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Selling your soul for a mess of pottage: The politics of morality and racism

Reckonings require honesty. To face false beliefs and turn harmful habits into positive action for change, we have to begin with deep introspection at the personal level. We have to understand what we have given up of great long-term value for attractive, short-term gains.

Over the past month, three books have pushed me to deepen the serious look at my beliefs and privileges; my past actions and potential pathways forward. As three historians delved into their own lives and principal areas of study, they unknowingly illuminated key elements of my life, my story.

Sometimes we need words designed to trouble our minds and sear our souls.

What is my story?

  • First, I was raised in a culture that honored people who led a rebellion against a democratically elected government in order to perpetuate slavery, with ramifications that are as present as the nearest cable news show.
  • Second, my father spent his career working for one of the best-known and longest-lasting legacies of the New Deal, a legacy that continues to matter today even if it is often dismissed and under attack.
  • Finally, I was raised in a religious tradition that was founded to perpetuate chattel slavery and that has used the cudgel of morality and racism to disenfranchise those — especially people of color — who are viewed as different.

In each instance I’ve moved beyond childhood beliefs and heroes. But these three historians helped me see that reckonings are a lifelong journey of understanding, gaining knowledge of what we’ve surrendered of great value to obtain our personal mess of pottage.

The past two Mondays, I’ve considered this story on More to Come. Southerner and West Point historian Ty Seidule wrote of his reckoning with the Lost Cause beliefs in his life and the need for facing the myths in our personal histories, mine included. Last week, I reflected upon historian Eric Rauchway’s work on why the New Deal matters. His call for recognition that belief in a common purpose can serve as a model and inspiration in our current crises was a reminder of the many ways my father modeled that “building for the public good” mentality in his life.

Which brings me to the third piece of my personal story.

Historian, associate professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, and public commentator Anthea Butler has written a valuable and timely book full of powerful truths we need to hear today. White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America is part history, part personal reflection, part call to action all wrapped together in a vital sermon that pulls no punches. For those who see the title and respond, “But not all evangelicals are racists” or might add that there are progressives within the evangelical tent, she tells her story of being marginalized as a person of color even by “good people” in that tradition. It is a story worth considering.

Butler’s introduction — entitled Evangelical Racism: A Feature, Not a Bug — sketches the key points one will find in this short yet important work. She provides a concise history of the evangelical movement, but more importantly she focuses on “the racist and racial elements that imbue its beliefs, practices, and social and political activism.” This book is aimed at two audiences, beginning with those who grew up in, or continue as a part of, the evangelical tradition. People like me. She also wants those who cannot comprehend “evangelicals support for current-day politics that seem draconian and unchristian” to understand that their support for those policies is linked inescapably to the tradition’s foundational history.

Butler asserts that

“The hard truth is that evangelicals are one of the most, if not the most, polarizing voting groups in America, and the racism, sexism, and patriarchal structure of their movement has embedded itself within the Republican Party…Racism is the key to this strange story. Because of racism, evangelical decency was lost, and evangelicals’ resentments grew.”

In noting that the northern American Baptists and the Southern Baptist Convention (the church of my childhood) still remain separate entities, Butler makes the point that churches exist in, and remain true to, the social structures of the regions where they are located. To make Christianity fit, evangelical leaders have found scriptures to buttress those structures. Not many evangelicals today cherry-pick scripture to support slavery, but there is plenty of selective reading to justify sexism, patriarchal structure, hatred, racism, and exclusion.

In the latter half of the twentieth century, I grew up watching Billy Graham’s “crusades” on the television and hearing that selective translation of the Christian message. Evangelical leaders like Graham, working in concert with anti-New Deal corporate CEOs who wanted cheap labor and politicians who wanted power, focused on communism as the godless threat to America.* It was only a short leap to then view the civil rights movement as “a potential communistic arm of destruction in America.” Today, when evangelicals and Republicans want to demonize an opponent, the go-to epithet is updated to socialism, as if caring for the welfare of citizens is the exclusive province of the right. People of color, and their representatives in government (e.g., AOC), are often among the first to be labeled, fairly or not and with little understanding of what socialism means or stands for in today’s world.

Butler focuses on Graham’s words and actions because he was such a powerful force in taking evangelicalism mainstream. She notes that in Graham’s understanding, “true Christian born-again believers could not possibly hold communistic views.”

