Race and the Religious Right: White Evangelicals, White Supremacy, and Their Consequences
University of Pennsylvania
Moderated by Susannah Heschel
Date: February 3, 2022
Time: 6 - 7:30pm
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The origin of the Religious Right is typically attributed to the political move among white evangelicals to counter Roe v. Wade. Yet many now find evidence that the defense of life was a mere ruse to cover their actual intention: to uphold white supremacy. Beyond these foundations, the policies that have been advanced and supported by the Religious Right continue to have a negative impact on racialized persons in the United States, even if they are often couched in a values language that masks the true intent and affect. Recent studies have also shown that not only are policies harmful, even deadly, to racialized persons, the white evangelicals who support the Religious Right's policies are also being victimized. Join Randall Balmer (Dartmouth College), Anthea Butler (University of Pennsylvania), and Adrienne Jones (Morehouse College) in a conversation moderated by Susannah Heschel (Dartmouth College) exploring this history, the trajectory, and the consequences of white supremacy in the Religious Right.
Christian Nationalism has deep roots in America, faith leaders say.
An article in The Washington Post details the development of Christian nationalism in American history, with present-day implications such as the January 6th insurrection or a rise in white supremacy. What began with a colonial belief that “divine providence had ordained their domination of Indigenous land,” Christianity-based white supremacy has been present since the birth of America and persists in modern-day targeted an array of minority demographics. The article is the fourth in a series on Christian nationalism supported by the Pulitzer Center.
Balmer, Randall. Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2021.
__________. Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America: An Evangelical’s Lament. New York: Basic Books, 2006.
Butler, Anthea. “From Republican Party to Republican Religion: The New Political Evangelists of the Right.” Political Theology: The Journal of Christian Socialism 13, no. 5 (September 12, 2012): 634-651.
__________. White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America. The University of North Carolina Press, 2021.
Jones, Adrienne and Andrew J. Polsky. “How to Win a ‘Long Game’: The Voting Rights Act, the Republican Party, and the Politics of Counter-Enforcement.” Political Science Quarterly 136, no. 2 (2021): 215-248.
Luo, Michael, and Eliza Griswold. “American Christianity's White-Supremacy Problem.” The New Yorker, September 2, 2020. https://www.newyorker.com/books/under-review/american-christianitys-white-supremacy-problem.
Stewart, Katherine. “Christian Nationalism Is One of Trump’s Most Powerful Weapons” New York Times, January 6 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/06/opinion/jan-6-christian-nationalism.html
Stewart, Katherine. The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020.
Tisby, Jemar. Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church's Complicity in Racism. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2020.
On February 3, the Boisi Center hosted a webinar entitled, “Race and the Religious Right: White Evangelicals, White Supremacy, and Their Consequences.” Organized in an effort to explore the origin and motivations of the Religious Right, the event was centered around recent scholarship that argues that the movement was founded and currently stands for the perpetuation of white supremacy. The panel featured Randall Balmer of Dartmouth College, Anthea Butler of the University of Pennsylvania, and Adrienne Jones of Morehouse College. Susannah Heschel of Dartmouth College served as the conversation moderator.
Particularly relevant to the conversation were the recent publications by Balmer and Butler of their books, Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right and White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America, respectively. Further, Jones’s expertise in the Voting Rights Act and issues surrounding politics, race, and the law contributed to the important contextualization of our current political climate, characterized by an increasing number of laws passed that raise the barriers to political participation among marginalized groups in the United States.
Balmer began the discussion asking whether or not there is presently a moral core to the Religious Right, answering that he is not sure there is one. He marks the genesis of the movement as the defense of segregation and racism in the mid-20th century, tracing it through to the 2016 election in which 81% of white Evangelicals supported Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. Butler took a harder stance on the Evangelical movement, noting that authoritarianism is embedded within it. There is a focus within the movement on power structures, patriarchy, and politics, she argued. Balmer also noted that historically, the use of the Bible to engender a certain way of thinking among Evangelicals. Because Evangelicalism is so decentralized, he said, certain individuals at the center of the movement become the predominant arbiters of certain morals and beliefs. Additionally, Evangelicals tend to gravitate toward more authoritarian texts, such as those attributed to Saint Paul.
Jones added that white Evangelicalism can be compared to white supremacy in that it contains certain cultish elements. Because of the connection she sees between the two, Jones noted that she must often remind herself that she is not merely a post-Civil Rights thinker, and that there is always work that still must be done due to historical white backlash against the progression of Civil Rights.
Balmer also commented on the way Evangelicals are especially proficient in the language of victimization, which Donald Trump has made use of. They cite their own values and religiosity as being under attack within a multicultural environment. Butler responded to this by saying that Donald Trump was similar to a televangelist in the way he rallied support among his followers.
Ironically, despite the heavily biblical themes white Evangelicals claim to embody, the panel agreed that there seems to be intense theological cruelty from them, especially in the conversations surrounding abortion. Victim-blaming and punitive language from Evangelical pastors is evident, but why? Heschel cited the examples of Evangelical pastors blaming women for choosing not to carry their rapist’s child or expressing that the victims of Hurricane Katrina deserved what they got for practicing voodoo. Butler said that this cruelty is a show of power and a means of creating fear and control. Balmer and Jones agreed, threading this back to the topic of authoritarianism and moral codes.
The final thirty minutes of the webinar featured questions from the audience. When asked how decentralization and authoritarianism are connected, Jones answered that white supremacy is a perfect example of how decentralized systematic racism allows for authoritarian power and control over Black individuals. She cited historical forms of non-governmental voting intimidation, which worked to remove the full extent of citizenship from Black Americans. Another question addressed the overlap between white Evangelicals and right-wing bishops in the Catholic Church. Butler cited numerous points of comparison, particularly in the way that certain bishops have criticized and disregarded Black Lives Matter. Balmer responded by asking, “In what moral universe do the bishops praise Donald Trump and deny Joe Biden Holy Communion?”