Prof. Anthea Butler’s White Evangelical Racism is a scathing denunciation of evangelicalism. “Racism is a feature, not a bug, of American evangelicalism,” she declares, and she repeats this claim numerous times, drawing on lurid historical episodes and current events to argue that evangelicalism is captive to racism, whiteness, and right-wing politics. Unfortunately, her book is fundamentally flawed for several reasons: an absence of citations, potential factual errors, a questionable definition of “evangelicalism,” and a lack of theological reflection.
Most significantly, Dr. Butler’s book contains no footnotes, endnotes, or in-text citations of any kind. Given that her argument is based largely on historical analysis, this omission is nearly unfathomable, especially in a book written by a professor at UPenn and published by an academic publisher. This oversight cannot be attributed to the book’s popular-level target audience. Similar popular-level works like Jemar Tisby’s Color of Compromise and Carol Anderson’s White Rage still managed to include hundreds of citations, which are crucial for anyone seeking to assess the accuracy of the specific claims being made. And that issue brings us to the book’s second major problem: potential errors.
Throughout the book, I came across assertions that immediately raised red flags. The most obvious example is Butler’s discussion of Sarah Palin’s vice-presidential candidacy in 2008. Butler writes “Reporters for Al Jazeera… were dumbfounded by Palin’s responses to questions about Obama, such as ‘I’m afraid if he wins, the Blacks will take over…’ or ‘When you got a Negra running for president, you need a first-stringer. He’s definitely a second-stringer.‘” (p. 118) These comments are undeniably appalling, but they were not made by Palin. Butler appears to have taken them from an online transcript, which clearly states that the comments were made by “McCain/Palin supporters at an Ohio rally.” Indeed, the actual Al Jazeera interview can still be found online and it shows that these statements were made by people attending the rally, not by Palin herself, contrary to Butler’s claim.
Another example is Butler’s statement that “Evangelicals began to use the language of ‘religious freedom’ as a way to exclude LGBTQ persons from civil rights and to lobby for special status in cases such as the Masterpiece Cakeshop case… The religious freedom argument is an old one, originating in the nineteenth century, when evangelicals used religious beliefs about race to separate their denominations and justify slavery” (p. 131). It makes little sense to argue that the “religious freedom argument” arose in the “nineteenth century” given that the Maryland Toleration Act of 1649 stated that “no person or persons…professing to believe in Jesus Christ, shall from henceforth be anyways troubled, Molested or discountenanced for or in respect of his or her religion nor in the free exercise thereof within this Province.” Similar language was, of course, repeated in the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” These documents obviously preceded 19th-century denominational splits over slavery.
In other places, Butler makes specific claims without substantiating them. For instance, on page 76, Butler writes that “the underlying message of these groups [such as the American Family Association, Focus on the Family, and the Family Research Council] was that morality was essential to preserving the nation and that the sexual immorality of America, including race mixing, would be its downfall.” Needless to say, the allegation that these well-known evangelical groups regarded “race mixing” as a form of “sexual immorality” is quite serious and evidence is required. Unfortunately, none is provided.
Elsewhere, Butler does attempt to substantiate her claims but draws conclusions that seem unwarranted. For example, on the eve of the 2008 election, Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association warned that “This country that we love, founded on Judeo-Christian values, will cease to exist and will be replaced by a secular state hostile to Christianity. This ‘city on a hill’ which our forefathers founded, will go dark.” Butler comments: “No kidding. The darkness of Obama’s skin was what they believed would cause the country to go dark” (p. 119). However, Wildmon’s letter doesn’t actually name Obama and, even if it did, it’s a stretch to argue that his comment “this ‘city on a hill’… will go dark” was a veiled allusion to Obama’s skin color rather than a continued reference to Matt. 5:14, where Jesus says to his disciples “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.“
These examples, and others, called to mind the uneasiness I felt after discovering numerous factual errors in Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning, which won a National Book Award. If a theoretical chemist can find potential errors like these by spending a few minutes on Google, why weren’t they caught by editors at UNC Press or by reviewers or by prominent Princeton historian Kevin M. Kruse, who endorsed the book? How much confidence can a layperson have that academic historians adhere to high standards of scholarship and are engaged in rigorous self-criticism when these kinds of obvious problems go unnoticed?
Who is an evangelical?
