I’m Not Here to Fix Evangelicals, But to Show Them Who They Are: An Interview With the Author of ‘White Evangelical Racism’

Billy Graham in 1960 at First Baptist Dallas where he'd been a member since 1953. The church's pastor, and notorious segregationist, Rev. W.A. Criswell is at right. (First Baptist Church of Dallas)

For readers of RD, Anthea Butler scarcely needs an introduction. Since 2009, shortly after RD’s launch, Anthea has contributed well over 100 pieces on topics as wide-ranging as the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church and the Politics of African-American Hair, to Ronnie Dio and Dominionism. A professor of Religious Studies and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, Butler, whose popular Twitter feed is a must-read, is a public intellectual in the best sense of the term. She is also part of an emerging cohort of scholars, many with extensive personal experience in evangelical subculture, who have refused to whitewash the authoritarian nature of evangelicalism, a practice that pervades most scholarly and popular writing on the topic.

White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America

Anthea Butler
U of North Carolina Press
March 22, 2021

If asked to recommend only two recent books on conservative, mostly white evangelicals, I would recommend Kristin Kobes du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, for its unflinching look at evangelicals’ specific inflections of toxic masculinity over the last few decades, and Butler’s White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America, for its likewise unflinching exposure of the systemic and sometimes overt racism that pervades evangelical communities and institutions. Both books are thoroughly grounded in historical expertise, but both also occasionally venture into normative, even theological, discourse, which makes senseboth authors are addressing people they know well, and who let them down.

Of course, most evangelicals themselves will ignore these trenchant but much needed criticisms. For readers interested in how and why white evangelicals perpetuate racism and sexism to the point that they enthusiastically embraced Donald Trump, however, both books are indispensable. I was honored to get the chance to interview Butler about her new book. Here’s what she had to say about it.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Chrissy Stroop: Thanks for agreeing to do this interview, Anthea. Having read White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America, I’m impressed with how much ground you masterfully cover while keeping the text engaging and accessible to the lay reader. As we continue to live in the shadow of Trump’s term in office, I see the book as a must-read.

I also appreciate the open and vulnerable way you integrate parts of your personal story as a Black woman who was hurt in (predominantly white) evangelical spaces with the broader historical story you’re telling. This kind of thoughtful approach to your  relationship with your subject  is the kind of writing on the Christian Right that I most like to read and that I strive to produce myself, though of course it can be controversial among some academics and journalists. Would you mind telling readers what inspired you to pursue this project with the personal material included?

Anthea Butler: I’m not sure I would call it vulnerable, Chrissy. I think of it as part of the ordeal and story that anyone who isn’t white goes through at one time or another in a church that’s predominantly white and evangelical. I wanted to include my religious past as a way to show readers that there’s a point where people do decide that racism is enough to make them leave the church; and also for evangelicals who would just think that it’s just another person from the ivory tower critiquing religion. I’m sure it might be controversial, but hey, I thrive on that, so… “elmo shrug.” The bulk of the book is history, and I’m not making my story the center of this story. 

Why did you choose the subtitle The Politics of Morality in America

The subtitle is about the thesis of the book: simply put, morality isn’t a religious issue for evangelicals, but a political tool they hide behind that allows them to obscure the racist and sexist pronouncements and laws they often back and promulgate. From the ways in which white women were put on a pedestal by white men in the Reconstruction and Redemption era, to the lifting up of the “family” as a way to disparage Black families as not being “moral” if there wasn’t a two-parent household, evangelical moral issues about sex, family and money have never been applied stringently to themselves or their leadership the same way they’ve applied it to other religions or ethnic groups. 

One of the book’s theses is that evangelicals’ unwavering Trump support cost them a lot. But has it? What would you say to someone who suggests that their reputation with the general public hardly matters, given both the short political memory of white Americans and that the Electoral College, Senate representation, filibuster, gerrymandering, and voter suppression grant them disproportionate power anyway?  

It may not matter to evangelicals that their reputations are shatteredafter all they are used to saying that they’re persecuted. It fits their narrative. It does matter that the news media and voters keep believing that they actually care about moral issues. They care about power. And many of them are in power, so that is a concern for all sorts of policy issues, especially for reproductive and sexual rights. 

It matters that the media and voters understand that moral issues are a tool for wielding power, and for obfuscating evangelicals’ need for access to it. It may be that they have power because of patriarchy and whiteness, but the pendulum swings, always. While their ascension has seemed to be a steep, uphill climb, I think the jig, as they say, is up. 

One more note. There isn’t much about Trump in this book, for one particular reason: evangelicals didn’t become this because of Trump. Trump was simply the apotheosis of who they have been for a long time. He was close to the pinnacle of all they could want in a leader. He was just a bit too crass for the more refined evangelicals. 

