Dr. Anthea Butler is associate professor of Religious Studies and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Butler, an expert on African American and American history and religion, recently authored White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America.
In White Evangelical Racism, Butler peels back the layers of history to get at the core of conservative evangelical activism and power.
Faithfully Magazine speaks with Butler about themes in White Evangelical Racism in the following Q&A. The transcript has been edited for clarity.
You are currently the Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and you’ve been asked to speak and write in many outlets regarding religion and politics. Can you tell me a bit about your professional journey and how you got to where you are today?
I did not start off like what normal people think. I went to Fuller Seminary for my grad program, and I thought I wanted to be a Christian counselor. But I immediately realized, after two weeks in the first semester, that I was probably too blunt to be a counselor. So I had really good professors when I was there, and two of the professors that had a really big effect on me were Russ Spittler, and Cecil Robeck (or Mel Robeck, as some people know him). They were encouraging me to take a class from Walter Hollenweger, who was the premier scholar of Pentecostalism. And to make a long story short, he was the one that encouraged me to do a Ph.D., and that’s how I ended up going for my Ph.D. at Vanderbilt.
I’ve been teaching now since 1999 — it’s going to make everybody go, “How old is she?” That’s none of your business. Anyway, for me, I started off like a regular academic, but what changed me was writing about Katrina, and writing for The Revealer about what happened back in 2005, and the way in which George Bush kind of just landed and did this whole “Disney World” sort of thing. And that started my writing career. And basically, I’ve held those two things in tandem: being an academic, but also being a public scholar, writing first for Religion Dispatches and then for a ton of other outlets. And so right now, I’m a contributor to MSNBC and I write a couple of columns a month for them. So that’s been really good. And I’ve had this wonderful opportunity to be able to speak to the public and at the same time teach my students, so I think I have the best of both worlds.
As a historian, your latest book, White Evangelical Racism, flows out from years of study and reflection on White Evangelicalism in the United States. How did you first get interested in studying Evangelicalism?
Well, actually, it was Fuller, because for a number of years after I left and graduated with my Ph.D., I came back to teach at Fuller, and they have never had — and they’re going to die when I say this, but it’s true — they never had a history of Evangelicalism course. I would teach that course in the summertime, and by thinking about the stuff I was dealing with Evangelicals especially writing about Black Evangelicals, what I realized was that people were telling me stories about racism and the racism that I experienced, in the Evangelical church. And so, this has been a long journey, in a way, but it’s intersected with my interest in religion and politics, too.
And so one of the things I think that I want people to understand about this book is that it’s not an op-ed. I think, for a lot of people, you look at the title, and you think, “Oh, she’s going to write something that’s an op-ed.” But this is history, and I’m a historian, and I really wanted to think about this in a way in which I could challenge the narratives that Evangelicals have about themselves and about their history, and especially about racism.
Who did you have in mind when you wrote White Evangelical Racism?
The friends I had to give up because they were too racist and too mad at Democrats all the time. Honestly! I mean, I thought about the people who I sat in pews with for years before going back to the Catholic Church. And I thought these are nice people, they think they’re wonderful, but the ways in which they believe and they vote and the kinds of things that they promote are racist at their core. I just had heard so many people say, “I don’t see color.” But when you say that, you are saying basically you see White and that’s it. I wanted to write to them to say, no, no, no, this thing that you think is happening to you right now that people are criticizing you because you followed after Trump or whatever? This has been going on for a long time. This is over 200 plus years of racism, and neglect, and treating people differently, and using morality as a shield. And I thought that that was really important to say, and it was important for them to see themselves in the book.
The way I like to say it in Twitter shorthand is, I’d like to hold the book up to them and say, “Is this you? This you?” And I think that that’s really the point of the book. If you see yourself in this book, if you feel uneasy when you read this book, if it makes you feel uncomfortable, then I’ve done my job.
I’d love to hear you talk a little bit just about your experience at a White Evangelical school, or even just your experience as a professor of Christians of color entering into White Evangelical schools and how that connects to your book about White Evangelical racism.