Butler acknowledges that numerous scholars including “Mark Noll, Thomas Kidd, David Bebbington, and George Marsden [have] been concerned for much of their academic careers with defining evangelicalism via theology and history” (p. 4). However, instead of attempting to trace the contours of evangelical theology over time, Butler adopts the following “working definition” of evangelicalism:
“Evangelicals are… concerned with their political alliance with the Republican Party and maintaining the cultural and racial whiteness that they have transmitted to the public. This is the working definition of American evangelicalism” (p. 4). She then adds “for the purposes of this book, the word ‘evangelical,’ unless otherwise noted, should be read as WHITE evangelical” (p. 4-5).
Similar claims are made throughout the book:
For evangelicals, ‘Christian race,’ American, and belief are synonymous. Christianity is whiteness as well as belief. It is this conflation that causes evangelicals to ignore their racism (p. 9)
Evangelicalism is synonymous with whiteness. It is not only a cultural whiteness but also a political whiteness. The presupposition of the whiteness of evangelicalism has come to define evangelicalism, and it is the definition that the media, the general public, and politicians agree on (p. 11).
evangelicalism is not a simply religious group at all. Rather, it is a nationalistic political movement whose purpose is to support the hegemony of white Christian men over and against the flourishing of others (p. 138)
Setting aside the fact that these characterizations are wildly uncharitable, the main problem here is that evangelicalism is a varied and complicated religious movement, something that Butler herself acknowledges at times (p. 15-16). The way Butler arrives at this particular depiction is by ignoring some evangelicals (e.g. the 1/3 of evangelicals are not white and –unsurprisingly– only half are male) and zeroing in on others. But defining evangelicals as white, patriarchal Christian nationalists doesn’t do justice to the messiness of reality. Focusing on a specific subset of evangelicals simplifies the narrative, but it doesn’t actually tell us about evangelicals as a whole or about what unites them.
A final problem is the book’s failure to provide any moral, ideological, or theological reflection in support of its arguments. That’s not to say that Butler’s book is devoid of moral, ideological, or theological assumptions. Far from it. Instead, the moral framework that forms the basis for Butler’s criticisms is simply taken for granted.
For example, Butler rightly recognizes that when it comes to voting, conservative evangelicals place a high premium on abortion and LGBTQ issues to the extent that these concerns take precedence over all others, including a candidate’s character (e.g. Donald Trump). However, she does not explain why evangelicals are wrong to place such an emphasis on theses issues. Instead, she simply assumes that “right-wing” politics are anti-Christian, that conservative policies are uniformly bad for people of color, and that opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage are really just fig leaves to cover evangelicals’ otherwise naked pursuit of political power.
This approach is a dead-end for non-Christians and Christians alike. First, all people should recognize that “deconstruction” is a game both sides can play with equal facility. We might just as well insist that Butler is not really concerned with racism but is simply trying to sell books by dunking on old white men. But this is a road that leads to nowhere. We can’t settle questions of truth by merely maligning the hidden motives of our interlocutors.
Second, Christians should insist that all our moral arguments must be ultimately grounded in Scripture, not in historical analysis. After all, history can tell us what did happen in the past, but not how we ought to think, or vote, or act in the present. We could grant –for the sake of argument– that evangelicals are all hypocrites with no actual concern for the unborn or for traditional sexual ethics, yet such a concession would still do absolutely nothing to show that they aren’t 100% correct in their beliefs on these issues. In fact, Butler’s casual assumption that her own beliefs are true absent any appeal to Scripture may further convince evangelicals that progressives like Butler have replaced Scripture with liberal politics.
Finally, Butler’s “hermeneutics of suspicion” with regard to evangelicals’ motives will make it difficult for anyone to pursue or even to recognize racial progress. Butler problematizes everything from the integration of Billy Graham and Oral Robert’s ministries to the racial reconciliation movement of the 1990s to the formation of the multiracial PCCNA. These positive developments are interpreted as merely “cosmetic” and “superficial” changes which fail to address vaguely-defined “systemic” or “structural” racism and therefore perpetuate white supremacy. Conversely, race-neutral statements are nonetheless filled with “coded” language or “dog whistles” which conceal racist messages. While some of these criticisms may be legitimate, one wonders how such a deeply cynical approach to the motives of others is sustainable.
Evangelicals would do well to reflect on issues of racism, sexism, and nationalism. However, White Evangelical Racism is unlikely to prompt such reflection. If anything, Butler’s disdain for evangelicalism and scholarly slip-ups are likely to harden conservative evangelicals in their views.
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