Perhaps my favorite part of the book is its refreshingly honest depiction of Billy Graham as someone characterized as “waffling on civil rights.” Instead of praising Graham to the skies for integrating some of his crusades in the South, you note that he also held segregated crusades even after his first integrated crusade. You also point out that he had no qualms about joining First Baptist – Dallas, the megachurch now headed by staunch Trump loyalist Robert Jeffress, when it was pastored by the segregationist W. A. Criswell.

Further, instead of whitewashing Graham’s association with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., you describe the relationship as “testy.” You even state baldly that Graham “exemplified a kind of religion that combined Christianity, patriotism, and politics into a potent mix of respectability that was predicated on fear of the other.” Why do you think the mythos of Billy Graham is still so powerful in American society, and how does the power of that mythos play into the racism of white Christians?

Because Billy Graham’s “moral stances” on the surface make him seem balanced. If you don’t know much about Graham’s life, and the ways in which he deployed race at his crusades, while supporting avowed racists like the former Governor of Texas, Price Daniel, you would think he’s progressive. But a closer look at the ways in which he used King in 1957, denigrated the March on Washington, and his deployment of African Americans in his evangelistic rallies in the 1970s and beyond, tells a tale about someone who wasn’t a solid anti-racist, but a man who molded himself to conventions of society in order to preach the gospel. 

He was a gradualist, not someone who wanted the Civil Rights Movement as we know it. It was an “eventually, but not now” issue to him. To be honest, I think the only deep wound to his reputation that has ever clung to him were the Nixon tapes and his derogatory comments about Jews, and his preaching on homosexuality. 

After the 1960s, some evangelical denominations engaged in a variety of projects that fall under the rubric of “racial reconciliation.” I appreciate the way Rev. Dr. Andre Johnson rejects that framing by simply asking: ”Be reconciled back to what? Back to the time when there was a debate that people who looked like me did not have souls? Back to the time when slavery was blessed by God? Back to the time when separate but equal was the law of the land?” 

As you point out in White Evangelical Racism, the National Association of Evangelicals itself was founded as a whites-only organization. And the book is also critical of evangelical “racial reconciliation” efforts. Would you mind summarizing for readers what those efforts look like, and why they fail?

Racial Reconciliation efforts of the 90s and beyond are mostly in the context of denominational meetings that put out statements, have a photo op, and talk to the press about “repentance” for past racial sins. They’re rarely about structural racism, but often about racism as personal sin. The personal sin of racism was a hallmark of Promise Keepers, which was about “relationship,” not structural change. 

Now think about all the upheaval of the SBC about “Critical Race Theory” in light of their past efforts on racial reconciliation, and one can understand that these reconciliation “performances,” as I like to call them, don’t want to deal with the history of racism within evangelicalism, America, or how the denominations themselves don’t want to interrogate the structural racism that continues to proliferate in their ranks. 

You’ve commented on Twitter that you were writing with “respectable” evangelicals like Michael Gerson in mind. What makes you think there’s anything reformable, salvageable, or worth saving, in evangelicalism? And do you think hand-wringers like Gerson and Peter Wehner represent any possibility for a better evangelicalism? What does an evangelicalism that isn’t “predicated on fear of the other” look like? 

Ha! You’re asking a lot of questions here. Let’s boil it down to one: Are American evangelicals in denial? Yes. I wrote this book because I want evangelicals to see all the ways they’ve been racist since the 19th Century. It’s not just about Gerson or Wehner, but the project of the writing of evangelical history from the foundations: George Marsden. Mark Noll. Thomas Kidd. David Bebbington among many others of that first generation. All of these historians and authors have a purposeto write evangelicals into the history of America from the perspective of white evangelicals. They more often than not take the White Savior approach to writing evangelical history. When I say white savior, I mean that they get to be the valorous religious group that supports abolitionism, does missionary work, and wants to win the world over for Jesus. That pleasant history obscures the real issue of racism that is foundational to evangelicals. There are evangelicals of color who bear the brunt of racism within denominations and churches. It’s time to tell the truth about that. 

Moreover, evangelicals need to come clean about the fact that their theology doesn’t matter to them or anyone else when it comes to voting or upholding moral values. It’s about authority and power. So leaning on biblicism or theology in the American context right now, like the SBC is with Critical Race Theory, is a sham. It’s about protecting white patriarchy. I for one welcome all the books that are correctives to the social, religious and political history of evangelicalism that are coming out right now. We are the new generation of academics who are redefining evangelicalism. 

I think my message in this book is clear. I’m not here to fix evangelicals. That’s the job of those who still find value in it. My purpose in writing was to hold up the historical mirror to the movement, and show them who they really are.