The problem with vulgar racism is not the vulgarity

The problem with vulgar racism is not the vulgarity March 28, 2024

It’s a shame that Christianity Today doesn’t give a specific byline to whoever created this illustration because it’s one of the best things I’ve ever seen in that magazine.

A backlit silhouette of Donald Trump faces a backlit silhouette of Ned Flanders.
Worth a thousand words.

The image shows the backlit silhouettes of two famous men. One is a cartoon character who embodies the essence and ethos of white evangelicalism in America. The other one is Ned Flanders.

CT offers this masterpiece as accompaniment to the latest Russell Moore column which is, you know, the latest Russell Moore column. Moore has been writing variations of this same column ever since he got Ciziked from the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention. The subhed for his article offers a useful summary of his argument: “The ‘cheerful prudery’ of Ned Flanders has given way to vulgarity, misogyny, and partisanship. What does this mean for our witness?”

“Vulgarity” is an accurate word if you’re trying to describe the MAGA politics of Trump’s rallies and allies. The “short-fingered vulgarian” is, in fact, an infamously vulgar guy and the white rage and resentment at the center of his politics and of his rotted soul is, indeed, an ugly, vulgar tantrum.

But Moore’s focus on the vulgarity of Trump and his supporters, and the vulgarity of people like Doug Wilson makes it seem like he thinks v-u-l-g-a-r-i-t-y is how you spell “r-a-c-i-s-m.” Moore’s concern, after all, is not that more than 80% of white evangelicals watch Judd Apatow movies starring Seth Rogen. What he’s addressing is not vulgarity qua vulgarity, but the specific form of it that revels in racism and hatred.

I mean, I think and hope that’s what most concerns him. Like, yes, white evangelical support for Trump despite the Access Hollywood tape could be described as an embrace of “vulgarity, misogyny, and partisanship,” but the fact that Trump used the word “pussy” isn’t the worst or the most salient aspect of that. He was bragging about sexual assaults, plural, one of which he has since been found liable for.*

Similarly, the vulgar expression of Trump’s racism (and Wilson’s) is something Moore is right to criticize, but the vulgarity isn’t the biggest problem there. The problem wouldn’t be solved if white evangelicals were instead rallying behind very demure, polite racism that only expressed itself with impeccable good manners and G-rated language.

In Simpsons terms, the important thing about “Hi-diddly-ho, neighbor!” is not the “Hi-diddly-ho,” but the “neighbor.” That’s the difference between MAGA evangelicals and Ned Flanders. Ned views and greets everyone he encounters as his neighbor. MAGA evangelicals very much do not. That’s far, far more important than any contrast between their “vulgarity” and Ned’s “cheerful prudery.”

This emphasis on vulgarity is perhaps not an entirely useless approach. “Quiet down, you’re harming our evangelistic witness” is, more or less, how Billy Graham got his racist, segregationist father-in-law to dial it back a little. But it’s a pragmatic appeal, focused on appearance and image control, not on morality, love, or justice. It cannot “produce fruit in keeping with repentance” because it does not involve repentance.

Billy rightly worried that L. Nelson Bell’s rabid curse-of-Ham racism and his advocacy of Jim Crow as biblical dogma might make it more difficult to attract some people to his evangelistic campaigns.** And so — by appealing to concerns about “our witness” — he got his father-in-law to agree to mention all of that a bit less, even while still believing all of it. And while still serving as executive editor of Billy’s magazine … Christianity Today.

Billy’s “witness”-based worries about Bell’s segregationism were based on the same vibe-centric fretting about tone that sidetracks Moore. Billy Graham understood that openly advocating segregation would be off-putting to some potential converts who might see it as “vulgar.” And he didn’t want to lose half of his potential audience, so he wanted to avoid the appearance of explicit “partisanship.” It wasn’t that Billy thought his father-in-law’s racism was sinful, unjust, and blasphemous, but lacked the moral courage to call him out on that. The problem, rather, was that Billy’s disagreement with Bell’s views was largely optical and cosmetic, not substantial. “What does this mean for our witness?” served as a marketing question. It was about protecting the brand.

