Anthea Butler is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. In her latest book, White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America, Butler provides a sweeping survey of American history since slavery, documenting the various ways that white evangelicals have contributed, through active collaboration and passive complicity, to the racist status quo in America.
ECM: The book is White Evangelical Racism—three words with which we’re all familiar, but that have been variously defined. Either separately or together, what do they mean to you?
AB: I chose this title because I wanted to set certain parameters for the book. I specified white evangelicals to show that I’m using the term in the way that it is used colloquially by the media and the political pundits, rather than in some academic sense. That popular understanding of evangelical can be traced to self-identification, to the demographic of white, Christian conservatives who consider themselves evangelical. And I included racism because it is a very particular type of racism that I am discussing. That is, the racism that hides behind “moral” issues.
I address these questions at some length in the book, exploring how the meaning of evangelicalism has changed over time, and recognizing that there are a lot of people out there who don’t realize they’re in this thing because their self-concept leans heavily on theological considerations, allowing them to pretend that they’re not political. But nobody cares about your commitment to the Bebbington Quadrilateral when you’re arguing about the Supreme Court or judges or abortion. They care about how your belief informs your politics, which candidates you vote for, and what they stand for. So I wanted to pull evangelicals out of this safe little realm in which they’ve placed themselves and press them to confront how other people see them.
ECM: That theological/political distinction seems important here, because evangelical scholars have characterized the tradition primarily in theological terms. Has that emphasis left us misunderstanding who evangelicals are?
AB: Absolutely. Here’s the thing—and I can say this, having once been a part of this movement and studied it now for many years—evangelicals care about theology insofar as it remains an internal argument. It is not the external argument. But the theological emphasis allows them to insist on a high-minded conversation that doesn’t have to grapple with racism or gender issues or sexuality or anything else. The problem is, the theological positions they’ve taken end up shaping their political positions on moral issues. Complementarianism, for example, is one way that theological beliefs drive the political discussions.
ECM: Can you say more about that example? How does a theological belief in complementarianism drive political discussions?
AB: In 2008, when John McCain selected Sarah Palin as his running mate, I recall Tony Perkins made the comment that, while she could be the vice president, she could not be the head of her home—something like that. It made me start to think about the bounds of what is appropriate for women where evangelicalism is concerned. A lot of evangelicals derive their views about gender, family, and politics from the belief that God created women to perform certain roles and men to perform others and that they complement each other in various ways. So when we talk about gender equity in public life or wages or some of these things, there’s an assumption that men should hold a privileged position because it’s part of God’s design. That theological belief is brought to bear on the political discourse, with consequences for the public.
Read the whole thing at Religion & Politics.