I recently finished Anthea Butler’s new book White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America. It offers a short and accessible, yet powerful, overview of the centrality of racism in white evangelicalism in the United States.
Butler’s argument is straightforward: racism is at the core of white evangelicalism — or as Butler repeats in the introduction, “It is a feature, not a bug.”
To make her case, Butler provides an overview of evangelicalism from the nineteenth century to present, tracing how racism has shaped American evangelicalism for the last century and a half. She details the ways the Bible was used to justify slavery and later Jim Crow. She describes how evangelicals dismissed the civil rights movement and argued that racism was an individual issue to be solved by Jesus and not something that needed to be actively opposed. And she explains evangelicalism’s embrace of a “colorblind” approach to issues of race in the 1970s and 1980s, which conveniently let evangelicals off the hook for ever dealing with racism in their ranks while obscuring the ongoing suffering of people of color.
It is a much-needed analysis, given how easily people dismiss or excuse the racism that has become so evident in white evangelicalism in the last few decades. Butler does not make excuses or hide the truth by arguing that evangelicals who embrace racism are not “real” Christians. Instead, she makes it clear that evangelical racism is neither an accident nor a fringe idea. As Butler argues, “Race and racism have always been foundational parts of evangelicalism in America, fueling its educational, political, social, and cultural mores.” From the slaveholding evangelicalism of the nineteenth century to the reluctance and outright refusal to support the civil rights movement to the colorblind gospel of the 1970s and 1980s, racism has been a central tenet of evangelical faith.
Another important question she raises is how did we all miss this? How did so many scholars, journalists, and others miss the centrality of racism in shaping evangelicalism? Why were so many people surprised by evangelical support for Donald Trump and his most racist and abhorrent positions?
One potential answer she offers, and one I’ve been thinking a lot about since reading Christopher Cantwell’s piece in Religion Dispatches last month, is that scholars of evangelicalism like Mark Noll, David Bebbington, Thomas Kidd, and others focused on “defining evangelicalism via theology and history” and so missed the ways racism infused evangelicalism. Cantwell makes an even stronger point, arguing that focusing exclusively on evangelical theology obscured the longstanding problems in evangelical culture. He writes, “[Evangelicals] support him because evangelicals have long served as one of white supremacy’s greatest allies. Yet for too long the study of evangelicalism has sanitized the political and racial elements of American evangelical history by focusing solely upon its piety and theology.” Butler’s book makes it clear that we can no longer sanitize that story.
As pointed out by others, Butler’s book pairs well with Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne — read together, the books clearly map out why evangelical support for Donald Trump makes so much sense. It is not an aberration that flies in the face of their beliefs but something perfectly in line with the culture and religion cultivated by evangelicals for decades.
Evangelicals have allowed and even celebrated racism and toxic masculinity so it should be no surprise that they embraced Donald Trump as their champion. And we should not be surprised when they show us who they are. As Butler concludes, “Jesus said, ‘By their fruits you shall know them.’ Evangelical fruit — the results of evangelicals’ actions in civic life — today is rotten. Racism rotted it.”
Racism has been an ongoing people with the evangelical movement. Review the red lining situations in Michigan cities where African Americans where forced to live in segregated areas. The evangelicals should be ashamed of themselves in allowing this to occur. For example, I was brought up in the Christian Reformed Church. As you know both the Reformed and Christian Reformed Churches are well know in their national and international efforts to alleviate poverty. However, their efforts in the United States in promoting social equality almost negate their efforts in the alleviation of poverty. What is interesting the local church where I attended was very involved in the local civil rights movement of the sixties. One must never forget the so-called leaders of the evangelical have abandoned the message of the gospel. Remember Jesus attacked the so-called religious leaders of his time. How do they justify their life styles of such luxury and wealth when the Son of Man did not have a place to lay his head. The church needs a revolution to go back to the message of the gospel and not be concerned with accumulating worldly power. As we see minorities suppressed on a daily basis, the church needs to arise proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ and the good news of the Republican party or Trumpism. I have read all the books you have mentioned in your article as well. Thank you for your writing.
Allison, I applaud what you wrote. Kristen Kobes Du Mez’s book is a wonderful book. There are many others. I have not read the one you reviewed. We should wake up. I became a Democrat during the late 60s with the Civil Rights movement. It said everything we should believe. I believe it today so let us change for the Lord. It is late but we have another opportunity to be at one with the Lord.
This review adds weight to a question I have been mulling over: Would the world be better without evangelicalism?
Butler’s take is something of a tautology: if you define evangelicals as a social movement centered int he south, it is not surprising that the same social movement reflects the south.
A host of questions are left on roadside: what about the evangelicals (those abolitionists) whom she left out? what about immigrants? what about the differentiation of the take of evangelicals and that of the general surrounding society? And then there is the shifting boundary of who would call themselves an evangelical. And finally, one might ask why the term White Evangelical has replaced that of the Christian Right–is there a smuggled anti-religion animus at work, here?
Further, we are stuck with a Great Man theory of history: the leaders are the big story. However the real story lies a little more offstage: how did what was essentially a regional sensibility come to dominate identity. This is a matter of sociology as much as it is of the usual gang of suspects.