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.”