For Those Who Have Ears to Hear: Anthea Butler’s White Evangelical Racism

Anthea Butler, White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021).

My dear white evangelical reader, this isn’t the winsome, Billy Graham-style evangelicalism you’ve heard so much about. This is Graham the nationalist, the fear-mongerer, the coward who cared more for respectability than justice.

Graham’s status in the white evangelical firmament is such that if you take him down, you’ve pretty much put out the lights entirely. Anthea Butler writes that Graham popularized a religion based on “fear of the other.” Sound unfair to you? Watch as Graham browbeats his audiences with the specter of nuclear holocaust, which would inevitably come within 5 years unless Jesus intervened. Watch as Graham harshly criticizes civil rights activists while ludicrously proclaiming, “you will never find a true born-again Christian who is a communist…” Read an article from a Black communist about the Jim Crow South and then do tell me who the Christians were.

It might seem fanciful to imagine Graham going down to Mississippi during Freedom Summer and getting his hands dirty, putting himself at Bob Moses’ direction, registering black voters, inviting his followers to help. Ok, yes, it definitely does seem fanciful, but take a moment to ponder that. Imagining a really productive white evangelical anti-racism is not a matter of slight reinterpretation. It’s like spinning the most wildly speculative fan fiction.

It is time, Butler suggests, for white evangelicals and the scholars who study them to stop making excuses for a movement that is obviously racist. Not incidentally or peripherally so, but at its core.

Butler, an Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, has a personal history with white evangelicalism that gives this book a welcome edge. Nearly thirty years ago she thought she was an integral member of a major white evangelical church. Then one day the pastor’s own mother turned to her and welcomed her as if she hadn’t seen her before. Hi Generic Black Person, in our spaces you will always be an Evangelical In Name Only.

Butler has an ability to deliver insights in plain language that cuts through the excuses and obfuscations of scholars and laypeople alike. “On the one hand, evangelicals wanted souls to be saved,” she writes. “On the other hand, they wanted everyone to stay in their places.”

Is it pedantic to quibble with such flaying prose? I’ll risk it. Butler would be even closer to the mark if she put these two propositions in direct symbiosis rather than in tension. Souls being saved was the means by which people would be kept in their places. Later, in a scorching and necessary conclusion, Butler does suggest precisely this kind of dark synergy.

Butler is especially strong in her analysis of how people of color became key validators of white evangelicalism’s supposedly colorblind credentials in the decades after the civil rights movement. At the same time, they often faced an inexorable pull toward the whitewashing of their identities. Bend the knee to white evangelicalism’s racial and cultural codes, or else.

But wait a minute! It can’t be all bad, right? What about all the good stuff? Butler is up front about her decision to ignore the abolitionist evangelical tradition (which, as she notes, was not guiltless anyway) and focus on its more racist and southern-dominated version. This is any historian’s prerogative. After all, deliberately including some stories while excluding others is one definition of writing a book. But in this case there’s even more justification for her decision.

I think Butler understands that evangelicals may wield the abolitionist evangelical tradition as a shield (“look at the good our ancestors did!”) or forlornly appeal to it (here we find a few iconoclasts like Michael Gerson and Randall Balmer), but it is an inheritance that doesn’t actually belong to the vast majority of today’s evangelicals. Today’s evangelicalism descends from darker currents of the evangelical past. Why focus on a more progressive tradition that evangelicals cut themselves off from a long, long time ago?

Wait another minute. Are we getting caught up in the moment, telling one-note stories about how all evangelical roads lead to Trump? Is it so simple? Whether the Trump era was an unveiling of what was there all along or a story of the decline and fall of white evangelicalism is, to me, a difficult question. The headlines in White Evangelical Racism declare that this was an unveiling, but the fine print tells a more complex story. In the final chapter Butler does trace the causes and symptoms of a declension. Things may have always been bad, but then they got even worse.

Butler has given us a polemical synthesis. I suppose that for every page there is a specialist somewhere grinding her teeth. I had a few such moments myself. But the value of the book is in its clear-eyed call to stop making excuses for this destructive political religion we call evangelicalism. In a searing conclusion that you really must read, Butler speaks to any evangelical who still has ears to hear. It’s time to do something that evangelicals used to talk a lot about, but seem to have forgotten. It’s time to repent.

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