White Evangelical Racism

The Politics of Morality in America

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Anthea Butler
  • Chapel Hill: 
    University of North Carolina Press
    , March
     2021.
     176 pages.
     $24.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781469661179.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality, Anthea Butler argues that “racism is a feature, not a bug, of American evangelicalism” (2). Originally an op-ed that developed into a monograph (149), the book showcases Butler’s prophetic voice as she critiques how moderate evangelical hand-wringing over white evangelical support for Donald Trump and his implicit racism ignored the longer history of direct evangelical support for racist policies and their complicity in pursuing a “color-blind” approach to racial reconciliation that denied systemic racism. Here, she narrowly defines evangelicalism as a cultural, political project that is wrapped up in white Christian nationalism and rooted historically in Southern defenses of slavery, Jim Crow policies, white supremacy, and Lost Cause religiosity. After a historical survey of the last two hundred years that focuses on the last seventy, she concludes that evangelicalism is not a religious group at all; “Rather, it is a nationalistic political movement whose purpose is to support the hegemony of white Christian men over and against the flourishing of others” (138).

One of Butler’s best contributions, and the reason all American church historians should read her book, is the way she exposes how Billy Graham’s promotion of Americanism and anti-communism fed anti-Blackness and connected whiteness with being a true American. Therefore, just as the civil rights movement was toppling Jim Crow restrictions, Graham was inculcating the dog whistles that would keep the racist underbelly among white evangelicals alive and fuel their desire to return to a nonexistent 1950s golden age. These impulses festered, and despite some attempts at racial reconciliation in the 1990s, Butler documents how they grew with the rise of the Religious Right to become the more overtly racist, dominionist Christian nationalism seen in the Trump era.

Butler’s book goes into significant detail analyzing 40-plus years of presidential politics to show how Republicans directly or indirectly appealed to the racism of white evangelicals. She presents an excellent synthesis of just how racialized Republican campaigns have been for decades and how much white evangelicals have bought into those appeals; while also showcasing the progression of those campaigns from overt to covert to overt again. However, she does so without using any footnotes for her assertions, which for contemporary material appears to rely on news coverage. Most of her synthesis appears spot on, but the lack of references makes it difficult for a critical reader to investigate her claims. She does directly cite scholars in her text and gives readers a list of critical reading as an appendix.

Butler’s book is very similar to Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise (Zondervan, 2019). Both rely on secondary sources to tell a broader story of the ways white evangelicals have endorsed overt white supremacy throughout their history. Both synthesize contemporary scholarship through compelling, convicting narratives that help connect the dots for lay readers and experts alike, helping them see more clearly what had been purposefully fogged over. Both Tisby and Butler left me wanting much, much more in terms of the level of primary scholarship that would leave no wiggle room for readers to doubt the conclusions about white evangelical racism, as we see in the work of Ibram X. Kendi (Stamped from the Beginning, Bold Type, 2016) or Gary Dorrien (Breaking White Supremacy, Yale University Press, 2018). Unfortunately, today’s publishing climate favors short, focused arguments over behemoth tours de force, and the truth is, readers are more likely to devour shorter works.

Butler’s synthesis is of great value. Where more traditional church histories might delve into the complex nuances of one single aspect of evangelicalism, Butler’s book has a prosecutor's focus in presenting her case. Occasionally, her synthesis may leave the lay reader with questions and the expert with examples or counter-examples that could both strengthen and deflate her cases. For instance, Butler’s early exploration into the so-called Curse of Ham doesn’t really capture how Southerners twisted scripture to make the curse about Ham and all of his descendants and not just Canaan, so as to include Africans. Here, her case could be much stronger. Similarly, Butler’s detractors, eager to forgive Graham or the Promise Keepers for their oversights, may overly promote their efforts in favor of racial reconciliation over ways they hindered racial justice. Detractors, of course, will never get past her non-theological definition of evangelicalism to see the merits of her case that evangelicalism has always been culturally rooted in whiteness.

The op-ed nature of this work may limit Butler’s effectiveness, as the choir will eat up her evidence, those on the fence may wobble and remain conflicted, and those in opposition will continue to bury her testimony in whataboutisms. Butler is perhaps most insightful in two places. First, when she writes that evangelicals “cloaked themselves in morality, respectability, and power” (98) so much so that they could only see their politics as “rooted in biblical admonitions and piety. The racism that underlay their religious movement could be waved away through belief, theology, and denial” (99). Second, when she notes in her conclusion that when they are critiqued, evangelicals often feel persecuted rather than held accountable (145). Despite these tendencies, Butler’s hope is that her evidence will convict white evangelicals and turn them toward repentance before it is too late. In this, her purpose is more religious than academic. She is a prophet crying in the wilderness, calling people to prepare the way for the Lord, and make their paths straight.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Christina Littlefield is associate professor of communication and religion at Pepperdine University.

Date of Review: 
July 9, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Anthea Butler is associate professor of religion at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of Women in the Church of God in Christ: Making a Sanctified World. A leading historian and public commentator on religion and politics, Butler has appeared on networks including CNN, BBC, and MSNBC and has published opinion pieces in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and many other media outlets.

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