By Jennifer C. Martin
Los Angeles Review of Books
Anthea Butler has spent the bulk of her career studying the influence of white religion on Black people. Formerly a Pentecostal evangelical, she studied to become a pastor before switching paths and taking a job at the University of Pennsylvania teaching religious studies and Africana studies. She’s the ideal person to write a book like White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America, in which she explores the deep-rooted racism prevalent in white evangelical culture, from the 19th century and the Southern Christian defense of slavery to Trump evangelical voting bloc today.
A relatively quick read that favors direct arguments over academic jargon, her book implores the reader to see the path of racism inherent in the history of white American evangelicalism. Like Butler, I was raised in a Pentecostal home in the heart of the South and later left evangelicalism entirely. I read the book from that perspective: I’ve watched my community’s dominant culture use a veil of respectability to cover inherently racist beliefs.
Butler sets the stage boldly by defining evangelical in a political rather than theological frame:
“Evangelicals are, however, concerned with their political alliance with the Republican Party and with maintaining the cultural and racial whiteness that they have transmitted to the public. This is the working definition of American evangelicalism. American print and television media have embraced and promoted this definition, and the American public has accepted it.”
The original sin of this particularly American faith, for Butler, is rooted in its defense of slavery. Southern Christians used particular verses: Genesis 9:18–27, in which Noah’s son Ham was cursed for looking upon his drunken father naked and sent into Canaan. Theologians during the 18th and 19th centuries thought Canaan meant Africa and that this verse meant Africans were cursed. Ephesians 6:5–7 was used even more often. The verse begins, “Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters” and goes on to compare servitude to one’s “master” to servitude to Christ. Meanwhile, enslaved people — who were encouraged to convert to Christianity — were often given Bibles with the story of Exodus removed.
Picture: John T. Bledsoe, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons