What Does White Evangelicalism Mean?

Anthea Butler | White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America | University of North Carolina Press | 2021

reviewed by Sharon Kuruvilla

Has American evangelicalism been “stamped from the beginning” with racism? Debates over the relationship between race and evangelicalism are one of the primary divisions in the modern evangelical denominations today; denominational fights over subjects such as critical race theory are primarily used as proxies to contest the ideological relationship between race and evangelicalism. 

Anthea Butler’s book White Evangelical Racism argues that the debates happening in the evangelical church today are not secondary but ultimately foundational to how (white) evangelicalism sees its role in America. In Butler’s eyes, evangelicalism has been unable to acknowledge the struggles of Muslims, Latinos, and African Americans in facing racism and responsible for whitewashing racial tyranny during the era of slavery and even beyond. For Butler, the connection between emerging far-right political extremism in the Republican Party and evangelicalism is not an accident⁠—it was the intent from the start. 

Butler argues that white evangelicalism is a movement that is primarily concerned with maintaining the status quo, patriarchy, and American nationalism. While Black evangelicals do exist, she argues that the collective political interests of Black evangelicals versus those of white evangelicals have diverged. For Butler, the history of white evangelicalism has been intertwined with ubiquitous support for the conservative movement and the Republican Party. For some mainstream evangelicals, the turn to support Trump was a mis-step by a political movement that was for the most part trying to pursue good ends until Trump corrupted the movement; Butler wants to drive a stake through the heart of this argument, arguing that this myth of a virtuous evangelicalism misrepresents evangelical history when it comes to racial oppression. 

For Butler, misrepresentations of sacred scripture were used as tools of oppression by white evangelicals against Black people and other minorities. Slavery and discrimination were directly tied to specific biblical beliefs held by Christians and defended as the only faithful Christian belief to uphold at the time. Butler recognizes that there were evangelicals who made major contributions to the abolitionist movement and the uplifting of African Americans during the Reconstruction era⁠—however, Butler argues that focusing on only that side of evangelical history misrepresents the overarching political vision of evangelicals at that time. 

Biblical passages such as Ham’s curse in Genesis and the Pauline epistles were used as justifications for white domination of Black people in the form of slavery. “God has ordained slavery as an institution despite slavery standing against the spirit of Christianity” was the excuse that many white evangelicals, such as Thomas R. Dew, president of the College of William and Mary, argued in its defence. In the eyes of these white evangelicals, Christian slavery was a relationship in which slaves looked up to their masters as supporters, directors, and defenders. The Christianity of slaveholders was at odds with that of the slaves themselves, who envisioned Christ as the liberator from all oppression and slavery. Debates over scripture and slavery split denominations and shaped modern denominational divides (for example, the denomination that is now the evangelical Southern Baptist Convention originated in a split over appointing slaveholders as missionaries.) Biblical mandates were manufactured to support the racial-political order. Even after the Civil War was won by the Union, the religion of the Lost Cause remained and reshaped Christianity with its mix of Southern values and Christian belief. This mythology managed to outlast the Reconstruction period and integrated racist values into the belief systems of evangelicals. The order and purity that this mythology demanded was enforced by violence, primarily directed at Black people and their institutions. Both the Klan and the White League in the 19th century had strong connections to Southern Protestant Christian values and justified their actions by rooting everything in their “God-given” right to return the South to the slave-holding era. Lynching was a common spectacle conducted by evangelical Christians (and their churches) as spectacles of divine justice restoring the natural racial-political order.

Butler also remarks on the career of Billy Graham and his relationship to race during the rise of the “new evangelicalism” in postwar America. When asked to remark on Martin Luther’s King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, he responded, “Only when Christ comes again will little white children of Alabama walk hand in hand with little Black children.” Butler argues that this exemplifies how 20th-century evangelicalism conformed to white Christian ideals of how the world should be structured, even in the face of Black Christians struggling to be recognized by their brothers and sisters in Christ. 20th-century evangelicalism softened some of the pointed elements of fundamentalism but failed to strip cultural and social racism from their values. For instance, the National Association of Evangelicals did not include any African-American churches from its founding, despite plenty of Black Christian denominations existing. The combination of Cold War hysteria over Communist infiltration (especially when it came to civil rights) promoted unease amongst white evangelicals that mixed with an individualistic approach to dealing with social ills such as racism. While Graham argued that the church should be doing more when it came to the topic of race, his actions demonstrated a milquetoast gradualism that avoided embracing Black Christians for fear of alienating his white Southern followers. When King asked Graham not to go on stage with Price Daniel, Texas governor and segregationist, Graham refused. 

This approach towards the civil rights movement was even more outlandishly matched by other evangelicals and fundamentalists in the movement at the time⁠—Billy Hargis, a segregationist fundamentalist, argued that communism was an existential threat to the United States and that people like Martin Luther King were responsible for pushing it in America. The John Birch Society (named after a missionary killed by Communist Chinese forces) and various other Southern evangelicals also smeared the civil rights movement as a communist plot challenging Christian rule in America. Graham remarked in an AP wire in 1963 that he felt that extremists were pushing integration in America too quickly while simultaneously arguing that Christian love must prevail against racial prejudice. For Graham, the worry was that secularism and other anti-Christian forces were beginning to take root in America and that the American Christian duty was to resist “communism” and other non-Christian forces.

While many argue that abortion first shaped the modern political power of evangelicals as a political class, Butler argues that it was primarily racial issues that consolidated them in terms of values. As integration moved onwards, white evangelicals attempted to promote a colour-blind conservatism that expected Black Christians to adopt the views of white evangelicals as an informal uplift movement while simultaneously still working through the dislike of inter-racial relationships present in post-integration America. 

While the white evangelical movement has made token attempts to promote racial reconciliation, the overarching tasks of evangelical Christianity in America have been related to white hegemony in America, instrumentalizing social issues (abortion, LGBT rights, etc) to align themselves with political power. The question then is why white evangelicals are so complacent in upholding a racial order in which their brothers and sisters in Christ are harmed as a result of the values professed by self-proclaimed Christians⁠—the embrace of Donald Trump’s presidency by evangelicals being the most recent example. The question remains: can evangelicalism reform its relationship to upholding racism⁠—or will eradicating racism erode the foundations of the white U.S. evangelical church?

Sharon Kuruvilla

Sharon Kuruvilla is a Contributing Editor for Theology and Society.