For some reason, white evangelicals can’t stop outing themselves as racist pieces of shit, can they? There are a few reasons for this association, of course. White evangelicals must fight hard not to be racist pieces of shit, because that association runs very deep in their culture. Today, let’s explore how white evangelical racism became such a problem, and why it will remain so for the foreseeable future.
An association I make automatically these days: white evangelicals and racism
This topic’s on my mind because I recently was looking at that Christian Nightmares Tumblr blog. It doesn’t look like its owner updates it very often these days, unfortunately, so I quickly ended up on a fairly old news story. It was about a white pastor who yelled “White power!” during a Trump rally in September 2020. The pastor, Jesse Hursey, was from North Carolina, as is the church he pastors, Bynum Baptist.
When I saw that, I immediately thought, That guy’s evangelical, and probably SBC to boot. Wouldn’t ya know it, too: I looked up the church, and the first thing I saw was that yes, they’re in the SBC.
When we run into these white nationalist racists, they’re almost always evangelicals. It’s an association I make without even thinking about it, these days. And it’s one that I’ve not yet been mistaken about. It’s nothing if not completely reliable and consistent. It’s just like finding out that a sex scandal has broken out at a church, and guessing that it’s yet another evangelical church rather than a mainline one.
White evangelicalism and racism turns out to be a pairing as old as, well, evangelicalism itself.
The Gathering Storm in the Churches: white evangelical racism on full display
A while ago, I got this interesting book called The Gathering Storm in the Churches, by Jeffrey K. Hadden. It was published in 1969. Hadden tackled some very serious problems he saw fermenting in American churches. First of all, he examined growing doubts about standard-issue Christian doctrines in ministers’ ranks. Second, he examined big cultural changes regarding churches’ role and influence in secular society.
Nowadays, we’ve been knee-deep in Christianity’s decline for many years now. Christians themselves didn’t really accept that they were in fact in decline until 2015. That’s when Pew Research put out their groundbreaking Religious Landscape Study. But the decline began a long time ago, maybe in the late 1940s. I found a book published around then, As We Were by Bellamy Partridge and Otto Bettmann (yes, of Bettmann Archives; Partridge wrote the text of it, while Bettmann supplied the images). In it, Partridge complained endlessly about how quickly Americans were becoming secular in outlook.
Still, in the 1960s ministers still had this image of themselves as nearly-literal shepherds of their flocks–the bosses and managers of their Mutual Admiration Society, so to speak. But the Civil Rights Movement was blowing that self-image out of the water.
White Christians, in particular white evangelicals, did not want their pastors involved with this movement. They certainly didn’t want to get too involved themselves. They were fine with vaguely-worded encouragements to reduce racism, sure. But once pastors began agitating for them to donate money to Black groups like the NAACP, openly advocate for school integration in their districts, and insist that lending institutions not discriminate for mortgages in their own neighborhoods, wow, that support dropped like a stone.
Hadden seemed really mystified by the systemic racism of Christians. Sure, they didn’t want to snarl racist epithets at Black people, but their dedication to racial unity vanished once it seemed likely to lead to Black people living too close to themselves.
But I’m not mystified at all.
Specific white evangelical racism
Jeffrey Hadden had been examining white Christians in general. Fast forward a couple more decades, to 1995, and we see another book enter the ring: The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience by Ronald J. Sider. His subtitle asks a poignant question: “Why are Christians living just like the rest of the world?”
It’s also a very good question. In theory, evangelicals should not be living at all like normies. After all, they are TRUE CHRISTIANS™! As such, they should be so stuffed full of Jesus Power that their Jesus Auras dazzle every single person who encounters them.
And yet, the opposite tends to be true. There are no positive differences whatsoever between evangelicals and non-evangelicals. Worse still, we find a lot of negative differences. White evangelical racism is one of those negative differences. Scratch a white evangelical, and chances are you will find a racist underneath their veneer of simpering niceness.
As I said, evangelicals’ racism almost never extends to snarling racist epithets at Black people, any more than it did in the 1960s when Jeffrey Hadden was researching his own book. But modern evangelicals’ systemic racism is off the charts, just as it was in the 1960s. And Sider devotes a whole subsection in his book to this racism. His final assessment: “The whole thing stinks.”
Other books, like Divided by Faith (2000), explore similar ground and find similar evidence of deep, entrenched, systemic racism in white evangelical America.
In short, nothing’s changed at all from when Martin Luther King, Jr. declared that 11 am every Sunday–the time when most Christians convene for church–was “the most segregated hour in Christian America.”
From good basic idea to evangelical racism
The Bible flat-out says that there are no demographic distinctions among Christians. All are equal in Jesus’ eyes. You’ll find this statement in Galatians 3:28:
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
But as with every other thing that could have been potentially a really good and groundbreaking belief for Christians to hold, it took no time at all for Christian leaders to begin massaging that statement to suit themselves. Weird how that always happens, eh? And if anyone thinks that’s impressive, they should see how Christians rationalize the greedy pursuit of vast wealth!
