Interview: Phil Vischer Talks Shift From ‘VeggieTales’ to Racism and Politics

Phil Vischer talks about race in America on his Holy Post show
Phil Vischer talks about race in America on his "Holy Post" show in this videograb. (Photo: YouTube/Phil Vischer)

Many may recognize the name Phil Vischer as one of the creators of “VeggieTales,” a children’s animated series integrating faith with fun characters and stories. A long way from the production of the first “VeggieTales” story in 1991, Vischer recently reentered the spotlight as videos on racism and politics from his “Holy Post” podcast went viral.

Faithfully Magazine spoke with Vischer by phone regarding this shift and to hear about his journey as a White Evangelical who’s become aware of issues of systemic racism. The transcript has been edited for clarity.

Many of our readers might immediately recognize you as one of the creators of “VeggieTales” and may be pleasantly surprised by some of your recent videos and podcasts on the topics of race, racism, and politics. Can you tell me a bit about the vision behind the Holy Post podcast?

I would drive to and from my studio, listening to NPR or some other thoughtful news service and find myself in internal conversations about those same stories, but from a Christian perspective. Like, How should I think about that as a Christian? I found some of those internal conversations interesting enough that I wondered if anyone else would want to hear them. And so that initially led to, “Well, maybe we should do a talk show! I have a lot of friends that do different things in the Christian world. I can have them on as guests, and maybe some Christian TV network would want to air that.” And the answer to that question was, “No.” Not the things that I wanted to talk about in the way I wanted to talk about them. But in the process of kicking around a talk show, we thought, well, maybe we’ll just start with a podcast, because that’s easier.

And that was almost nine years ago. Four hundred and thrity episodes later and I really enjoy wrestling with How does my faith affect how I think about this issue or that issue? And, Where’s the church in the world today? What is it to live Christianly in an increasingly post-Christian culture? I have lived for a while within walking distance of Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, for most of the last 40 years. I have lots of Wheaton College faculty in my church and as friends and I’m right by Christianity Today headquarters and Tyndale House and Crossway Books and InterVarsity Press. I’ve kind of been living in the center of what was once called Neo-Evangelicalism as a response to the excesses of Fundamentalism.

As I’m seeing more and more of the excesses of Fundamentalism resurgent in declaring war on our enemies and disputing or rejecting mainstream science, these are the kinds of things that Billy Graham and his friends Carl Henry and Harold Ockenga were fighting against when they conceived of the Neo-Evangelical movement. People have forgotten that there was a distinct, third way movement in between Modernism and Fundamentalism, and it was Evangelicalism.

So I feel motivated to argue for that again, as the culture seems to be dividing into different strains of Fundamentalism. There’s a fundamentalism of the right, there’s fundamentalism of the left. And what there is less and less is thoughtful conversation in the middle, based on biblical teaching and biblical ethics. It’s now more about, “Are you a liberal or a conservative?” And, “If you’re a liberal, you’re of the Devil, unless you’re Black, and then we’re just confused about you.”

So that’s what led to some of the videos, was realizing the gap in thinking about politics and cultural engagement between Black Christians and White Christians who share identical theology. So, how can you share identical theology and yet be so different in cultural engagement that you can’t even have a conversation sometimes when it comes to politics or different big issues — welfare reform or things like that. My co-host, Skye Jethani, loves engaging on those kind of issues, too. He was the editor of Leadership Journal at Christianity Today. So, we’re just having fun talking about things that you probably shouldn’t talk about, because it can get heated.

White Christians generally go through a kind of a journey to become aware of the realities of systemic racism. Was this idea something that you came around to over time, and if so, can you chronicle a bit of your journey?

I was born and lived in a small town in Iowa until high school. So I didn’t know any non-White people or what issues they may or may not have had. And then we moved here to the suburbs of Chicago to a mostly White suburb with almost an all White high school. I knew that if I went four suburbs over, the color of people changed radically. I had no idea of why my suburb was so White, and four suburbs over was so not White. I just assumed that people decided that’s where they wanted to live. So, I was pretty ignorant of most of that history.

