy to object. It’s so easy to minimize the issue.

And yet, it’s more important to listen and learn. It’s way more important. White Evangelical Racism is a powerful work of prophecy, in the manner of Hebrew prophets who called the people to account for their sins:

Evangelicals are not being persecuted in America. They are being called to account. Evangelicals are being judged for not keeping to the very morality they asked others to adhere to.  They have been found wanting. Evangelicals comfort themselves in the arms of power, in symbols that Jesus disdained. They are the Pharisees … Evangelical fruit – the results of evangelicals’ actions in civic life – today is rotten. Racism rotted it.

And as Butler points out, not just racism. Sexism. Islamophobia. Hatred for gays, lesbians, and transgender individuals. Butler is calling for repentance.

The truth is that if I stop objecting and think more critically about some of the evangelical spaces I’ve inhabited, they weren’t immune. Sure, there was some space for female leadership, but all of those spaces were patriarchal. Those spaces taught me that only men should lead churches, only men should preach. Those spaces were full of homophobia. And, yes, they were white, at least mostly.

Shaped by those evangelical spaces, and by the other places I inhabited, I developed a very stunted political and social vision of the world. I grew up with a politics that worried more about people cheating the welfare system than about the fact that too many people were poor. In a very safe suburban childhood, I grew up with a politics in which candidates couldn’t be too tough on crime. That meant they couldn’t be too tough on criminals. I grew up with a politics that feared same-sex marriage but had no concern for the way that schools, churches, and communities treated gay and lesbian individuals. I grew up blind in so many ways.

Evangelicals aren’t the only Americans who are blind. At best we all see through a glass, darkly, to paraphrase the Apostle Paul. But evangelicals haven’t wanted to see the eye doctor. The same patterns that were always there shaped evangelical enthusiasm for or at least acquiescence to Donald Trump. In what Christian world could people care so much about building a wall and deporting migrants and so little about the circumstances into those people were being forcibly returned? In what Christian world could people tolerate a politician and a president who demeaned women, the physically handicapped, Muslims, Mexicans? (Trump even privately disdained evangelicals). In the world that white evangelicals made.

How should evangelicals respond to White Evangelical Racism? They might ask Jesus to heal their vision. Like the blind man in Bethsaida, they might even need a double treatment.

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