White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America by Anthea Butler

Summary: An exploration of White Evangelicals and Racism, primarily focusing on recent history.

Anthea Butler is a professor of religion and history at the University of Pennsylvania. This is a book that I keep seeing advanced readers recommend. (White Evangelical Racism does not come out until March 22). In many ways, it feels like a good follow-up to Jemar Tisby’s Color of Compromise because while both have some overlap, Color of Compromise primarily focuses on the complicity in racism by the church before the civil rights era with some content after that point. In contrast, White Evangelical Racism primarily focuses on Evangelicalism from the Moral Majority rise and after. Reading them together is complimentary.

One of the complaints that Butler is clearly trying to avoid is the ‘but not all White people’ complaint. Repeatedly Butler affirms that she is talking about those White Evangelicals that she is talking about, not all of them. But she has strong words throughout the book because there is a willingness for many to be complicit.

“…when evangelical writers claim to they not understand the overwhelming nature of evangelical support for right wing and sometimes downright scurrilous Republican canidates and politicos, they fail to reckon with evangelical history.” (p9)

Like many other historians, Butler suggests that the story of Evangelicalism in the US can’t be told without discussing racism and that many evangelical historians do not want to tell that more complicated story. (p 12) With the recent analysis of President Biden’s inauguration speech, there has been a discussion about the difference in the rhetoric of Christian Nationalism and what some see as potential positives of a type of civil religion.

Butler lays out a case that the use of civil religious language in opposition to communism is related to the type of civil religious language used to oppose the civil rights movement. Quoting Billy Graham in his 1949 LA revival when Graham connected Christianity, the love of American and nationalism, and anti-communism. “…you will never find a true born again Christian who is a communist or fellow traveler. You get a man born again, and he will turn from communism.” (p42)  The result is that when the civil rights movement was labeled as communist, instead of white Christians seeing Graham’s rhetorical example as proof that fellow Christians should not be overly labeled as communists, many white Christians saw the label of communist as proof that the civil rights movement could not be Christian. (A move that is similarly being used today concerning Critical Race Theory.)

Butler notes that Graham simultaneously thought that the Evangelical church was behind on racial issues (in a speech to NAE in 1952) and that Graham was not in favor of much of the civil rights movement’s methods even as he theoretically approved of the rough concept of integration. “[Graham] recognized the problem of racial injustice and evoked the pain caused by unjust social norms, but he was unwilling to break ranks with the white status quo.” (p 44). This extended to the point where Graham refused a direct request by MLK to not appear on stage with a segregationist advocate in 1957 and spoke against the March on Washington and King’s speech in 1963. Graham never went as far as Billy Hargis who argued that desegregation violated biblical principles or the John Birch Society. Still, one of the issues that Bulter is noting is that it is rare for any white Evangelical to disfellowship another white Evangelical over racism. So while some white Evangelicals were supportive of the civil rights movement, and some like Graham were supportive of the goals. Still, not the means, and some actively opposed the civil rights movement (like Jerry Fallwell Sr), all were still within a group that still broadly self-identified as Evangelical.

There is a group that objects to the very notion of white Evangelicals. Evangelical has a theological definition, and if you meet the theological definition, then you are an evangelical, regardless of racial background. The problem with this approach is apparent in the fact that many theologically affirm the ideas that make one evangelical theologically, but most racial minorities do self-identifying as evangelical. But many that are white and do not theologically agree with the theological definition of evangelical do self identify as evangelical. Many, but not all, self-identified Evangelicals who are racial minorities have in some level ’emulated whiteness.’ (p60)  Bill Pannell said in his 1968 book, My Friend, The Enemy:

“I have no trouble believing you want me in your church to sing on Sunday. I have very little faith that you want me in your living room for serious discussion. Yet here is where the breakthrough may take place.” (p62)

There is a longer discussion about how that adoption of white norms, or how Black and other minorities were brought into white evangelical spaces under terms acceptable to maintaining racial hierarchies. For instance, Billy Graham’s use of Black singers or athletes at his crusades or Ben Kinchlow acting as Pat Robertson’s sidekick on the 700 Club gave cover against racism charges. Still, it did not subvert concepts of white superiority. As there has been some recognition that racial reconciliation efforts are necessary, those efforts often do not extend toward organizations or church leadership. And they do not extend changes in political activities outside of the church.

Overall I think that White Evangelical Racism is a helpful addition to the general literature, even as it is one of the shorter books in this area. But I wanted more discussion about why some white evangelicals were more engaged over racial issues than others and why some evangelicals are actively opposed to recognizing racial realities. I think at least part of this explanation is Christian Nationalism. But that is not a clear enough idea at this point for this to be the only answer.

I think that Butler over-identifies Evangelicalism as the problem instead of directly implicating white superiority or Christian Nationalism within Christianity more broadly. Because of that, I think there is a bit of misidentification of the problem. I do not debate with Butler’s main point that white Evangelicals have largely been either actively complicit in racism or at least tolerant in identifying with those that are complicit with racism. But while white Evangelicals are more likely to be Christian Nationalists or adjacent to Christian Nationalism or poll higher than average as xenophobic or racist or sexist, they are not the only white Christians to have issues here. White Catholics and mainline protestants and to some extent Eastern Orthodox also have similar tendencies in this direction, albeit lesser than white Evangelicals.

White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America by Anthea Butler Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition

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