Yeah, I think this is a really important key. One of the people that I dedicated the book to, William Pannell (Bill Pannell as we know him as an evangelist), came to Fuller in the 1970, very early on when he was working with Tom Skinner and Skinner’s big speech at Urbana in 1970. And [Pannell] always told me you need to milk this cow for all it’s worth. And so I was there at an interesting time when the riots or the uprising, whatever you want to call it, in 1992 had happened in Los Angeles. Fuller was really trying to think about its stance about racism and things. So that was a good experience.
But what I found from other schools, especially Evangelical schools, was that the ways in which they tried to deal with race is to sweep it under the rug and make everybody culturally Evangelical, which is also culturally White. If you are considered to be a “cultural minority” in their words, whether you’re Asian American, African American, African, from another country, the ways in which you are dealt with are like, “Oh, there’s a day we should have mariachi singers,” or, “I wish we’d have this kind of food for Black History Month,” right? And I see y’all making faces because I know you know exactly what I’m talking about! But there’s no consideration about where your religious roots are, how that might connect to who you are ethnically. And then sometimes it’s just downright we’re not going to talk about race because we’re not racist. And so I think what that does is it sort of squelches the ways in which Evangelicals deal with racism, the way they teach people how to deal with racism.
And let me just hurt a couple of people’s feelings here. When you uplift Reformed or German theologies over and against African American, Asian American, Mujerista theologies, all these things, then you’re setting up a way in which White theology and White supremacy of Christianity is the way that everybody should think. All the rest of these theologies are not valid or are not worthwhile.
Turning to your book, you make a point early on that racism is a feature and not a bug of American Evangelicalism. Can you explain this a little more and why it’s important for us to understand?
It’s important to understand that racism is part and parcel, warp and woof of American Evangelicalism because this country was established, as you know, not just as a nation that was coming against British rule, but it also had slavery, and slavery was justified through Christianity. And if we’re going to talk about Evangelicalism, what we have to understand is that as much as Evangelicals like to say that we were abolitionists, they were for temperance, everything else… they also were for slavery.
We don’t have the Southern Baptist Convention, we don’t have the Methodist Episcopal Church, we don’t have all these churches that split up in the 1800s unless they were fighting over slavery. They didn’t fight over theology; the theology that they were fighting over is whether they could hold slaves or not. [When] Evangelicals say, “Oh, you know, we have this glorious history,” people who have been writing about this and deal with this kind of stuff, and they don’t even put a Black person within that history. They don’t put anything. They don’t put immigrants in that history. They don’t put Asians who were brought over to work on the intercontinental railroad. Nothing! I mean, it’s just sort of like, “This is our happy history.” And it’s not a happy history. It’s a history of pain. It’s a history of suffering. It’s a history that denigrated Black people and peoples of color. It is a history that was imperialistic and colonialist. I mean, I could go on, but I think you get my drift. We have to really understand what the roots of all of this is. And that’s why I say racism is a feature and not a bug in American Evangelicalism.
Piggybacking off of that, can you talk about how and why White Evangelicals have been telling themselves that kind of glorified story when it’s obviously so falsifiable?
I’m gonna tell an answer that’s going to really hurt some people’s feelings. But I’m going to go ahead and say it. When you have history written by White men, then this is the history you get. It’s this “great history” that’s all “noble,” a history that makes Evangelicals seem like they’re the best people on earth. It makes them the moral actors in the American story and the people who are upholding morality. So, if all you have are White theologians and historians writing these stories (and everybody knows who these names are, I don’t have to tell them out loud), then you don’t have a full story. But I think what’s happening now is you have people like me, Kristin Kobes Du Mez, and others who are saying this is not just the history; there’s other history here. And you have to consider the history of Evangelicalism embedded in a larger history of this country.
This is also a way to kind of punch at this: this narrative has been written as though it was Scripture, as though it was something that was God-given, this is our story and God is in the midst of that story. Now, for a lot of people, this is going to be where they have a problem with me, because I’m saying this is not a history that is a spiritual history. This is history. And I think people, especially Evangelicals, want to write God into history, but I’m like, what if this history isn’t just about God? What if this history is about the evil stuff y’all did and won’t see and won’t talk about? Because just as much as you say that there’s God, there’s obviously Satan, right? And if you understand that, then you will understand that not all history is beautiful, not all history is nice. Some of it is really awful. And I think that Evangelicals continue to give themselves a pass if they don’t look at the awful parts of their history.
In your book, you talk about how Evangelicals and Fundamentalists were united by their cultural and social racism while they disagreed regarding theology and Scripture. Can you talk about how the principles they came to agree on provide a helpful backdrop to understanding Evangelicalism today?
I think one of the things that people have to understand is there’s a lot of steams of Evangelicalism, and while in the 1950s, when you have somebody like Billy Graham versus a Billy James Hargis and others who are Fundamentalists, it would seem that these two things are apart because they disagree with each other, the fundamentalists don’t like Billy Graham, Billy Graham is ignoring the Fundamentalism that he came out of. What happens is, when you start to see in the 70s, where Bob Jones University, and this is the hinge that everything lies on, gets sued by the IRS, and has to give up their tax exempt status because they won’t integrate, then they find that they have a common cause, because the common cause is racism.
“We want to keep our schools pure.” “We don’t want Black people in our colleges.” “We don’t want to have to integrate.” “We don’t want to have to get rid of our schools that we’ve carefully crafted as ‘Christian Schools,’ but really are segregation academies, in order to make sure that we keep the purity of our children who we don’t want married to all these other people.” And so, when this happens in the 70s, you get a convergence of all of these things. And then you put politics on top of it and the political part becomes very important. So while you might not see a Rousas Rushdoony as part of Evangelicalism, he had a profound effect on Evangelicalism because of homeschooling. And so, when you see that and you start to consider these histories, then they all come together like Voltron. You know, if you’ve watched cartoons, you know how y’all come together. Or like Transformers, for those of you who are younger. It’s like Transformers; they all just become like this big old superpower. And they step all over everything politically.
What’s clear from your book is that the ways in which White Evangelical racism expressed itself shifted over the decades, and White Evangelicals have exchanged outright racism for more crafty, hidden, and subtle forms. Why is it important for us today to recognize the changes in White Evangelical racism? How can this help us address the forms of racism we see today?
I think it’s important because you have to understand how racism rears its head. It’s not just about somebody saying the “N-word” to someone, right? I think we think about this as these blatant expressions of racism, but you can see racism in terms of leadership in many, Evangelical churches. Do you see a Black senior pastor? Or are all the other Black people and people of color in the worship team and they’re not in leadership? Do they have actual ways in which they are helping to shepherd the church forward, right? Where’s the place of women? How do you think about women in that church? We could also talk about a gender kind of thing too, because the gender problem usually goes along with the racism problem, right?
We can think about the ways in which you have these sort of, I like to call them “racial reconciliation plays” that the Southern Baptist and others have engaged in. Now the Southern Baptists are having this huge conversation about Critical Race Theory, and I’m like, you just don’t want anybody to know about slavery, do you? You just don’t want anybody to know your history. And even though they keep repenting for this over and over again, it’s not sincere.
And I think people need to understand that the ways in which they say, “Well, you know, so and so’s a senior pastor, because of X,” or “We don’t have any Black people in leadership because they didn’t go to the right school,” or “We don’t have any Asians in our church because there’s a language barrier,” or “We have these separate services because they just like being with themselves better, because we believe in a homogeneous church” and you know that stuff in the church growth movement right – all this stuff is racism, and in the ways in which it gets couched in these churches, are given a spiritual kind of imprimatur. In other words, “This is the way Jesus would have done it.” And I’m like, Jesus ain’t got nothing to do with that. Jesus was a Brown man with nappy hair who was persecuted by the government. He’s not that blond-haired, blue-eyed guy you think he is, and he would have had a problem in your church too.
