Reckoning with Evangelicalism’s Racist History
A Review of
White Evangelical Racism : The Politics of Morality in America
Review by Alisa Williams
“Trump isn’t the reason why evangelicals turned to racism. They were racist all along” (141).
In White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America, Dr. Anthea Butler offers a succinct and compelling analysis of evangelicalism’s racist roots. While some have argued that evangelical racism began in the Trump era, and have loudly cried, “Not all evangelicals!” Butler gives ample evidence that racism has always been a cornerstone of evangelicalism.
“Racism is a feature, not a bug, of American evangelicalism,” states Butler in her introduction (2). She continues, “From using the Bible to support slavery to opposing the civil rights movement, integration, and interracial marriage, evangelicals have long employed a presumed moral authority to hide their prejudices” (8).
Evangelicals, Butler argues, have conflated Christianity and whiteness, which has allowed them to ignore racism (9). The belief that Christianity (i.e., whiteness) is the one and only correct path, ordained by God, has caused evangelicals to embrace structures and policies that are inherently racist, with the fervent belief that the “other” must assimilate and conform, shedding their non-Christian (i.e., non-white) identity in order to be in God’s favor.
Butler recognizes that these aren’t easy truths for evangelicals to hear. “This book aims to tell the story evangelicals won’t,” she says (12). She does just that, and begins by laying bare “The Racist Foundations of Evangelicalism in the Nineteenth Century” (chapter 1):
“The nineteenth-century racial practices of white supremacy and violence would affect how twentieth-century evangelical leadership engaged African Americans and their forthcoming quest for civil rights, justice, and full citizenship. Most of all, they would allow white evangelical leaders to justify their decision to keep the reins of religious, social, and political power in white men’s hands” (32).
In chapter 2, “Saving the Nation,” Butler explains how Billy Graham and his contemporaries “exemplified a kind of religion that combined Christianity, patriotism, and politics into a potent mix of respectability that was predicated on fear of the other” (33). The “others” Graham feared were communists, Catholics, and immigrants. Butler shows, however, that the definition of “other” morphs and adapts to keep whiteness at the epicenter of power. The label “communist” provides an apt example. “For evangelicals,” explains Butler, “communism was not simply a social movement but an atheist movement that, with almost religious fervor, sought to destroy Christianity” (40). Black activists, including Martin Luther King, Jr., were called communists in the 1950s and ’60s. But true to racism’s ability to expand and shift, today it is the Black Lives Matter movement that is labeled communist while King’s memory has been whitewashed, with evangelicals’ selective quoting of his work serving to bolster their guise that racism is a thing of the past, instead of an ever-present thread woven through the heart of their religion.
I was particularly struck by chapter 3, “Whitewashing Racism and the Rise of the Religious Right.” Butler’s analysis of how evangelical leadership, particularly Jerry Falwell with his Moral Majority movement, shifted from an anti-political, separation of church and state stance to the embrace of tactics that actively sought power and prestige in the political arena was illuminating. Her ability to clearly and concisely explain this history was extremely helpful to my understanding of the rise of evangelicalism within conservative politics.
Butler says that when evangelicals felt their power waning with the passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960s, they realized it
“would take more than simply ignoring race for [them] to continue to hold political power and sway. It would take a whole new approach to hold power, putting a coat of fresh paint on the old racist structures of evangelical life and belief” (55).
Falwell’s strategic team-up between the Moral Majority and the Republican Party embedded evangelicalism in government in an unprecedented way. Butler writes,
“Race hatred played the fundamental role in, first, pushing evangelicals toward a ‘color-blind’ gospel, which would provide cover for their racially motivated organizing against the federal government, and second, their push to block implementation of the hard-won gains of the civil rights movement. This color-blind gospel is how evangelicals used biblical scripture to affirm that everyone, no matter what race, is equal and that race does not matter. The reality of the term ‘color-blind,’ however, was more about making Black and other ethnic evangelicals conform to whiteness and accept white leadership as the norm both religiously and socially” (58).
Butler further explains that,
“Using morality and color-blind conservatism as a shield, evangelicals made new political alliances and created organizations, such as the Moral Majority, that would promote their favored issues while continuing to embrace racist practices and strategies to consolidate economic and political power” (59).
Though it is commonly believed that abortion was the issue that compelled evangelicals to dive into the political fray in the 1970s, Butler gives irrefutable evidence that it was, in fact, racism — specifically, fear of interracial marriage — that was “the catalyst for full-throated evangelical engagement in the political realm” (66).
Evangelicals experienced some success with their early engagement in politics, including pressuring the IRS to back off its percentage integration requirements for Christian schools. Such victories emboldened evangelicals to tackle other issues, including abortion and homosexuality, which culminated in “the culture wars” of the 1990s. Butler outlines how, alongside the culture wars came the racial reconciliation movements “between white evangelicals and African Americans [which] took several forms and met with varying degrees of success” (86). Before this decade, racism had been considered an individual sin, not a corporate sin, explains Butler. “Not until the 1990s did evangelicals begin to consider the possibility of a broader social culture of racism” (87). However, despite this shift in understanding, “Prayers, it seemed, would permeate most of the… major efforts at racial reconciliation in the 1990s” (91). Racial reconciliation efforts, while numerous, saw “short-lived and cosmetic at best” results (95). Butler’s point is that,
“even while white evangelicals may have begun to change their social attitudes and habits in order to accommodate African Americans in churches and schools, in the political realm white evangelicals supported candidates and positions that were unremittingly conservative and designed to keep African Americans and other ethnic groups out of positions of power” (94-95).
The fourth and final chapter, “How Firm a Foundation,” delves into how “structural racism in evangelicalism clearly and visibly exploded” in the twenty-first century (98), first in the wake of 9/11, then with the overt racism toward President Barack Obama followed by the euphoric support of President Donald Trump. Butler powerfully sums this up in the following paragraph:
“Up to this time, evangelicals had cloaked themselves in morality, respectability, and power. Their politics seemed, to the average onlooker, and perhaps to most of themselves, to be rooted in biblical admonitions and piety. The racism that underlay their religious movement could be waved away through belief, theology, and denial. Not so since the year 2000” (98-99).
“The journey to Trump,” writes Butler, “is a story of how whiteness and racism combined to make evangelicals a potent voting bloc awash in racism and racial animus” (99).
It is this story that Butler has so skillfully told in White Evangelical Racism, and it is a story every American Christian, and certainly every white evangelical, needs to reckon with. As Butler says, “If you are an evangelical reading this book, then I would ask you to look around and see what your witness has wrought” (146). This is an uncomfortable, painful challenge, but Butler’s invitation to look, to see, and most importantly to change, is one that we must accept.