My brother is the dean of the Law School of the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis. Really brilliant guy, Harvard Law grad, wrote for the Harvard Law Review with Ted Cruz. He was in Minneapolis in 2016 when the Philando Castile shooting happened. A group of protesters shut down I-94 in Minneapolis, and it was revealed that one of the leaders of that protest was an African-American woman who was a professor working for my brother. And so, there were angry people calling for her to be fired for that civil disobedience. Instead of firing her, my brother responded to them and said, “What I want you to do is try to imagine what would have to happen in your life that would make you so upset that you would do what she did.” Then he kind of went on a little journey of learning more about racial history and read The New Jim Crow and The Color of Law and some of the more recent scholarship that is very clear that we didn’t solve it in 1965. Racial injustice didn’t just end with the stroke of a pen by President Johnson.

My great grandfather was a radio preacher way back in the 1920s, and he founded a Bible conference in northwest Iowa in 1935. It’s still going on every year, 85 years later. Sometimes my brother and I teach classes there. So, my brother said, “I’m going to do a class on racial injustice in northwest Iowa, rural Iowa, to a whole bunch of rural White people.” Well, this should be interesting! And so, he put together about an hour and a half, with slides, on the history of racism in America. I was kind of stunned because I hadn’t read those books yet. I hadn’t dived into that. And I came back and mentioned it that week on the podcast that my brother had done this amazing presentation on racial injustice and I learned a ton. And people said, “Well, tell us what he said!” So I asked my brother for his slides, and he gave them to me and I presented them on the podcast in 2017. That became our most downloaded episode ever: the history of race in America, a 90-minute podcast.

So now, fast forward to 2020 and George Floyd happens also in Minneapolis, right near where my brother lives. It’s all happening again. But now we’re all connected on Facebook with family and friends much more than we were even just three years ago. I’m seeing family and friends passing around short little videos either explaining racism or disputing racism, many of which are completely inaccurate. And so, initially I’m reaching out to people and saying, “Here, listen to this 90-minute podcast,” and they don’t want to because it’s too long. “Could you put that into a much shorter, catchier video?” I realized that the way to communicate this better is as a short video that can be easily shared on Facebook. So, in 72 hours, I took the 90-minute episode, and turned it into a 17 minute video and posted it on a Sunday thinking this will help my podcast listeners. In 24 to 48 hours later, it had been viewed a million times, which was about 50 times more than the podcast episode had ever been listened to. And then it just kept going from there.

Viola Davis re-posted it on her Instagram account and 600,000 people watched it there. To date, that first video has been watched about seven and a half million times, which just freaked me out. And of course, then that led to literally thousands of people making comments, many of them thanking me, but others saying, “I think you’re wrong, and here’s why” and then posting counter videos from Candace Owens or Prager U or Charlie Kirk. So then I’m like, now I feel like I need to research these counterclaims and see if I am wrong. So I researched the counterclaims. And then I do a second video that’s the follow up to talk about all those issues that people are raising, and people appreciate that. Then we just decided to keep going.

Phil Vischer
Phil Vischer (Photo: Courtesy of Phil Vischer)

We did a video just answering the question, “Why do White Christians vote Republican and Black Christians vote Democrat?” And that video has been watched about three million times in the few weeks just before the election. So you kind of discover, oh, this is a really effective way. And that’s why, in one sense, Facebook is so dangerous, because it’s so effective at spreading information, regardless of whether the information is true. So [I] try to use it to say, “Alright, let’s have a reasonable discussion about race or about abortion.” One I’m doing right now is on the history of Evangelicalism. I’m enjoying it. It’s made some people very angry with me, some people very happy with me. I’m trying to hold to the center and say, “This is what I feel God has enabled me to contribute and so what I think I should contribute.” You’ll pick up a few fans here, and you’ll lose a few friends there. Blessed is the name of the Lord!

How do you see your role specifically in this conversation as a White Christian?

