Holy Roller Racism?

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S1: This is a word, a podcast from Slate. I’m your host, Jason Johnson. The separation of church and state is supposed to be at the heart of American democracy. But from the beginning, white evangelicals have had an outsize influence on our nation’s politics. And for centuries, many of them have used that influence to enforce and justify white supremacy.

S2: I would say a lot of evangelicals right now, especially in the last two years with the death of George Floyd and others, they have seen Black Lives Matter as a political movement, not as a movement for justice, necessarily, but a movement that is tearing at the fabric of America, in other words, separating people and they don’t like it.

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S1: White evangelicals and racism coming up on a word with me, Jason Johnson. Stay with us. Welcome to a word, a podcast about race and politics and everything else. I’m your host, Jason Johnson. While fewer Americans than ever are going to church, the influence of one religious group seems stronger than ever. The white evangelical Christians who fueled the rise of Donald Trump have seen their favored judges place in the nation’s courts and their agenda from overturning Roe versus Wade to reversing gay rights, gaining momentum. But a key political objective of the white evangelical movement has been preserving the racial hierarchy of the United States, with African-Americans on the bottom rung of the ladder. Historically, white evangelical leaders have been amongst the most vocal opponents of racial equity, from abolition to the civil rights movement to the current battles on voting rights. So how did this movement come to have such an outsized influence on the issue of race? Joining us to talk about it is Anthea Butler. She’s the chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of White Evangelical Racism The Politics of Morality in America. Professor Anthea Butler, welcome to a word.

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S2: Thank you so much for having me.

S1: At a very basic level, what is a white evangelical?

S2: Well, you know, one way that it used to be said by a famous historian, George Morrison, was that there was anybody who liked Billy Graham. Right. So they could count as an evangelical. But for my purposes and for the book’s purposes, I kind of go through a history of this. You know, in the 19th century, it’s people who imagined themselves to be evangelizing for the world in the 20th century. It is a movement that comes out of fundamentalism and decides that it wants to be more engaged with the public and as a subset, more engaged with politics in the 21st century. I would say that evangelicals are people who are politically involved, at least in the American context, with the Republican Party, and secondarily see themselves as the saviors of the nation. In other words, they are the ones who keep the morality going in America. And part of the reason why I wrote this book was because I wanted people to understand that the morality that evangelicals want to have is a very different morality than what people think that they’ve been doing. And I think that’s important to show and explicate throughout history.

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S1: If I go back in history, I’m a Gen Xer. Right. So the first time I remember ever hearing about evangelicals, I mean, yeah, I heard a little bit about Billy Graham as a kid, but it was really like Ralph Reed and the Christian Coalition and then like I think it was like Promise Keepers later on. But what were the organizations or the philosophies that led up to groups like that?

S2: Well, the organizations had philosophies that lead up to groups like Ralph Reed, Christian Coalition and Promise Keepers and things like the Moral Majority. Billy Graham’s evangelistic campaigns campaigns about, you know, anti-abortion campaigns that were against civil rights. If we want to go back even further, you can think about it as pro-slavery movements. You could think about people like the Southern Baptists who became part and parcel of all of these movements that I’ve just listed. So in effect, one of the things I think is really important, if your memory is in that sort of 1990 space, then what we need to do is back up and begin to see this whole network of things that are going on. It’s not just about churches, but it’s about parent church organizations like Focus on the Family, Family Research Council and others that laid the groundwork for things like Christian Coalition and the Promise Keepers to come about and in the 21st century to see all of these groups that are ancillary around Donald Trump, which are helping him to remain in the public eye and hopefully for them at least wanting him to come back to power.

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S1: Evangelicals have generally been on the wrong side of history when it comes to anything has to do with black folk. Evangelicals were in support of slavery and they were in support of the Confederacy, and they were anti-civil rights. But I also know that a lot of abolitionists at the time claimed that they were deeply Christian, too. So what distinguishes the sort of evangelical movement from other Christian movements that were in favor of equity or in favor of of abolition, of slavery?

