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The Conversation

White Evangelical Racism Has Always Been a Political Power Grab

Anthea Butler explains how racism has been essential to growing the power of white evangelical Christians

Evangelicalism is having a moment of reckoning. What once seemed like a conservative, Christian way of life became so baldly entangled with President Donald Trump, and so obviously detached from its espoused morality, that many followers are now leaving their churches. Those still on the inside are trying to see a movement they still love for other reasons, more clearly. And those on the outside are trying to grasp why Christians were willing to excuse Trump’s speech and actions against women and immigrants and his easy embrace of racism.

While evangelicals defended the movement by pointing to those in their history who were abolitionists or by painting portraits of a color-blind spreading of the Gospel, the movement’s broader history and powerful influences are far from innocent.

Anthea Butler’s new book, White Evangelical Racism, shows how racism is original to the fabric of evangelicalism. She draws lines from Biblical references used in defense of slavery, through Reconstruction when Black men were framed as a sexual menace against virtuous white women, and evangelical believers and churches engaged in lynching. Butler demonstrates how political organizing by the Christian Right in the 1970s (prior to Roe v. Wade) was actually first a response to desegregation and the end of interracial marriage bans. That power coalesced and became institutionalized in such a way that evangelicalism was no longer exactly a religious designation but a political one.

As Butler reminds readers of her book, scripture quotes Jesus saying, “By their fruits you shall know them.” But, she continues, “evangelical fruit — the results of evangelicals’ actions in civic life — today is rotten. Racism rotted it.”

Sarah Stankorb: How did evangelicalism become so detached from a morality it always claimed to be a part of? Why are people finally able to see it for what it really is?
Anthea Butler:
I think it’s sad it took this long. The media allowed evangelists to narrate their stories. And when the story became too ludicrous to be narrated, it became apparent to people with the support of Trump [that] morality just didn’t really matter. Morality was a way in which evangelicalism made a grasp for power. By pretending to be moral agents, they have garnered a lot of power and authority in political ways.

What I hope about this is that it gets people on the same page to understand that structural evil, structural racism, is just as bad as individual racism. But evangelicals have wanted to deal with this as though it was individual sin and not a corporate problem or issue.

I wanted to ask you about the difference between individual sin and this idea of corporate sin. When evangelicals deal in politics, they point outward and say, “Look at that collection of sinners. Look at communism. Look at women or men who get an abortion.” It’s almost like individual sin occurs for evangelicals. Corporate sin only happens outside the evangelical movement.
They never think about racism as a structural sin because when you’re in power, that means you would have to critique yourself, right? And they don’t want to do that.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading about Christian nationalism. The language people use now so often is about the idealized 1950s white family, where the man’s right of way was the path America was destined to be built upon. Just before the idealized stability of the 1950s, World War II had truly threatened a sort of end times. I wonder if that’s part of why Billy Graham accumulated such influence and resonated so much with white Americans during that period — because they had faced the brink.
It’s not just the fear of the end of the world. It’s about the fear of communism changing their world. Communism was used to talk about racism or civil rights… that this was all going too far. I think it’s a big story about how education and race and integration really put the fear into everybody about what was coming and helped to galvanize people to come together. So that by the time you get to the gathering of the Religious Right in 1980, where Paul Weyrich says, “I don’t want everybody to vote,” then that makes a lot of sense. They come together on all of these issues.

I interviewed a woman last week who grew up going to segregation academies in Mississippi. Of course, since then, she’s had to do a lot of deconstructing from many aspects of that. She mentioned how her parents would have been really deeply offended if someone suggested they were racist. I wonder if part of the power of racism in these institutions is the way it can be hidden from the very people who populate them and keep them running.
Part of it is that they don’t want to see it. I mean, if you exist in this kind of environment where everybody around you is like you and everybody uses this religious language, then why do you need to change? It’s jarring when other things happen, right?

These worlds are carefully constructed by evangelicals. One of the things that the book doesn’t outright say is how these different organizations create silos. In these silos, you can listen to everything you need about your family from Focus on the Family or American Family Association. You can get your voting from Christian Coalition. You can watch Christian TV. You can be told who to vote for by Christians. It’s like all of this stuff works together in a very tight world. What I think my book shows is how racism recirculates throughout that world.

I wonder if you could elaborate a bit on how capitalism and the profits that come from evangelicalism also then got folded in.
This is the idea that business is morally good and that capitalism is a good thing. Once you get the entrance of prosperity gospel, it becomes very clear that money is a sign of God’s blessing, right? This shows that God is blessing them in a certain kind of way. It also fits into ideas about Calvinism and how people think that they’re supposed to work for God.

