One of the myths that Anthea Butler, author of White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America (University of North Carolina Press, 2021) discovered in her research is the “conceit that the Religious Right, fundamentalism, and conservative evangelicals emerged as a political movement in response to the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade in 1973.”
Instead, writes Butler, a professor of religion and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania, it was racism, not abortion, that melded disparate religious conservatives to one another, with antecedents stretching back to the earliest days of colonial America. In fact, Butler explains, while sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, antisemitism, and transphobia are currently woven into White evangelical ideology, the centrality of anti-Black racism imbues every facet of its belief system and political outlook.
Butler’s incisive argument addresses the racist roots of White evangelical beliefs and probes how the gospel was used to prop up support for slavery and against Communism. More recent efforts to shore up opposition to abortion, birth control, gay marriage and LGBTQ equality, liberalized immigration policies, and expanded voting rights—positions that have catapulted White evangelicals into the Republican Party—are presented as resting on a foundation of White supremacy.
Butler spoke to PRA this March.
PRA: Did some of the racist beliefs held by White evangelicals come to the U.S. from Europe, or are they completely homegrown?
Butler: The genealogy of modern racism is a whole lecture! Yes, there was cross-pollination but you can’t blame it all on Europe. The U.S. has developed its own unique ways to make theology bear fruit in an American context.
Evangelicals think about the Bible in literal terms. They see it as the word of God and have found racialized ideas in the Bible. When they read of Noah cursing his son, Ham, in Genesis 9:18-27, they saw the curse against Canaan as justification for slavery. As I report in White Evangelical Racism, in the 19th Century, Africa was regarded as Canaan and Noah’s curse was seen as relegating Black people to chattel slavery. Then there’s Ephesians 6:5-7: “Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters…” What I’m trying to show in the book is that from the 19th Century forward, politics was part of evangelicalism, whether in the Temperance movement or in support or opposition to slavery.
Despite this, evangelicals often argue that their concerns are spiritual, not political.
[Public acceptance of] this idea is how evangelicals win. When they pretend not to be political and the media presents them this way, it allows them to escape scrutiny for their political positions.
Before the Civil War, some Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians split into separate factions over slavery. You write that the pro-slavery forces talked about defending their “way of life,” ignoring the suffering of enslaved people. Have they ever owned their role in supporting White supremacy?
No, they’ve never recanted! Even though some White evangelicals have made statements about racial reconciliation, or even “color blindness,” right now they’re fussing about having to discuss critical race theory. They’re upset about the 1619 Project’s focus on the racist underpinnings of the United States. And even though Southern Baptists apologized for slavery in 1995, they have not changed any of their behaviors so you can see through their statements and conclude that they’re posturing.
After the Civil War, many White evangelicals supported lynching, joined the KKK, and by the early 20th Century became fierce opponents of Communism and the so-called Red Menace. How did this confluence happen?
The church leadership wanted to stop race mixing and the threat of spreading socialism and Communism, which they saw as promoting atheism. By 1919 the Red Scare in the U.S. [an anti-Communist panic led by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer that predates the Red Scare of the 1950s] was in full swing and when you when you look at newspapers from this era, you can see how Communism and race-based fears among White people intertwined. I write about the White League, formed in 1874, which existed to maintain “hereditary civilization.” Members saw Christianity as becoming tainted by a “stupid Africanization.” The long and short of it is that both the League and the KKK used Christian imagery to mobilize what I describe as “a return to the ‘order’ of the slave-owning South.”
From the 1940s through the 1960s, mainstream White newspapers in the South gave these ideas coverage and people were influenced; when their pastor, a trusted person, reiterated these bigoted ideas, they were further reinforced. Even something like the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, was reported to avoid making the White perpetrators look like they’d done something horrible. As early as the 1940s, Billy Graham had fused Christianity with patriotism and White supremacy. His goal was to make believers—including Black and Brown folks who had started to listen to him—conform to White, male, Western Christian ideals. He demonized Communists, Catholics, and immigrants. Interestingly, he got support from William Randolph Hearst’s Los Angeles Examiner, which gave these ideas added prominence.