S2: The way to understand this is that evangelicals were both and the way they like to tell the story was that, you know, we were abolitionists. We wanted black people to have freedom. We didn’t like slavery, which was true. But the other part of that history is to talk about the evangelicals who believed in slavery, who believed in racial inequality, who believe that, you know, black people and white people were not the same creation. Okay. This is the kind of biblical beliefs that you have or that black people were curse because of the curse of ham, which was, you know, Ham saw his father’s nakedness, Noah. And then that means that that whole line of people would be cast, right? So if we think about people like the Southern Baptists who split from the Northern Baptists and became Southern Baptist Convention, we can think about the Presbyterians who split up and became the Presbyterian Church of America instead of Presbyterian Church USA, which is the, you know, more moderate and liberal branded this. You have several churches, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists splitting over the issue of slavery. And one of the things I think people don’t really understand is that something important that held from the 19th century into the 21st is this idea about how Southern slaveholders and those Christian evangelical ones thought about their nation, this Confederate nation. And in the Confederate Constitution, they put in that it was going to be like basically one nation under God. Okay. So they saw themselves as being God ordained as a nation that was supposed to have slavery. And so I think what’s really important for people to understand, and this is crucial, is that these ideas have not died. They are still there. But the groundwork for everything that evangelicals talk about today was in the 19th century.

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S1: We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, more on the history of white evangelicals and racism. This is a word with Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. This is Jason Johnson, host of a word Slate’s podcast about race and politics and everything else. I want to take a moment to welcome our new listeners. If you’ve discovered a word and like what you hear, please subscribe, rate and review wherever you listen to a podcast and let us know what you think by writing us at a word at Slate.com. Thank you. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson today. We’re talking about racism among white evangelicals. So you have like a personal history with white evangelicals and racism. So can you talk about your personal connection to this movement and a pivotal moment which supposedly had something to do with the Rodney King verdict?

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S2: I went to my local seminary, Fuller Seminary, in Pasadena, California, a very famous evangelical seminary. And right before I enrolled was the 1992 Rodney King riots. And one of the things that happened in L.A. was a group of churches got together. There were three of them, church on the way, Hollywood Presbyterian and Kenneth Olmos Church Faithful Center, which was a large African-American church in South L.A. And these churches came together and I actually happened to be a member of the church in the way had been very involved right before going to seminary, you know, thinking I was going to have a different life. Right. And sitting there in a pew in the service where we bought all three of these churches together, bought a huge number of African-Americans who had not been in the church before. There were African-Americans in our church, but not to the extent that this particular Sunday evening service was was a service of reconciliation and prayer for the city. And I ended up sitting next to the senior pastors mother who I knew. And she looked at me and said, Welcome to church on the way. And I realized in that moment, I’m like, oh, you just see me as as one of these black people that just came from this Baptist church. Right. And you don’t see me as even a member of this congregation, no matter that I’ve been giving my money and my time and everything else. And so it’s these kinds of, you know, what we would call microaggressions now. Right. But to me, it was like this moment of, oh, you don’t see me. You only see me when you see the rest of the black people in this church that I started to realize how evangelicals really think about this. And, you know, although for the most part, I had a, you know, a really good experience at Fuller, I think, being exposed to the broader evangelical movement during this time period, which was a time in which racial reconciliation was very high. They had these different kinds of racial reconciliation, I call them, you know, morality plays. The Pentecostals had that the Southern Baptists had that. That was part of what Promise Keepers was all about. All of these things during this time period were sort of superficial. They did not get to the real issues, and nor did they stop. And this is important, the kinds of political things that really hurt, you know, black people, people of color. And it still instantiated this kind of white supremacist thinking within Christianity that white men were going to be over everything. White women were supposed to be protected and that, you know, everybody else need to fall in line and either become like them or you were seen as the enemy.

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S1: How do evangelicals sort of how do they manifest themselves in modern times? Like, what’s the thing that they’re doing today that distinguishes them politically? We know that they’re pro-life. We know that they are pro-Republican. But where do they fall when it comes to issues like Black Lives Matter? Where do they fall when it comes to issues like the environment?