When people say things like, “We’re not racist. We’re talking about theology,” what would you say as a response to that?
I can’t say the word that would normally come to my mind. But I’m a Texan, so you can fill in the blank. I’ll just say it’s cow dung. And the reason why I say that is because theologies can be racist too. I mean, let’s take for example Calvinist theologies, which were used as the backbone of apartheid in South Africa, right? I mean, the ways in which people use theology as a way to say, “Well, we’re not racist,” but you are. You don’t want to see the ways in which your theology is constructed to make White men be the center of the power in the church.
And maybe somebody listening to this will say, “Oh, but she’s just picking on White men.” But guess who does theology? Guess whose theology is getting to be important and hierarchical in the scheme? And so when you say that “our theology doesn’t allow this,” well, you allow a whole bunch of other things. You know, does your theology allow you to eat hamburgers on the Fourth of July? Where’s that theological, right? Where’s having a hot dog on the Fourth of July theological, but you hold to that as something that is important and a tradition for you.
So I think the ways in which people need to start to think about this is that some of the things that churches hold onto that are racist are tradition and not theological. Theology should be able to be appropriated to everybody. But theology has also used been used to support slavery, to support segregation, to support people being against interracial marriage. It has been used in a lot of different ways. And so I think we have to interrogate theology and realize that theology doesn’t have to stay static. It can change, and it could also be interpreted by other people.
You end your book talking about what it might look like for White Evangelicals to make amends. Knowing that there have been simply performative allyship without any real substantive change, can you provide some sort of real, tangible milestones that White Evangelicals need to meet in order to make real change?
Here’s step one: this is where you’re actually going to deal with your history and deal with its repercussions and ripples into the present and also dedicate yourself to addressing it in the future. I’m going to say something that sounds political, but it really isn’t. I think Evangelicals need to step away from their close relationship with the Republican party for a time. The [debate about] Critical Race Theory is actually a Fox News talking point. Talking points that have been constructed in such a way to get people to hold on to them both religiously and socially as an aspect of what their history is.
And I think for Evangelicals, the really important piece comes as they have to stop thinking of themselves as persecuted. I know that’s going to be a really hard thing for them to do. Because Evangelicals think of themselves as persecuted, everything that happens to them, every critique can be said as “They’re persecuting us because we’re Christian.” No, we’re not persecuting you because you’re Christian. We’re “persecuting” you because you’re doing bad things and you’re supporting bad things and you don’t care about the rest of the world, you only care about yourselves. You don’t care about the state of the world. You don’t care about getting a vaccine. You don’t care about participating in things that are going to help human beings.
And as a matter of fact, I just want to say this really clearly. I mean, I think Evangelicals right now are not living the gospel of Jesus Christ. Because if you think about the things that the gospel tells you to do that, to be there for the brokenhearted, bind up wounds. If we’re talking about Luke chapter four, I don’t see a lot of Evangelicals today, especially Evangelical leadership, doing those kinds of things. Now, I know there are individuals who do, but I think it’s really an indictment on a movement when the movement is trading in hate has supported somebody who has hated different people groups around the world, has not repented for the kinds of things that they support, is more willing to believe in guns than they are to believe in the gospel. I think we have to start to question all of those things. And I wrote the end of the book that way because I want Evangelicals to see all of the horrible things they are implicated in in this country.
At the time when I finished the book, it was last summer, and we were in the middle of pandemic, we hadn’t gotten to the vaccine yet. But there were many people who wanted to continue to meet in churches, who claimed that that was their “religious freedom,” but their call for religious freedom would imperil people, not just in their congregations, but the people that they interacted with every day, and they did not care. They could not think about the most basic rule, the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” I think that the kind of hate and bile that comes out of some of our Evangelical churches and Evangelical leaders today is very troubling.