“While for white evangelicals personal salvation was the first order of business, during this era the second order was for born-again Americans to embrace ‘Americanism’ as a way to protect the nation and its citizens from the communist threat. Simply put, ‘Americanism’ meant pride in the nation, in the founders, in the Declaration of Independence and the constitution — and, most important, in the idea that America was a nation ordained by God to save the world….”

“If an American citizen did not live morally and become saved, then the nation as well as the individual would suffer. Graham’s take on the linked fate of citizens, government, and nation held the seeds of a nationalistic Christianity, predicated on Christian morals and beliefs as the cornerstone and foundation of the nation, despite the fact that the founders wanted religious freedom for people of all faiths.”**

If you have wondered where the call for patriotic education in the last administration arose, those two paragraphs sum it up pretty well.

There is much to learn from this book, from the whitewashing of racism into the “colorblind gospel” to the story of the political alliance of groups such as evangelicals and Catholics that historically opposed and feared each other. Butler makes the case in her book that racism is, in the end, what brings groups with demonstrably different religious beliefs together in the current politics of morality.

Writing It’s time to break the traditions of white nationalism in our civic institutions in the Washington Post, educator Walter Greason makes the point that white nationalism has infiltrated so much of our civic life, not just religion. Butler would no doubt agree, but her laser-like focus is on the evangelical tradition of her youth, and the intolerance that white nationalism has brought to our nation.

“Evangelicals’ political, moral, and theological concerns had come together to create a harsh and uncaring posture toward suffering and disaster. Rather than seeing events like 9/11 or Katrina as man-made murders or natural disasters, they chose to blame the dead, dying and suffering for moral infractions that violated deeply held evangelical beliefs. At the same time, evangelicals constantly referred to themselves as victims, a persecuted minority because of their faith. These contradictions, and this strategy of evangelicals to use morality as a cudgel to mask racism, became a regular feature of the Bush era and beyond, setting the stage for the much more virulent, in-your-face racism of the 2008 election and its aftermath.”

In a powerful conclusion entitled Whom Will You Serve?, Butler says evangelicals must decide between people and power. She lays out the case that the attraction of power, and the absence of that power for decades as the nation was led by well-heeled Presbyterians and Episcopalians, has led to the evangelical embrace of racism. Whiteness is what gave them power, and although not all evangelicals are white, the underlying agreement is that whenever one is saved they give up whatever racial or ethnic or religious world they came from to embrace the white, Euro-centric version of Christ.

“The bile and hatred of some of the leaders you emulate make it impossible for people to believe whatever witness you have left. While you are clinging to God and guns, mothers are clinging to pictures of children who have been shot dead in classrooms, in streets, in malls, in cars.”***

Butler calls on evangelicals to move beyond the words of well-meaning Baptist pastors after the George Floyd murder. “You must join with people you don’t agree with in order to make a more perfect union, as the founders wanted.” Move out of silos and stop listening to those who profit from your isolation. “I am one of those people,” you need to engage with, writes Butler.

“I know you. I don’t like the lies you’ve told yourself, and continue to tell yourself and others, in order to try to hold on to power….Can you step past the individual sin of racism and understand that your votes, your choices, your actions participate in the structural support of white supremacy and racist policies and policing? Can you start to engage honestly and truthfully the actions of the leaders and politicians you support, to whom you have sold your souls for a mess of pottage? Can you step away from the headiness of being in the position of power to see the brokenness of your neighbors and the nation?”

Butler writes to trouble us and sear our souls. She asks us to think, deeply and profoundly, about the legacy our past and present actions will leave for the future.

Finally, she asks us to be hopeful, understanding that there is time. That time is now.

More to come…

*See my linked review of Kevin Kruse’s One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America

**See that same review for John Barry’s Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul

***Speaking of evangelical leaders who diminish (an understatement) the witness of those from this tradition, as this post was being written, news organizations began to report on a $10 million lawsuit by Liberty University against Jerry Falwell, Jr. which claimed that his loose lifestyle hurt their brand.

NOTE: Anthea Butler spoke recently at an event for our local bookstore, Politics & Prose. The video of that conversation is attached.

Image by Matthias Lipinski from Pixabay


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