There are people that will listen to me that will not listen to an African-American brother or sister because they assume, “Well, you have to think that way. That’s your culture, your family, your heritage, your team, you have to promote your team.” I had people with the first video come back and say, “Thank you for making something that I could share with my ultra conservative family members that doesn’t make fun of them or insult them.” And the fact that it’s from the guy who created “VeggieTales,” there’s a platform there where you say, “I think we like this guy. So let’s see what he has to say about race.”

It’s not to be a savior. It’s to be an ally. I’ve had a few African-American pastors reach out and ask if I do live stream interviews with them for their churches for their congregations. One of the first ones I did, the pastor just said, “I was growing so heartbroken, waiting for our White brothers and sisters to speak up. And then I saw your video. Thank you! I’ve been trying to track you down for a month because I just wanted to thank you and say how meaningful it was that you’re willing to put your reputation on the line for us in a situation where you didn’t have to.” So, that makes make you think, “Okay, this is important.”

I’m sure you’ve received pushback and challenges to your content from friends, family, and even complete strangers. I’d love to hear if you have any encouraging stories of helping people change their perspective and any advice you’d pass on to others in similar situations.

Honestly, it is very discouraging because the country is so polarized. A huge percentage of people on either side of any issue will not change their mind no matter what you say. And that’s discouraging. They’ll say, “Of course you’re saying that; you’re on the other team!” And when you say, “No, wait, I’m a conservative White Christian,” apparently, you’re not, because you’re saying what you’re saying. And they’ll say, “If you were a conservative White Christian, you wouldn’t be saying what you’re saying.” That’s discouraging because it means there’s no way to reach someone if the source is immediately de-legitimized because it’s a message that’s contrary to a preexisting belief.

Do I have encouraging stuff? It’s a depressingly few, honestly. There have been people who just said, “Thank you for helping me learn more about this. I didn’t know enough about this.” But honestly, as the year dragged on and the protests became more politicized on racial issues, there were fewer and fewer people willing to rethink their positions. So just between June and August, people dug in and became less open to considering a new position. And that is sad. It’s because we each get our news from certain places that had politicized the issue, either for or against. Like masks. We started wearing masks in Illinois in March, early April, before it was politicized. So it never became political in Illinois to wear a mask because we all just got used to it. And when you hear people say, “I will not wear a mask because I’m conservative,” here in Illinois, everyone’s wearing masks. Nobody really cares. But what happened over the course of this year was that every issue got politicized. Are you pro- or anti-mask? Are you pro- or anti-vaccine? Are you pro- or anti-Critical Race Theory? Are you pro- or anti-protest that might occasionally turn into looting? How do you feel about the Black Lives Matter organization? Good or Evil? Pick one; there’s nothing in the middle. And it’s been a really discouraging year for that.

So I think what I’m trying to do, and it’s hard, is to just present data with as little spin as possible, so that you don’t trigger people because of how they’re being conditioned to be triggered. It’s honestly gotten harder in the last 90 days to present data without triggering people in the election and the post-election.

I wish I had more encouraging stories of, “You completely changed my mind. I was a racist, I am no more.” I don’t think a 17-minute video can do that much. But I think there’s value just to saying, “Hey, here’s another perspective from a committed conservative Christian.” There’s value just to saying that. And the number of people who have reached out to say, “Thank you for doing what you’re doing. I was beginning to think I was crazy. No one in my social circle and no one at my church was thinking about these things the way I was.” So we’re encouraging people who find themselves in a minority. I don’t know how many minds were changing that weren’t leaning in the direction of rethinking race to start out with. If you were dug in on an ultra-conservative view of “There is no longer racism and welfare is what ruined the inner cities. And the best way to help minorities is to not help minorities.” If you’re dug in on that, there’s not much that anyone could say to change your mind, unfortunately. And that’s depressing enough.

Then they’ll say, “But just stop talking about all this stuff and just talk about Jesus, because ultimately, telling people about Jesus will solve racism.” You know, well, the Southern Baptist Convention split off from the northern Baptists specifically because their missionaries were slaveholders. And they used their slaveholding missionaries as a test case, to see if northern Baptists would allow slaveholders to be missionaries in good standing. So if you’re a missionary, I think you’ve heard about Jesus. If you’re a slaveholding missionary, apparently, your relationship with Jesus did not change your views on race very significantly. So there might be more than just evangelism needed.