S2: Well, let’s talk about Black Lives Matter first. I mean, that that is a spectrum, right? I would say more liberal evangelical white evangelicals, especially, you know, and maybe younger ones can accept Black Lives Matter as a movement that they see is for racial, racial justice. Right. But for I would say, a lot of evangelicals right now, especially in the last two years with the death of George Floyd and others, they have seen Black Lives Matter as a political movement, not as a movement for justice, necessarily, but a movement that is tearing at the fabric of America, in other words, separating people. And they don’t like it. And that is a problem for them. That’s a lot like what happened within the civil rights movement and how evangelicals thought about this as a way for black people to be stepping out of their place and doing the kinds of things that they saw to be unlawful. And that’s a lot of rhetoric that happens from the media in these kinds of spots. Right. So the other part of this where evangelicals are today is I think this really interesting spot in which everybody is used to thinking about evangelicals as being the arbiters of morality. In other words, you don’t want same sex marriage, you don’t want abortion and all this. And yet and still they supported somebody like Donald Trump. Morality is a shield. And this is what I talk about in the book. Morality is a way to hold up these moral issues, to sort of obfuscate what evangelicals are really about in this society, which is getting power. And political power is one important way to get that. So one of the things you can see right now with evangelicals, where we talk about critical race theory, this is this is a wedge issue that they will be using very deftly in this particular election cycle in 2022 as a way to talk about schools. But that’s not something that is new. Evangelicals have always done this about schools, okay? Whether it was about school vouchers or busing or integration, it’s just. One more salvo in this long history of how evangelicals are seeking to control the culture, but yet and still divide people in between their camps and everybody else. And so for Republicans right now, and I think this is the important part, since you’re the political scientist, you know, people don’t you know, what I always want to fuss about with you guys is like, you need to pay attention to the religious part of this because the Republican Party is a religion right now. It’s not a party. It’s a religion. And I wrote about this back in 2014, and people looked at me like I was crazy. But I’m like is turned into a religious party and Donald Trump health with that. But Donald Trump is not the only reason that was already there. He just magnified it.

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S1: So I wasn’t entirely shocked when I saw sort of white evangelical support. Donald Trump. Right. Because regardless of what they felt about him and many didn’t like him, they hated Hillary Clinton. And the idea of a woman as president was more offensive to them than a man who was just. There’s nothing but moral turpitude. Right. What I’m curious. It was what I saw throughout his administration. It was the it was the rationalization of Corey Lewandowski. It was the number of men caught for sexual assault. It was the defense of Brett Kavanaugh. Where does that come in? Because it’s one thing to say we wanted Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, but the fact that evangelicals seem to have completely abandoned any sort of moral standard about men who assault, abuse or take advantage of women as long as you’re in favor of a Republican Party.

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S2: Yeah. You know, this is really interesting because I would tell you that if you go back in history and start to look at all the sexual abuse this happened, you know, and evangelicalism with with major leaders, the one thing that they used to always do is keep people out of the camp. Right. It would be embarrassing. So you wouldn’t want to have that person as a leader. I’m thinking about, you know, the former president of the National Association of Evangelicals, Ted Haggard, who, you know, was caught taking pills and being with a gay guy who was basically he had solicited off the web. Right. So, you know, somebody like that, they would have to say, yeah, let’s get rid of him. But now it’s like we don’t even we don’t care about that anymore. And so the rationale here is that basically two things. One is that it doesn’t matter because they’ve still got to man anyway. And then there’s also forgiveness. So you can be forgiven of all this, whether that’s Corey Lewandowski doing something or Trump or anybody else in that administration, they still had God’s favor, despite everything. So, you know, when we all thought back in October of 16 that, you know, grab him by the pea was going to stop everything and stop anything, because basically, you know, I hate to say it like this, but a lot of the pastors and evangelical men and churches were doing the same thing. It was just like, you know, this is what guys do. They need to ask forgiveness and ask God for cleansing. And so what I always like to say is that this is available to white men all of the time. Sexual sin does not disqualify white men. It just means that you might have to sit down for a while. That’s the worst part. And the best part is you just keep it, roll it later on.

