September 2021 Church & State Magazine | Books & Ideas

White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America by Anthea Butler. University of North Carolina Press, 176 pp.

By Ethan Magistro

Anthea Butler’s White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America is a concise but scathing review of the history of racism in the white evangelical tradition.

Butler traces racism’s roots in evangelicalism to the early 19th century, when the split between abolitionist evangelicals and conservative evangelicals emerged. She then dog­gedly traces how the seeds of the conservative evangelical movement grew into Jim Crow laws, withered in the face of attempted racial reconciliation in the 1980s and 1990s, and then erupted again in 2008 during Barack Obama’s presidential run.

Butler’s point is a strong one, but the argument runs into some theoretical roadblocks. Her conclusion, that white evangelicalism “is a nationalistic political movement whose purpose is to support the hegemony of white Christian men over and against the flourishing of others” was telegraphed from her decision to focus “on the trajectory of evangelical history that supported slavery, the Lost Cause, Jim Crow, and lynching.” Whiteness has indeed defined Southern evangelicalism since the 1800s; but an argument can be made that far-right politics, which has long been enmeshed with whiteness, has also come to define evangelicalism.

That does not mean Butler’s work is unsuccessful – far from it. Her tome seeks not only to present a history of evangelicalism, but to reveal to white evangelicals the pain their religion has wrought. She presents damning evidence and chilling stories of white evangelical racism. Butler’s investigation of the group’s biblical justification of slavery, fiery indignation toward and against interracial marriage and its antagonistic relationship with the civil rights movement provides enough compelling evidence to challenge any argument claiming the evangelical political movement is not intricately bound with racism.

Butler’s assertion that evangelicalism became a nationalist political movement begs the question of if it always was a nationalist political movement. While evangelicals became a real political fighting force for the Republican Party in the 1950s, they were influencing politics, and being influenced by politics, since the Second Great Awakening. Most saliently, it was the Southern white evangelicals, who were already right-leaning, that expanded the movement and drove it into the hands of what would become the Republican Party.

Butler writes, “[E]vangelicals have burrowed their identities into the infrastructure of Republican politics since Billy Graham’s relationship with Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower.” It might have started before then, with Southern white evangelicals burrowing their identities with politics since the 1800s.

The text itself is an enlightening read. Butler characterizes the pivotal years of evangelicalism succinctly, writing “[F]or evangelicals, the years from the seventies to the nineties were defining ones, encompassing their cultural acquiescence to the inclusion of African Americans in their churches, revivals and schools while simultaneously fighting against the gains of the civil rights movement in the political and legal arena.”

Butler lays out the intricacies of the evangelical desire to retain racist fundamentalist culture while ditching theological principles. Her analysis of Graham’s conflation of communism with race is prescient. She does a solid job of showing how dog whistles, like the phrase “states’ rights,” kept racism alive in the evangelical movement while it pivoted toward what she claims was a cosmetically “color-blind” stance on race. The presence of racism in the movement waxed and waned, but, according to Butler, it never fully disappeared. She makes that case rather well.

Butler is at her best when she provides a lucid and cogent examination of the evangelical right from 2008 onwards. Her description of how Sarah Palin reignited the embers of racism among evangelicals is gut-wrenching. It is shocking to read that Palin, referring to Obama during the 2008 election, once said, “I’m afraid if he wins the Blacks will take over. He’s not a Christian! This is a Christian nation! What is our country gonna end up like?”

The apocalyptic attitudes evangelicals adopted with Obama’s election set the stage for the church-state separation battles Americans United is fighting today. Butler articulates this connection clearly, writing, “Older evangelicals viewed [Obama] as a threat not only to their ideals of the presidency but also to existential beliefs about their white nationalistic Christianity that had been an essential part of messaging from both their denominations and their media leadership. … Evangelicals began to use the language of ‘religious freedom’ as a way to exclude LGBTQ persons from civil rights and to lobby for special status in cases such as the Masterpiece Cakeshop case.”

Against the backdrop of this history outlined by Butler, it’s challenging to argue against her ultimate claim that white evangelicalism is a nationalist political movement. Its aims, Butler claims, are “overturning Roe v. Wade, building a conservative Supreme court, creating a Christian nation (whatever that means), rescinding same-sex marriage, and somehow turning LGBTQ people into straights.” In other words, it’s a United States without church-state separation.

White Evangelical Racism offers a lot for any reader. But its promise to be a wake-up call for white evangelicals seems likely to go unfulfilled. It’s hard to believe that Butler’s appeal to evangelicals to “see what your witness has wrought” will change any conservative evangelical minds. After all, the book’s conclusion comes after 140 pages exploring how white evangelicals routinely deny the history that she has laid out. Rather, Butler’s work is valuable because it offers those who oppose an evangelical utopia a way to understand what drives a movement intent on annihilating the wall of separation between church and state.

Ethan Magistro is a philosophy major at Princeton University. He interned in Americans United’s Communications Department this summer.