That said, nowhere do we find stronger cognitive dissonance in Christianity than in evangelicalism. Quite a lot of today’s evangelicals have found plenty of ways to rationalize that simple verse from Galatians into all the justification they need to be racists.
How evangelical racism got entrenched in the biggest Protestant denomination in America
Evangelicals really came into their own with the Great Awakenings in America. That was in the 18th century, when rationalism and scientific inquiry were just starting to take off in a major way with the Enlightenment. Some Christians felt that religion had grown boring and ritualistic. The various Great Awakening movements injected some serious passion into Christianity. In the doing, they brought evangelicals into a great deal of power in their cultures.
It seems to me that the more disadvantaged the white people involved, the more they find that interests them in evangelical-style Christianity. In the modern day, I saw that truth constantly reflected in the kind of people my tribe was able to convert. Back then, in the Deep South in particular, this kind of worship took off like a rocket.
Of course, evangelicals had taken root all over the new United States. They’d been here since the beginning of colonization. But gradually, evangelicals began to predominate in the South.
The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) split from the main body of American Baptists in 1854 over slavery. The SBC’s founders endorsed and embraced slavery, while the rest of the Baptists didn’t want any part of it. Even though there are certainly all kinds of Baptists all over the place, the SBC has always found its strongest base of support in that part of the country. And thus, it’s always harbored a huge number of stone-cold racists.
Why evangelical racism is so common now
These sources talk about the overtly-politicized nature of modern evangelicalism, the fact that evangelicals themselves have become deeply tribalistic and authoritarian, that their religion is uncomfortably white-nationalistic at its core, that they view themselves as the supreme lords and masters of America and get enraged and even more locked in their -isms every time they get a reminder that they really aren’t.
At the root of all of these truths, we find rigid authoritarianism. The fear of losing power. The absolute need to have something, anything, that marks them as special and better than the people they view as inferiors. As kingmaking traits go, the color of one’s skin is pretty weaksauce. But for many white evangelicals, it’s literally all they’ve got. Even the poorest, least-educated white guy can look down on the richest, best-educated Black man on Earth–all because he’s got something that Black man can never have, which is white privilege. Evangelicalism itself tells that racist that he’s better than any Black person, and its group members have a number of cultural ways to enforce that message.
And as the world has moved further and further away from both the embrace of authoritarianism and evangelical dominance, white evangelical racism has roared to life in a way that nobody expected.
One author of a book on that topic, Anthea Butler, says that “racism is a feature, not a bug, of American evangelicalism.” And I’d absolutely agree. The systems that keep both kinds of racism alive and well in evangelicals’ ranks have never been examined seriously by their pew-warmers or leaders, and without examination their chances of eradication and dismantling are worse than none-at-all.
Dismantling white evangelical racism: it won’t happen
When Russell Moore left the SBC, he leaked a couple of letters he’d written regarding the vast racism and sexism he’d witnessed in his fellow SBC top leaders. Nobody was surprised, least of all anybody at Roll to Disbelieve. His observations of casual and systemic racism in the halls of SBC leadership were absolutely vile to read.
In his letters, Moore tells us of SBC leaders who spoke glowingly of the Civil War, who embraced openly-racist white nationalists, who attended racist gatherings, who perpetuated racist stereotypes and accused Black SBC-lings of these stereotypes. At most, these leaders had learned over the years to tone down their snarling racism with careful dogwhistles, but the racism at their heart had never abated.
Neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female in Christ Jesus, y’all. Except oh, there really, really is.
But before anyone decides Russell Moore is some kind of Big Damn Hero, remember this: he didn’t call attention to any of it until he scooted out of his SBC job. There’s no indication he did anything more than gently push back against some of the worst of it.
He does call one fact to the SBC’s awareness, at least: their current squabble over Critical Race Theory (CRT) is just the latest in a long line of racist dogwhistles.
How white evangelical leaders propose to deal with white evangelical racism
Some of the most hilariously out of touch nonsense you will ever see on this beautiful dark Earth has to do with how white evangelical leaders think they’ll totally lick this whole white evangelical racism problem.
The most popular solution by far is to demand that white evangelicals just Jesus harder. When I talk about Jesus-ing harder, I mean drilling down harder on evangelical-style devotions and ritual practices. It means to pray more often and with more emotion, to speak in tongues, to attend church and evangelize more often, to study the Bible more often, and all those other lovely substitutes for actually becoming a better person that Christians have evolved over the centuries.
It’s all nonsense. The roadmap they’re laying out doesn’t ever actually go to the destination promised. Really, all they’re doing is wasting time in a tribally-approved fashion and calling it progress.
In the wild: How to totally fix white evangelical racism!
Al Mohler, one of the SBC’s very own made men and leader of their flagship seminary, goes for this approach. In 2015, he wrote a long essay on the topic. Here’s his central point:
To put the matter plainly, one cannot simultaneously hold to an ideology of racial superiority and rightly present the gospel of Jesus Christ. One cannot hold to racial superiority and simultaneously defend the faith once for all delivered to the saints.
It means exactly what you think it means: someone who believes all the right blahblah can’t possibly also be a racist.
More fringe-dwelling evangelical leaders, like Greg Locke, advocate not doing anything at all. As he put it:
Locke said churches that preach about race are making the problem worse. “The problem is, everybody wants to keep picking the scab. That’s what these social justice churches are picking a scab, picking a scab. Leave it alone, let it heal. And they won’t let us heal because they keep bringing it up,” Locke said. “They’re trying to, they’re trying to take away the structure of who we are as Americans to make us look inherently racist.”
Gosh, y’all, he thought this was MURRIKA!
None of them want to do what would actually be necessary to fix their racism problem. Not the preening simpering sorry-sounding ones, and not the unrepentantly snarling racist ones.
Jesus-ing harder will never fix anything
Fixing white evangelical racism seems like it’d run along the same lines as fixing any other -ism from any other group.
First, the SBC requires much more diversity in leadership. I’m betting those good ol’ boys in the SBC crony network would be a lot quieter about their racism with a whole bunch more Black people in leadership. Men and women both need to be there, too. The SBC’s leaders can end the crony network, too, while they’re at it.
Second, the SBC must make the reporting of racist behavior, speech, and associations easy and safe. It’s the same as they need to do with those reporting sex abuse. The SBC needs to protect whistleblowers and ensure that their testimony matters.
Third, the SBC must take every opportunity to call out and criticize racists and racism. This move would make racists aware that they are not in a safe cuddlebox anymore. They’d either become much more careful about expressing their racism or leave for easier pastures. Either way, the SBC would win. If you’re thinking right now about how, a few years ago, it took the SBC hours of infighting and arguing to decide to even begin talking about condemning white nationalism, and then even more fighting and arguing to decide to actually condemn it, well, me too.
Fourth, the SBC needs to make their operations transparent to members and watchdogs alike. Secrecy aids racists like little else ever could. Dwight McKissic has written movingly of how the SBC’s opaque leadership style directly hurts Black families and churches alike in the SBC.
Lastly, yes yes yes, the SBC should teach CRT in their seminaries. Evangelical ministers need to know this stuff.
But why howl for the moon when one can’t get a candle? None of this will happen.
Authoritarians gonna authoritarian.
As a group, white evangelicals don’t want any of their dominance to end
It’s always hard to talk about evangelicals as a group, even just white evangelicals. Nothing in Christianity is monolithic. Obviously, many white evangelicals want an end to systemic racism. Similarly, many evangelicals really do want to deal meaningfully and tangibly with their sex abuse problem. (It’s sure not just an SBC problem! If it’s an evangelical church, you can absolutely bet that the seeds are there for them to have a serious sex abuse scandal too. Even my old Pentecostal church had a few. My genial, folksy pastor was accused of shielding sex abusers while I attended there. I didn’t find out till years later.)
The problem is, as you’ve seen above, the answers all involve a lot of steps that even reformist-minded evangelicals don’t ever want to take.
That’s why I mockingly call the Old Guard’s enemies the Pretend Progressives. They sure act like they want to fix the SBC’s sex abuse problem. But nothing they’re suggesting even comes close to the overhaul that will be required to fix it. They’re making up busy-work initiatives and voluntary programs. So far, they have only been adopted by a fraction of churches. And so far, they have made not even a tiny dent in the crisis.
And they’ve done even less about racism.
White evangelicalism works fine the way it is, for white evangelicals as a whole
Most of all, any white evangelicals that are still in the tribe are there, way more often than not, because authoritarian right-wing Christianity scratches their itch. It makes them happy. It works for them. All the awful things that are features rather than bugs are things they like: the hypocrisy that they’re allowed as long as they play the evangelical game, the nonstop narcissism of thinking they’re the chosen people of Jesus 2.0 and the rightful owners of America as well, the -isms they can freely indulge in expressing and holding, the willful ignorance that keeps them blissfully coasting on their own fumes, the objectively untrue conspiracy theories that excite them so much.
It’s all so exciting to them. They don’t want to give it up.
Taking real-world steps to fix their problems would be far too much like admitting that Jesus-ing harder doesn’t fix anything. That holding the perfect-est beliefs ever doesn’t guarantee freedom from -isms. It’d be like having to live like a normie, an ickie atheist, a grody secularist. Most of all, it’d be admitting they’re wrong and have been all along.
And that, more than anything else, is why we will not see anything change regarding white evangelical racism.
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