Here we should turn to Brian K. Ballard’s historical review of “Dr. Martin Luther King’s Life In Christianity Today Magazine.” The magazine began in 1956, amid the beginning of what historian Taylor Branch calls “America in the King years.” Ballard looks at the 52 articles and editorials Christianity Today published between 1956 and the months following King’s assassination in 1968 and, well, it’s not great. King and the Civil Rights Movement were perceived and portrayed as a dangerous threat to law and order and to the status quo.

It’s also clear from Ballard’s survey that the writers and editors of Christianity Today during those years perceived another unsettling threat from King that they couldn’t quite understand or articulate. Here was a Christian preacher with an emphatic moral vision calling for repentance — calling them to repentance. This was confounding and confusing to them. It threatened their identity and their entire sense of their place in the world. The moral high ground was supposed to belong to them. Everybody knew that, right? Sinners in need of repentance were those other people, over there. None of what these preachers were preaching made any sense to them.

You get a sense of their utter bafflement in a post-Selma editorial Ballard quotes that sniffs about “the inconsistencies and fantastic proof-texting of the clergy marchers.” (Amos? Isaiah? Aren’t those books just about, like, Baal-worship or something? Scofield’s notes barely pay any attention to those books!) Hearing scripture cited by people who didn’t share their white hermeneutic just blew their minds and threatened to blow their little world apart.

So they pushed back, criticizing King and the Civil Rights Movement and wishing it would all just go away so things could go back to the way they were before all those troublemakers started stirring things up with their marches and protests and complaining about whatever it was they were complaining about.

This, too, has meaning “for our witness.” It bears witness. It was and is witnessed by others who can see and understand what it is they are witnessing.

Moore’s question — “What does this mean for our witness?” — thus sends me back to a key moment in the history of Christianity Today that indelibly shaped both that magazine and the theology of white evangelical Americans for generations after. This is the story of Carl F.H. Henry and Frank Gaebelein in Selma. We’ve discussed this here before, but there’s still so much to unpack there that I’ll pause for now and save that for another post.

* As Liz Dye summarizes:

Donald Trump would like to remind you that he pinned E. Jean Carroll up against the wall and forced his fingers inside her, but was unable to penetrate her with his penis. In fact, he’s so interested in driving this point home that he just sued ABC and George Stephanopoulos for eliding the distinction. …

It started on the steps of the courthouse after the first jury ruled that Trump was liable for sexual assault, not rape. His attorney Joe Tacopina, was able to convince the jurors that Trump might not have been able to get his penis inside her while restraining her with his arms and his torso.

“I’m happy that Donald Trump was not branded a rapist,” the lawyer said to reporters on the courthouse steps, attempting to spin the sexual assault and defamation verdicts as some kind of win.

The judge in the case, however, notes that Trump is, in fact, a rapist as that language is usually used, if not according to the extremely technical language of New York state law. US District Judge Lewis Kaplan clarified:

The definition of rape in the New York Penal Law is far narrower than the meaning of ‘rape’ in common modern parlance, its definition in some dictionaries, in some federal and state criminal statutes, and elsewhere,” the court noted, citing dictionaries and other jurisdictions’ laws defining “rape” as non-consensual penetration of any kind. The finding that Ms. Carroll failed to prove that she was “raped” within the meaning of the New York Penal Law does not mean that she failed to prove that Mr. Trump “raped” her as many people commonly understand the word “rape.” Indeed, as the evidence at trial recounted below makes clear, the jury found that Mr. Trump in fact did exactly that.

** In addition to serving as executive editor of Christianity Today and being Billy Graham’s father-in-law, L. Nelson Bell is remembered for having served as a missionary in China for 25 years. When he returned to the US, he founded the segregationist Southern Presbyterian Journal in which, for more than a decade, he outlined his beliefs about the separation and hierarchy of “races.” It is impossible to imagine that those beliefs did not shape his “witness” as a missionary in China. I’ve read enough of his Southern Presbyterian Journal articles to conclude that he must have been a horrible, counter-productive, off-putting, repellant “missionary.”

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