I grew up in the 1980s in what some call the Rust Belt of Ohio, in an area where there was not a lot of love for Ronald Reagan. Like, my dad would constantly go off. I thought Reagan was a swear word because he just said it with so many other curse words. It was very, very poor… very, very Democratic area, but not especially evangelical. Jump ahead to 2016, when my home county threw in for Trump. It was the first time since I was alive the county went for a Republican president.
I would say that, for evangelicals at least, it was easy to vote for Trump in 2016 because Trump promised them things that they said that they wanted. I think what’s more interesting is to hear how, when people said they would vote for Trump in 2020… that they will say, well, my finances are okay and I’m doing all right. It was as though they didn’t see all the stuff around everybody else with the pandemic. Even if they were broke, they felt like they still had more money. I think this is where my book kind of relates to another book, Dying of Whiteness by Johnathan Metzl. I think what the real issue is, is that for evangelicals, this is an important part of how they see themselves in relationship to Trump and the world.

We think the world is going to hell in a handbasket if our person isn’t in power. But, at the same time, we want our person in power because our person is taking care of us. Trump is like a daddy for them.

In my research, I’ve kept returning to purity culture and the notion of preserving whiteness as purity, as part of purity’s symbolism. I’ve seen youth group lessons where they talk about purity and pass around a white flower. Everyone around the room would touch it. In the end, the flower would be soiled. White was clean, good, pure. Otherwise, the symbolism was so blatant. The Black women I’ve interviewed and other women of color I’ve interviewed who are brought up in this culture… the symbolism was not lost on them. There’s this layer of, “I’ll never be pure enough.”
That’s a good point about how all women get into this. I think that brings up a really important point about the book. Just because it says white evangelical racism doesn’t mean that everybody else can’t ingest this, right? There’s a lot of Black evangelicals who probably need to read my book because it will help them understand what it is they’re sitting under.

Among Black protestants who go to church the most, there’s been this beginning shift toward the Republican party. And most of that shift is by men. What is it about these Trump years that made very religious Black men want to be a Republican?
Well, but you know why?

Is it the manhood thing?
Yeah, it’s the manhood thing. That he allows them to behave in ways that they know nobody’s going to put up with. That he also valorizes money. Trump is the closest thing to rap writ large: beautiful women, lots of money, lots of bling, I say what I want to say.

I’m not saying that’s the only thing that resonates with Black men about Trump, it’s also the sense in which he’s an entrepreneur. He makes money. He has beautiful women around him at all times. His kids are obedient. These are things that I think a lot of men, Black or white or whoever, lets men love him too.

It’s this idea that you are the master of your destiny and your fate and some little woman is not telling you everything. That makes you a strong man.

Everyone’s talking about how evangelicalism is having this reckoning. What’s really happening?
I think there are people who are leaving because they don’t want to deal with this change. But there are also people who are staying or trying to bring other people in because it helps to manage their lives, and it helps to make sense out of what they see in a rapidly changing and senseless world.

Do you think evangelicalism will change?
Well, I think it always changes in terms of the culture.

For the better? To be more inclusive?
It always changes. But for the better? I’m not sure. I was really clear about this in another interview. I said, “I just came here to show you who you are.” But I don’t know how to articulate that to them because I’m a person who’s confronting them, you know? I think that they need to really, definitely consider the fact that we all think that they’re pretty racist right now, and you don’t need my book to tell you that.

As someone who writes about religion, what sort of words should we be using to try to make these dynamics underlying evangelicalism today more apparent to people who aren’t aware of some of the deeper history?
I think you should think about it as a religious-political movement. They have a lot of control, they have people in power, they have people in authority.

For too long we’ve allowed evangelicals to write stories about themselves and shape the conversation. And we’ve accepted tacitly that conversation as true. It’s not that it was a lie, it was just that it was only part of the story. What my book and others are trying to do is to set this in a bigger context that will help people understand why evangelicalism is where it is today.

And then I think the second part is more about how evangelicalism has been wrapped up in Christian nationalism and these ideas about morality that have been detrimental to the country. I mean, we can see that in the recent murder of six Asian women and the two unfortunate people who happened to be there. There’s a guy that kills eight people because he has a pornography addiction, but yet still he’s born again and saved and in a Baptist church that preached against all that kind of stuff. And then we have a sheriff who tells us that shooting several Asian women in a massage parlor wasn’t “racially motivated.”

Why would you do that? Why would you say this is not racist? Well, because you don’t think it’s racist because those are “bad women.” Sexuality has been used to beat people over the head and distort what’s really happening. We could have a whole another long conversation about pornography. But the fact of the matter is that that’s just another way, another evangelical tool to control the narrative.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Sarah Stankorb is a contributor to GEN. Other works in The Washington Post, Marie Claire, Glamour, O, and The Atlantic. @sarahstankorb

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