Anthea Butler has a quick answer: No
“Evangelicals, you have a problem,” warns Anthea Butler in White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America. “That problem is racism.” For Butler, a professor of religion at the University of Pennsylvania, white supremacy is now and has always been a dominant theme in the life of the churches that, since the Second Great Awakening, have usually housed the greatest number of American Protestants. With erudite passion she briskly surveys this benighted history from the “curse of Ham” that helped legitimize slavery, to the ban on interracial dating at Bob Jones University, to the disdain of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson toward the civil rights movement, to the ardent backing most white evangelicals bestowed upon Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim ban and his hostility towards the Black Lives Matter protests of last summer.
Her detailed polemic gives evangelical leaders no points for what she believes are their occasional, superficial efforts at image buffing. Butler dismisses statements like the apology for “perpetuating individual and systemic racism” the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) issued in 1995 as ignoring the problem of “structural racism” within that and other denominations. “Evangelicalism,” she intones, remains “synonymous with whiteness.”
It’s a powerful critique—and a short-sighted one. No good historian would refute the details in her indictment of the anti-Black views and practices of white evangelicals going back to the early republic. However, Butler slides too quickly over the efforts of abolitionists like the Garrisonians, evangelicals all, who claimed their hatred of human bondage was faithful to the Gospel that Christian slave-owners betrayed. And in her chapters on recent decades, she strains to interpret campaigns by right-wing Christians against abortion rights and same-sex marriage as just as motivated by whiteness as were Jim Crow laws. “The darkness of Obama’s skin,” she writes about the 2008 election, “was what they believed would cause the country to go dark.”
In her zeal to maintain that such grievances were grounded in racism, Butler neglects the deep impulse of moral conservatism long shared by religious Americans of many faiths and colors. The revulsion against liberals who allow “baby killing” to remain legal and promote “gay lifestyles” is rooted in traditional beliefs shared by many Black and brown evangelicals as well as white ones. And it was Catholics, not evangelicals, who created the right-to-life movement, while in 2017 the Catholic Church’s Conference of Bishops was—like the SBC—fully supportive of the Colorado baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple. For that matter, neither Hillary Clinton nor Joe Biden escaped the wrath of the same culture warriors who lambasted the first Black president. Racism, as Butler makes clear, has always permeated the evangelical churches. But it has never been the only source of resistance to progressive change.
At times Butler’s short book reads more like an angry sermon than a work of historical reflection. “Evangelicals capitulated. Evangelicals prevaricated. Evangelicals tolerated. Evangelicals participated,” she concludes about people she likens to Pharisees who “comfort themselves in the arms of power, in symbols that Jesus disdained.”
As a former evangelical who rejected a faith she considers hostile to her race, Butler has certainly earned the right to speak her truths to potent figures in that world. In 1992 she was about to enroll in a Pentecostal seminary when an all-white jury found a group of Los Angeles police innocent in the severe beating of Rodney King, whom they had stopped for drunk driving. At “a healing celebration” held at Butler’s church, a leading white member of the congregation “who knew me from several other events” mistook her for a Black person who had just wandered into the place that day. “That moment,” she writes, “encapsulated for me what evangelical attempts at interracial cooperation accomplished. Invisibility.”
Her rhetoric of damnation leaves no hope for salvation or even serious reform, for evangelical leaders or their flocks. After all, if conservative Christians enlisted in the battle against “structural racism,” they would have to embrace a radical analysis of American society that contradicts their worldview about nearly everything: the individual nature of sin, the virtues of capitalism, the idea that the United States is a nation blessed by God. It would probably lead to an irrevocable split in that faith community and a swift decline in its numbers. Thus, sadly, this little volume is unlikely to reach the people she addresses directly and urgently.
While reading Butler’s book, I kept thinking about the famous appendix about religion that Frederick Douglass included in his first autobiography, the Narrative of his youth as a slave, published in 1845. “What I have said respecting and against religion,” he wrote,
I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference—so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other.
That distinction, it seems to this non-believing reviewer, suggests the best and, perhaps, the only way to persuade white evangelicals—or any other devout Christians—to eliminate the systemic racism in their churches and in American society at large: Oppose the promise of a redemptive religion to the application of a wicked one.
Michael Kazin is a professor of history at Georgetown University and emeritus editor of Dissent. His next book, What It Took to Win: A History of the Democratic Party will be published next March.