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S1: We’re going to take a short break. We come back more about white evangelical racism with Professor Anthea Butler. This is a word with Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson. Today we’re talking about racism in the white evangelical movement with Professor Anthea Butler. So can you talk a little bit about the connection between the white evangelical movement in America and what we saw on January six and what we have to look forward to as this movement has not been held accountable by our feckless and pathetic Department of Justice.

S2: One of the things I think is really important that people have missed about evangelicals is that, you know, for some groups of evangelicals, they’ve become more radicalized. And what I mean by that is, is that violence has sort of taken hold. And so part of this happened during the Trump administration where, you know, instead of the past where evangelicals said, you know, America was exceptional, Trump changed the language and said, make America great again, as though it was in declension and fall. Right. And so to fight back meant that you had to take hold of things and do what God wanted you to do, and that would mean by force. So while you had a cross and a guillotine, you know, and a hanging thing, you know, all on display at the Capitol, one of the things I think people just didn’t understand was that how much this sort of media ecosystem of both, you know, sort of Republican Party messaging, evangelical pastors who had gotten increasingly more radicalized, let’s say, and more violent in their speech and how they talked about taking America back for God. You know, this is the kind of thing that really impaled people. And there was a really great piece in The Washington Post by Peter Manso, who followed one of the particular guys who ended up being arrested for going into the Capitol. And he went from sort of a mild mannered, nice little evangelical guy sitting in a pew to being radicalized to do violence and, you know, to march into the Capitol. And he goes to this very interesting thing by looking at his social media posts. And I think that’s a place where a lot of evangelicals have, you know, made like minded with other groups and have decided to take on this as a battle. So when they thought of it as an existential battle, because, you know, Trump was supposed to win the election and he didn’t, they saw it as stolen. They believe what Trump said, because Trump is God’s man and were impelled to come to the Capitol and spend money in even one case, a woman in Dallas flat on her private jet to come to the D.C.. Right. So I think what’s important about all of this is realizing, as I said to someone who interviewed me once, is that the person who is radicalized could be sitting in the pew next to you. These are not people that look any different from you. They go to Wal-Mart, you know, they go to Costco. They do all this other stuff that you do, except they have a vision, an apocalyptic vision about where America is going and how they need to be part of saving America.

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S1: So over the last 20 years, in my memory, I’ve seen the sort of white evangelicals also become an important sort of market force, and I guess that reinforces their political behavior. I remember when I was a kid, the Left Behind Book Series. Right. And Kirk Cameron, if you guys remember, who used to be the teen heartthrob on Growing Pains, and then he became the sort of right wing religious zealot and he did the left behind movies. Now you’ve got you know, there were always protests about Disney. You know, they were mad about Scar and now they’re mad about Disney LGBTQ characters. Now you have like The Daily Wire and Ben SHAPIRO saying, we’re going to put millions of dollars into Anti-Woke programming from a marketing standpoint, where where has pop culture sort of leaned into these white evangelicals, either validating them or providing content which reinforces their belief systems?

S2: Gosh, by talking about them all the time. I mean, I think that one of the things that’s interesting to me is that the airspace that they inhabit is vast. And I’m not talking about just the right wing thing or, you know, the news outlets and all this stuff. I’m talking about the imagination of what people say about them. So in other words, you know, on the one hand in Hollywood, you know, they like to deride Hollywood, right? But there’s lots of Christian movie making organizations and others that have a big space in Hollywood right now that are making lots of money. Or we can think about reality TV shows. I don’t know if you remember all the pastors that came out, you know, and Real Housewives of Atlanta just came out and the Real Housewives of Salt Lake. You saw, you know, the woman with the church who ends up doing all this other kind of stuff, all of these kinds of evangelical things that are sort of popular culture kinds of ways of thinking, I think, that have really taken up the zeitgeist in our heads. And now this is a spot where we all think that they occupy a bigger space than they might occupy in the world for real. And also, I think this is an important point. One of the things I think is really interesting is that you might talk about evangelicals as though they are church goers. Right. But many of them. They call themselves evangelical just because it’s a good moniker to say. In other words, there was a poll and I’m not I’m getting where this was that the use of the term evangelical how people describe themselves went up from 2016 to 2020 because of Trump. Now that’s a really interesting market because what that means is evangelical means something else to them and it means something else. I used to call this and I still think it’s true. There are a lot of people who are NASCAR Christians. They are the people who are patriotic. They don’t go to church. They love Jesus. They say they’re Christians. They would consider themselves to be out of job. Right. But they like NASCAR. They like football, you know, and to their sport, you know, they might be drinkers, all the stuff they’re not seen in a church, but they believe all this stuff and they vote the same way. And so I think this is where we have to begin to have space for the term evangelical, not to just be a religious term, but a political term, a term that describes a certain kind of voter in this country that, you know, after years and years and years of say it, evangelical, evangelical, have a jellicoe since the seventies. Now, evangelicals don’t get to define it anymore. It’s defined culturally.

