Religious studies scholar Anthea Butler addressed racism in American evangelism, describing it as a feature, not a bug, during Tuesday’s “UNIV101 Presents” webinar titled “Religion, Race, and the Future of Democracy in America” .
Butler, who is president of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, was the featured guest in the final installment of the UNIV101 speaker series. UNIV101 is a one-semester university course designed to teach students about the concept and history of breed. To highlight the pervasiveness of racial hierarchies across multiple disciplines, the course features guest speakers from across Duke.
The webinar was co-sponsored by the Office of Undergraduate Education, Duke Divinity School, Jewish Life at Duke, Duke Wesley Fellowship and POLIS: Center for Politics. It centered on Butler’s recently published book “White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America..Frank Stasio, former host of WUNC’s “The State of Things,” moderated the conversation.
The couple began the event with a discussion about the history of evangelism in the United States.
“Morality and purity have come together in the South to make this very harmful mixture,” said Butler. “One of the things we should really consider is that this sacralization of virginity, purity and all those kinds of things for evangelicals comes from these 19th century ideas.”
Butler argued that racialized Christian doctrine, with this history, laid the foundation for the modern evangelical movement. She started a discussion about the questionable record of prominent North Carolina evangelist Billy Graham on race issues.
“Billy Graham believed in policing, just like many evangelists,” said Butler. “He wasn’t on the right side of things for a very long time,” said Butler. She added that Graham was well connected with politicians in the South, so he had to walk a fine line on race issues.
Butler pointed to the civil rights movement as evidence that white evangelicals selectively engaged in political battles to maintain a racial hierarchy.
“We don’t like to combine religion and violence, but I promise you it goes together pretty well,” she said. “You receive the letter from Birmingham prison, and this letter is from other white Christian pastors, who do not see fit to come out and support a just cause.”
Asked by a student participating in Defining Evangelism, Butler compared them to Christian fundamentalists, who believe the written word of the Bible should be taken literally.
“Evangelicalism can think of that too, but evangelicals are more inclined to want to embrace culture, to think of music, to think of songs,” said Butler.
Discussing the rise of the Evangelical Coalition as a powerful political force, Butler dispelled the myth that abortion animated religious conservatives. Instead, she said, the first battle lines were drawn over the case of Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist Christian college that lost its tax accreditation for refusing to allow interracial dating in the 1970s.
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“This resulted in Texas State Law [severely restricting abortion] that everyone is trying to get rid of. It is the work of 40 to 50 years of evangelical advocacy; you have to think of it as a long game, ”said Butler.
Later in the discussion, Stasio asked how Butler could explain former President Donald Trump’s support among evangelicals in light of his moral flaws.
Butler cited Jeff Sharlet’s book “The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power,”Saying that evangelicals really wanted a strong man whom they saw as divinely anointed. They cared about it “[Trump] would take care of moral people, he could be an immoral man who cared about moral people, and they are moral people. And so it didn’t matter.
Butler extended this argument to other authoritarian leaders like Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who also excited fundamentalist religious bases.
Towards the end of the session, Stasio asked about Butler’s own experiences with race and religion.
“I wasn’t thinking about the question, but I was living the question,” she said. To work for racial progress, Butler called for “true reconciliation.”
“What I would really love is a way that people really engage with each other and tackle heart issues,” Butler said. “But unfortunately at the moment it’s really hard to tackle the tough issues.”
Anisha Reddy is a sophomore at Trinity and associate editor of The Chronicle’s 117th volume.