You write about the late 1940s emergence of Americanism: the idea that Americans are blessed and should take patriotic pride in their nation and protect it from atheistic Communists. It seems like a straight line from Americanism to MAGA.
American exceptionalism—the idea that the U.S. is blessed by God—as well as Christian patriotism were used by Billy Graham, the Rev. Bob Jones, and other White male religious leaders of the mid-20th Century to put parameters around what it meant to be an American and a Christian. It does lead directly to MAGA.
There are many examples. In the 1950s and ‘60s, fundamentalist Billy James Hargis opposed Civil Rights and embraced segregation and anti-Communism. He also spoke out against Yale Divinity School, the liberal National Council of Churches of Christ, and those he saw as “pink” or “red.” The founding of the John Birch Society (JBS) in 1958 linked these issues further, but I want to stress that the foundational ideas about a racial hierarchy existed long before either Hargis or the JBS.
Why do you think the idea that abortion was what brought evangelicals together has had such a lasting hold?
People don’t want to see how operational racism is. For many people, putting morality in front of racism has worked. Folks who are fixated on the battle over reproductive control fail to see that racism drives every aspect of the White evangelical movement. Yes, they’ve used a few Black people as sidekicks, promoting them to public positions in order to downplay their structural racism. But these people are aberrations, since most Black Americans vote Democratic, sometimes despite opposition to abortion and gay marriage.
In the 1980s, there was an emphasis on color blindness among evangelicals, but all this did was prevent people from seeing what was actually going on. Many people saw White evangelical preachers surrounded by Black singers and speakers, so may have thought that evangelism was no longer racist, but there was very little interracial cooperation or real power sharing.
Catholics and evangelicals did not always work in sync. How did they overcome their antipathy?
Catholics and evangelicals no longer hate each other because, in some instances, both groups now vote for the same politics. They’re both generally against abortion and homosexuality. John Fitzgerald Kennedy was hated by evangelicals because he was Catholic. Today, Biden is hated because he’s a Democrat, not because of his Catholic faith. The bottom line is that many White Catholics are as racist as White evangelicals. They have the same political goals. In fact, Supreme Court Justice John Roberts, a Catholic, has worked to eviscerate the Voting Rights Act of 1965, legislation aimed at making it easier for all people to vote.
White evangelicals hate broad enfranchisement and since the Democratic victories in Georgia in 2020, their attempts to disenfranchise voters of color have become bolder. This is not new, but the idea that White men make better leaders, are better suited to taking care of government, elevates patriarchy and White supremacy. That’s why they support it.
This works well with states’ rights advocacy, right?
Right. White evangelicals oppose big government because it is easier to control state legislatures and exert pressure to get local lawmakers to do their bidding. They’re trying to use the states’ rights arguments to control who gets to vote, and even how they’ll respond to COVID-19. States’ rights were important to them during the Civil War and they’re important to them now. They see big government as reeking of godless socialism or Communism.
In addition to churches, many White evangelicals have created institutions to support their political aims. Have these groups worked in tandem?
Billy Graham was a straight up evangelist, but his peer, Oral Roberts, thought it was important to build institutions. He established the still-thriving Oral Roberts University and a short-lived hospital.
The institutions are the most dangerous part of White evangelism. Advocacy groups like the Family Research Council and Focus on the Family do deep damage because they can advocate on both the state and federal levels. They have been effective lobbyists and have made clear alliances with Republicans. This has paid off. You can now call pretty much any organization a church, which exempts it from federal mandates on hiring, for example. This makes it a lot easier for these groups to remain White-male dominated.
These groups have also worked hard to present Christians as a persecuted group. After all, if they’re persecuted they don’t have to worry about their racism. They talk about being hurt, about Christians being jailed and tortured, and present evangelicals as weak, an underdog. Of course, this is not true.
Racism is the central politic for evangelicals; it is how they’ve constructed conversations about morality in the U.S. It’s important to recognize that they never believed the morality stuff they’ve spouted but have used it to control people and gain power by using religious language to attain it.
We know what we need to do to promote equity, fairness, and racial justice within and outside of evangelical communities.