Professor of religious studies explains the connection between white evangelicals racism and support for political violence
It looked like David Brooks was elevating “dissidents” in order to save white evangelical Protestants from themselves. In a big piece in the Times, he said: “Hints of Christian renewal are becoming visible.”
These dissidents are more likely trying to preserve the core of their faith while sanding off sharp edges exposed after white evangelical Protestants went all-in with a lying, thieving, philandering sadist.
So it’s not renewal so much as damage control. (That Brooks elevates non-white evangelicals in order to save white evangelicals from their devil’s bargain is further evidence of his public relations savvy.)
Brooks isn’t alone.
With rare exception, the press and pundit corps never doubt white evangelical Protestants, nor consider the moral implications of their “deeply held belief.” They segregate their religion from their politics.
In doing so, they miss something obvious: a bad religion.
Conversely, the press and pundit corps can be trusted to ignore nearly completely any religious sentiments – “deeply held belief” – that do not come from white evangelical Protestants and the Republicans who speak for them. In November, the White House announced that the president would deliver remarks on the occasion of Thanksgiving.
Turns out, it was a sermon.
Joe Biden said:
I don’t know what you’d call this. Scholars call it “civic religion” on account of it identifying the nation as a source of fidelity and faith.
But anyone can see it reflects “The Sermon on the Mount.” Given the Golden Rule is endemic in most religions, I’d say Biden’s religion is good. In that speech, you’ll find genuine “hints of Christian renewal.”
Anthea Butler is an associate professor of religious studies and Africana studies at Penn. She’s also a columnist for MSNBC. Her latest work of history, White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America, seems to sit between two schools of religious thought.
Do you accept the universal equality inherent in the beatitudes? Or do you reject the morality of the Golden Rule for the sake of preserving the orders of power that put some of God’s children above others?
With the former, violence is forbidden.
With the latter, violence is acceptable.
Can you talk about the connection between racism among white evangelicals and their support for political violence?
It’s a question about the ideas about law and order.
For white evangelicals, “crime” (think the Wille Horton ad, “race riots,” Black Lives Matter protests, etc.) isn’t just robbery or murder. It’s the feeling that they have about some people upsetting the social order.
When they perceive that the social order is being upset, they believe that violence to restore the social order is the way. When they believe they are being pushed out of that order, violence can occur.
Think about the ways in which civil rights protestors were heckled and brutalized and murdered. Think about the ways in which abortion clinics are blown up. Think about Charleston or the J6 insurrection. When they are cornered by social change, violence can occur.
How can we understand the language of white evangelicals?
Evangelical language is coded through moral issues.
So when they talk about “critical race theory,” for instance, and not wanting their children to be taught that way, that is code for “we really don’t want to talk about race when it decenters whiteness or challenges our notions of what we believe America is.”
Listen for when evangelicals talk about something they don’t like or when they ban books or when they espouse Republican beliefs about immigration, etc. These issues are about drawing higher boundaries around their power, and restricting those who they don’t believe should have the same access. It is also the fear of change.
Can you talk about the principle of equality among white evangelicals? How it applies to them? How it applies to outsiders? The conflict between their conception of it and everyone else’s.
Evangelical beliefs about scripture don’t lend themselves to clean principles of equality.
For instance, for many evangelicals, their beliefs about equality are centered in their readings of scripture. They don’t see women as equal to men, but talk about “complementarianism.” That is, certain prescribed roles for men and women in the world.
Men, according to biblical scripture they say, are the “head of their household” and women are to be in submissive to their husbands.
Similarly, this kind of thinking stretches out to their ideals about how politics and leadership work.
Equality for outsiders is not a concern unless it violates what they believe to be Scripture – homosexuality, for instance, and same-sex marriage. Whether those are legal doesn’t matter. God’s law supersedes Man’s law.
Why do evangelicals believe America is a Christian nation?
Because they believe America was founded on biblical principles. Never mind that that’s historically incorrect. There is a robust industry of homeschooling and book publishing that teaches this to evangelical children from a very early age.
Evangelicals like David Barton have made millions promoting the erroneous belief that America is a Christian nation. If you consider Ronald Reagan’s deft use of the phrase, “America is a shining city on a Hill,” originally from John Winthrop’s 1630s sermon, this belief is linked to God’s providence in supporting America.
They often separate theology from politics, using one to cover for the other. To what extent, in your view, is the theology itself racist? When they pray to Jesus, they don’t have a Palestinian Jew in mind.
As I discuss in my book, racism is a feature and not a bug of American evangelicalism. Theology is used to obscure it.
But think back to the churches that used scripture to defend slavery, like the Southern Baptists. That was both theology in the service of making a social and political statement about supporting slavery and slaveholding.
So yes, while they say they separate politics from theology, theology often drives their political leanings, as well as their beliefs about who Jesus is. And he’s not a Palestinian Jew for many evangelicals.