The last several years have witnessed no small uptick in accessible academic books about evangelicals. Some of the most striking works have explored the political and racial history of the movement. This is evident in books like Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism, John Fea’s Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, and Thomas Kidd’s Who is an Evangelical?: The History of a Movement in Crisis.
Into this rich body of work steps Anthea Butler’s White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America, an analysis of American evangelicalism’s last 50 years that also includes a larger backstory. In some ways it is a cross between the spirit of The Color of Compromise and the style of Believe Me. Butler argues that the persistence of racism among evangelicals (not fear, as Fea argues) explains their support for Donald Trump and conservative politics since the 1970s.
Butler, a professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, provides a strong historical overview of the depth and breadth of racism in American evangelical culture since the early 19th century. A strong work of synthesis designed for a popular audience, White Evangelical Racism deftly weaves together cutting-edge scholarship on evangelicalism from the last 20 years. Citing such important scholars as Daniel K. Williams, Joseph Crespino, Kelly J. Baker, Darren Dochuk, and Randall Balmer, among others, Butler challenges evangelicals to reject their racism and lust for political power and to work cooperatively with their fellow Americans to build a better society.
While prominent scholars of evangelicalism such as Mark Noll, George Marsden, David Bebbington, and Thomas Kidd define the movement theologically and historically, Butler argues that it is “not a simply religious group at all” but rather a “nationalistic political movement.” Evangelicals, she writes, have defined themselves by their “ubiquitous” support for the Republican Party and its conservative quest to retain America’s “status quo of patriarchy, cultural hegemony, and nationalism”—and this has made evangelicals, for all intents and purposes, culturally and politically “white.” She argues that racism and a quest for political power have defined evangelicalism for approximately the last 50 years.
While evangelicals often like to emphasize the proudest moral and racial moments of their past, Butler cares nothing about boosting their collective self-esteem. In fact, her project is designed to do the exact opposite. She wants to use history to jump-start some serious evangelical soul-searching.
To this end, she deliberately focuses on the “trajectory of evangelical history that supported slavery, the Lost Cause, Jim Crow, and lynching” because it is key to understanding how and why evangelicals “continue to use scripture, morality, and political power” today in support of racist and conservative policies and politicians. All this makes for painful reading, especially for those unfamiliar with the history. Butler argues emphatically and unapologetically that racism thoroughly infects all of evangelicalism. “Racism,” she declares, in one of her pithiest formulations, “is a feature, not a bug, of American evangelicalism.”
Butler is at her best when exposing and seamlessly weaving together the long arc of racist evangelical practices from the days of slavery to our own generation. (About half of the book covers national politics in the post-1970s era.) She offers a refreshing corrective to common popular misconceptions about 19th-century evangelicals and race, such as the notion that evangelical theology “required” believers to be abolitionists and that only Southern evangelicals were racists. She unflinchingly confronts evangelicals’ complicity in America’s lynchings (over 4,000, according to NAACP records), their support for Lost Cause ideology, their history of opposition to interracial marriage, and their contemporary insistence on a colorblind approach to race.
Butler’s analysis of the 20th century is impressively thorough as it draws in a wealth of prominent evangelical leaders, organizations, and initiatives: Billy Graham, the National Association of Evangelicals, W. A. Criswell, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, Focus on the Family, the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, Bob Jones University, Oral Roberts, Pat Robertson, Jack Hayford, George W. Bush, Franklin Graham, John Hagee, the Memphis Miracle (a 1994 interracial gathering of charismatic denominations), and the 1995 Southern Baptist resolution repudiating racism and slavery.
For me, one of the most painful parts of the book involves the sad story of Butler being offended while she was a member of Church on the Way, a key turning point in her journey away from evangelicalism. Another involves her recounting of a pair of infamous quotes from conservative political operatives Paul Weyrich and Lee Atwater. In the 1980s, Weyrich had told a mostly Christian audience that they should not want as many people as possible to vote, and Atwater had explained how conservative political rhetoric, while less outwardly racist than in the 1950s, still aimed at policies with a similar “byproduct”: that “blacks get hurt worse than whites.”
While the arc of Butler’s narrative is largely accurate, she sometimes omits nuance to magnify the force of her argument. Black evangelicals, non-Trump-voting evangelicals in 2016, and self-identified progressive evangelicals will not find themselves well represented in this book. While she acknowledges the existence of these groups, she makes it clear that this book is not about them. In some ways Butler’s narrative implies either that they can’t be “real” evangelicals or that they are irrelevant to the story of evangelicalism. These groups already have a difficult time being heard within the movement, even without writers like Butler further downplaying their existence.
At times, Butler pushes her argument so passionately that she implies either that Black evangelical is an oxymoron or that all Black evangelicals have effectively become culturally white. Both views are quite disturbing. Butler’s book left me wondering whether she personally knows anyone in any of these evangelical subgroups and, if so, what she would say to them.
Furthermore, Butler sometimes uses dubious or uncontextualized statements to support her narrative. Her discussion of the argument that slavery resulted from the Curse of Ham lacks historical context. She implies that this understanding of Genesis 9 originated with Southern white slaveholders, when in fact it began in medieval times and involved non-Christian interpreters. When discussing the evangelical response to Hurricane Katrina’s impact on New Orleans, Butler highlights quotes from figures like Pat Robertson, Franklin Graham, President George W. Bush, and Dwight McKissic. But she omits the vast efforts undertaken by evangelical groups to provide relief to victims, leaving readers with a tremendously oversimplified picture. Just because the media emphasizes certain “high-profile” evangelicals does not mean that rank-and-file evangelicals believe these individuals represent their views.
On a related note, Butler sometimes demonstrates a shaky grasp of who belongs within the evangelical fold. Her definition of evangelicalism leads her to identify pastors Rod Parsley and John Hagee as on the “margins of the evangelical world,” while placing Dylann Roof, who killed nine Black parishioners during a Bible study at a historic Charleston church, squarely within it. I understand that there is some overlap, however regrettable, between the domains of white supremacists and evangelicals, but Butler presents no evidence that Roof inhabits that space.
Perhaps Butler’s most egregious statement comes when she asserts that evangelicals “have turned away from those who are impoverished and in need” to support powerful businesses and wealthy politicians. But a wealth of research tells a different story: After Mormons, on a per capita basis, evangelical Christians are the most generous givers in the United States.
While Butler’s book does not commit a lot of space to discussing Donald Trump specifically, it does argue that white evangelical racism helps to explain why so many overlooked his moral failures in order to vote for him.
All in all, Butler clearly aims to be a prophetic voice awakening evangelicals to their ongoing racism and its implications for American society. And while there are certainly other factors besides racism that explain individual evangelicals’ political choices in recent years, Butler is correct to make sure we don’t overlook the role racism has played overall. This is definitely not a book for people who don’t want to be challenged.
Paul Thompson is professor of history at North Greenville University.