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Anthea Butler on White Evangelical Racism
And how Trump made the Evangelical D list into his A list of co-conspirators
Welcome back to Lucid! And hello to all new subscribers. Mark your calendars for our regular Friday Q&A, on October 1, 1-2pmET. Log-in info for the Zoom call will be sent that morning. Ask a question or just listen in, and you can keep your camera off if you want. I’m looking forward to seeing you there.
I am pleased to bring you this interview with Anthea Butler, who is the Geraldine R. Segal Professor in American Social thought and Chair of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She is a historian of African American and American religion and author of the recent book White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America. Butler was a Presidential fellow at Yale Divinity School for 2019-2020, and has served as a consultant to PBS series including Billy Graham, The Black Church, and God in America. You can find more of her writing and public engagement at Antheabutler.com. Our conversation took place on September 23, 2021, and has been edited for clarity and flow.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat (RBG): your book is a model of lucidity and it is beautifully written. Your core arguments are that racism is a feature and not a bug of White Evangelicalism and that we should consider Evangelicalism not just as a religion but also as a political movement in support of White Christian hegemony. It seems as though many people have not grasped this and you're trying to shift an ingrained collective perception.
Anthea Butler (AB): It is a conceptual problem, I think. And part of it has to do with how smart Evangelicals have been. You can say, oh, they're just religious people who have high morals. But the reality is, they're religious people who use morality to get power. This all has to be refracted through the lens of political power.
RBG: Your book shows how durable and adaptable Evangelicals have been at exploiting the fears of the moment. The "only we can stave off the collapse of civilization" narrative justified slavery, anti-Communism during the Cold War and Islamphobia after 9/11, and is now furthering far-right extremism. What, if anything, is unique to current Evangelical talking points?
AB: Abortion has always been there, but now abortion is not simply about "don't get an abortion because God doesn't want you to," it's about "we're going to be replaced." The idea that migrants are going to come in and White Christians will become fewer, there's that fear. There's also the reaction to Covid-19 and the fear of losing your "pureblood" status if you take the vaccine. And the huge shift of Evangelical attitudes toward Russia. They have put themselves together with Orthodox Christians in Russia for authoritarian purposes.
RBG: Speaking of saving the nation, your book covers the appeal of the Lost Cause in the 19th century. That theme has returned as a motivator of Evangelical spiritual warfare waged in tandem with the GOP today.
AB: This cause has been rebooted for the 21st century. Carrying the Confederate flag into the Capitol on Jan. 6 was a signal moment. And the attacks on Critical Race Theory are not just about the 1619 project, but about wiping out the teaching of slavery, period. The Lost Cause is not simply about monuments: it's about controlling the educational system.
RBG: I was reading about the growth of non-denominational churches. Some of these mega-churches rival Evangelical ones in their commitment to Trump and the GOP and to spiritual warfare.
AB: I think it's really important to think about how Trump weaponized that. Most presidents saw Evangelicalism as focused on the family and went through the established influence channels, like the Family Research Council. What Trump did was really different. He went to what I call the D list and he made those people into the A list. He went to these people who had little ministries, they were either Pentecostal or charismatic, but they didn't have denominational authorities to tell them what to do. They had big followings and he brought together all of these people.
Think about Paula White. There were people who knew about her, but maybe primarily because she had been with TD Jakes. So Black women knew her. And there were a whole set of Black and other Christians who were willing to accept Trump because of her. What he did was more like what a reality star would do than a politician, promoting all of these minor people, but it worked.
RBG: Where does this leave people, including people of color, who love their Evangelical faith? You take a dim view in your book of people who try and compartmentalize, separating the politics from the religion to save their church. Are people leaving for other churches?
AB: Yes, but I think that number is a lot smaller than we thought it was. A lot of Black Evangelicals are leaving because of the racism -- it's not even the faith, it's the racism. We'll see what happens in 2022 and 2024, will they continue to vote this way? The 2022 election cycle is going to tell us a lot. And unfortunately, I don't think the Democrats are ready for what's about to happen to them.
RBG: What role do you think that faith can have in Democratic platforms? It seems that the GOP has had a quasi-public monopoly on the faith and politics equation because Democrats have been more reluctant to make faith central to their profiles.
Biden has been a bit different, perhaps because he lost a son and he's grieved. But think of Hillary Clinton, who is a devout Christian but did not make her faith part of her public profile in 2016. Now that you have people getting elected like the Reverend Senator Raphael Warnock (GA), can faith be mobilized to capture swing voters or get non-voters to vote?
AB: The lines could be drawn better. Let's take an issue like immigration, there's a very big and long tradition about welcoming the stranger in Christianity and other religions. These are things politicians could talk about. The social contract to keep people fed and clothed, these are basic things to religions, whether we're talking about Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, etc., There's the concept of charity.
But I don't see candidates talking about these things in that particular way. My critique of Biden is yes, he talks about faith. He quotes Scripture. But only insofar as it's about grief, and not about change.
RBG: What do you do to keep balanced? What sustains you?
AB: Before COVID, it was travel, getting out of the country. The place that I seem to like the best in the world is Spain. That is a country that came out of fascism. And I can see the remnants of all of that when I visit. But I could see how people got through it.
I also try and to do something once a day that's going to make me laugh, like watching comedians. And there's my work with students - they can give us some hope. Seeing the light bulb turn on for students is a big thing. And knowing that I did my part.