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S1: I want to close with this because it was really interesting when you talk about the sort of outsize influence that these evangelicals can have. You know, Mark BURNETT, who is behind The Apprentice, who is a big evangelical Christian, who put together some of those extremely problematic Jesus and Easter movies from about six or seven years ago that never seem to have enough black people, even though they were in that part of the world, was also the force basically behind creating Donald Trump. I mean, he put together The Apprentice. He made this and not just that. He allowed Trump 8 to 10 years of advertising to make this man appear competent. But on top of that, he worked very hard to hide the racism, sexism and problematic behavior that Trump had on that set. Who were some of the people that we should worry about first politically and then maybe pop culture wise as being sort of the Trojan horses of this new white evangelical movement? And how dangerous or who are some of the hidden people we should worry about?

S2: I think what you have to be wary of right now is a couple of things. I’m thinking of that pastor in Tennessee, Greg Lark, who’s been burning books and all of this. He’s become a very interesting figure. And even when we say the word evangelical, does a lot of groups underneath that, there’s kind of hostiles. There’s others who are, you know, espousing these same kinds of things. So on the one hand, I want to say you need to watch out for the pastors that are rising that people refer to. Right. In a sense that they refer to them in such kind of ways. You know, Pat Robertson is out of he’s too old. Don’t think about him. But I do think what you have to think about is the ways in which this all creeps into the public parlance. Lately it was like, you know, Hillsong and others. I think Franklin Graham always needs to be watched and I think that’s an important person even know it’s not just about him being the son of Billy Graham, but he does hold a lot of sway in these circles. I think that, you know, with everything that’s happened with Jerry Falwell Jr, he’s not that person anymore. But these religious organizations and educational spots are really important. Hillsdale, which is a school right now that’s putting out a lot of material about critical race theory and stuff. You should look at them and you should be watching what they are doing very carefully in the public space. You should also think about the Southern Baptist Convention, because they are always going to be players in all of this and how they work things. And, you know, I’m going to bring up somebody who, you know, you’re going to die. But since she just announced she was running for Alaska, the Congress seat that’s been left, we got to talk about Sarah Palin because this is the mother of them all. Sarah Palin really, you know, has like she’s got nine lives like a kid and she’s back on the scene again. And even if she loses, she’s a person who who made Marjorie Taylor GREENE and Boebert look, you know, like they were her children. But, you know, I’m going to be interested to see how she puts herself forward this time around and what kind of religious messages, as she says, because no matter what you think about her, she has tremendous name recognition and power with the media almost as much as Donald Trump. Donald Trump really is in her lineage. He’s not stand alone. He really took a lot of pages from her and made himself what he was. So you could see how he just, you know, said that he was supporting her run for this empty seat. And I’m like, okay, here we go. Now she gets it. Then all bets are off because it’s going to be a show. It really will be. So I think this is a very interesting race to watch.

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S1: Anthea Butler is the chair of the Religious Studies Department at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of the new book White Evangelical Racism The Politics of Morality in America. Thank you very much for joining us today on a word.

S2: Thank you so much.

S1: And that’s a word for this week. The show’s e-mail is a word at Slate.com. This episode was produced by Jasmine Ellis. Alicia montgomery is the executive producer of podcasts at Slate. Our theme music was produced by Don Will. I’m Jason Johnson. Tune in next week for Word.