In your opinion, why do you think White Evangelicalism is where it is today on the topics of racism, politics, and cultural engagement? As someone who has engaged with Christian youth, do you think there is a discipleship gap?

It's very easy to talk about abortion. So clearly, it's not impossible to talk about political or controversial topics – as long as you're going along with a topic we have collectively decided over the last 50 years to support. Click to Tweet

It’s very easy to talk about abortion. So clearly, it’s not impossible to talk about political or controversial topics — as long as you’re going along with a topic we have collectively decided over the last 50 years to support.

A woman who was a missionary in the field reached out to me on Facebook to say how upset she was about my race video because of the anger it was generating in online conversations she saw and that I should be talking about Jesus and not talking about race. And I said, “Well, I think God cares about issues like this. Should we be talking about abortion?” And she said, “Oh, absolutely! In fact, my husband was one of the first ones to protest at abortion clinics in the ’70s.” So I asked, “So God cares about abortion but doesn’t care about racism?” And she honestly said, “I can’t believe you’re putting those two things in the same sentence.”

So we will talk about politics when it’s an issue that is important to us. That’s the bottom line. And racism is not important to us. And now, you can unpack why that is. When did abortion become so important to conservative White Christians? Roe v. Wade? No, no Southern Baptists supported Roe v. Wade. Christianity Today supported Roe v. Wade and thought it was a good decision. It wasn’t until 1978/1979 in the formation of the Moral Majority and James Dobson going on the radio starting his daily radio show that would start to focus conservative White Christians on the topic of abortion as a way to build a larger voting bloc.

So we all decided together that abortion was the issue worth political re-engagement. The Fundamentalist tradition was the strongest in the South. What was the position on race in the South? Not super terrific. So racial justice was always looked at with suspicion in White Fundamentalist churches because that tradition was so heavily Southern. And as White fundamentalism spread around the whole country, a sort of a mistrust of federal intervention about race spread around the whole country. At the same time, we needed something to get people to vote about, and that was abortion.

...it's interesting that people say, “You really shouldn't talk about politics in church,” and then next week, we're doing a fundraiser for our crisis pregnancy center. Click to Tweet

So, it’s interesting that people say, “You really shouldn’t talk about politics in church,” and then next week, we’re doing a fundraiser for our crisis pregnancy center. Well, wait, wait. That’s political! That’s a political issue. Because I am a White conservative Evangelical, it is a little bit damning for my own tribe.

The last question I have for you is just any thoughts on what might be the best way to reach children and the youth about these important issues?

The good thing is that the videos we’re making don’t have any content in them that’s inappropriate for older kids. So, I’ve had a lot of people say, “We just watched your race video with our whole family and had a great discussion about race.” It doesn’t have to have puppets or animated vegetables to be accessible.

Now, it’s not for preschoolers, but upper elementary, middle school, especially high school, when your kids need a better, more honest understanding of how the world is, short educational videos like these are actually really effective.

It depends on age. If you’re asking how do I teach a six-year-old about racism? I actually think a lot of kids’ TV shows are doing that pretty well, whether it’s [“Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood”] or “Sesame Street,” they’re actually doing a pretty good job of that. From a Christian perspective, that’s a little more complex and that’s not a problem I’m trying to solve right now, partly because good kids programming is many times more expensive to produce and I don’t have the funding to do it. So, you know, don’t work on the problems that you can’t fund quite yet!

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Written by Timothy I. Cho

Timothy Isaiah Cho is Associate Editor at Faithfully Magazine. Timothy’s bylines have appeared in Religion News Service and Reformed Margins, and he has been interviewed for several podcasts including Truth’s Table and Gravity Leadership Podcast. He also runs a personal blog on Medium. He received a Master of Divinity from Westminster Seminary California and a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from U.C. Berkeley. Email: timothy.cho (at) faithfullymagazine.com

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