White Evangelical Racism, Anthea Butler. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, (Forthcoming, March) 2021.
Summary: A short history of the evangelical movement in the United States, showing its ties to racism and white supremacy from the time of slavery down to the present.
This was an uncomfortable book for me to read and review. In our racialized society, I would be identified as white. By conviction, I would identify as evangelical. What troubles me about this account is that it makes a good case that the evangelicalism in America with which I am identified is inextricably bound up with the history of racism, America’s original sin, as Jim Wallis has called it.
Anthea Butler offers in this book a concise historical account of white evangelicalism’s complicity in racism. She traces that history from the support of slavery in white, mostly southern churches. She follows this through post-Civil War Jim Crow laws and the support of white churches for segregation, and the participation of churches in lynchings. While some mainline denominations gave support to the civil rights movement, evangelicals remained on the sideline, calling this a “social gospel.”
Butler is not the first to note that the coalescing of evangelical political engagement in the Seventies and Eighties came as much around the denial of tax exemption for segregated schools like Bob Jones University as it did around opposition to abortion, which was originally not an evangelical cause. She traces the rise of organizations like Focus on the Family, the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition that led to an increasing alliance of evangelicalism with the Republican party, culminating in the support of 81 percent of self-identifying evangelicals with Donald Trump in 2016 despite race-baiting language, anti-immigration stances, and support of white nationalistic aims.
Perhaps no one person has defined American evangelicalism more than Billy Graham and so Butler devotes a chapter to him. While he desegregated his meetings, and hosted black speakers on his platform, and even include a black evangelist on his team, he took care to distance himself from the civil rights movement as it embraced nonviolent civil disobedience. King may have shared his platform once, but no more. Graham also preached against communism, associated by many in the South with the civil rights movement. His record was ambiguous at best and in the end, the focus remained on winning people to Christ rather than unequivocal stands for racial justice.
Parts of me wanted to protest against this sweeping indictment by citing the abolitionist efforts of northern evangelicals, and other socially engaged efforts in the nineteenth century. Butler does mention this as well as other forays like that of the Promise Keepers into racial reconciliation. The sad fact is none of these movements prevailed over the long haul in standing against white supremacism. The first decade and a half of the twenty-first century saw some promising evangelical initiatives around racial reconciliation and immigration reform, only for these to wither over the last five years.
I also wanted to protest that evangelicalism is not inherently white. Black and Latino churches in this country share the same theology. And people globally identify with the same theological convictions that form the core of American evangelical belief. I’ve been in a meeting with representatives of over 150 countries where this was the case, where those of my skin color were a minority. But in the ways American evangelicalism has separated itself from its Black and Latino kindred, the judgment stands. The typical first response of many white evangelicals to a Christian person of color trying to talk about racial injustice is to defend and argue rather than listen to a fellow Christian. We seem remarkably untroubled that divisions by race in our churches mirror our political divisions.
Butler, a former evangelical who still cares about this movement, reaches this sobering conclusion:
“Evangelicalism is at a precipice. It is no longer a movement to which Americans look for a moral center. American evangelicalism lacks social, political, and spiritual effectiveness in the twentyfirst century. It has become a religion lodged within political party. It is a religion that promotes issues important almost exclusively to white conservatives. Evangelicalism embraces racists and says that evangelicals’ interests, and only theirs, are the most important for all American citizens.”
I have no defense against this. I fear evangelicalism in the United States may be like the church in Ephesus described in Revelation 2:1-7. The church was marked by its orthodoxy and yet Jesus has this to say: “Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place” (Revelation 2:4-5, NIV). I fear we are at imminent risk of losing our lampstand, that is, our witness within the culture. In fact, I find most churches are more concerned about political interests than even their historical distinction of seeing lost people come to Christ. Butler’s message mirrors that of Jesus in Revelation. This book is a call to repentance. The trajectory of history is not inevitable. We can turn away from the precipice. But I fear the time is short.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss. The opinions I have expressed are my own.