Editor’s Note: Diana Butler Bass (@DianaButlerBass) is the author of 11 books on American religion and cultural trends, including her most recent, “Freeing Jesus: Rediscovering Jesus as Friend, Teacher, Savior, Lord, Way and Presence.” The views expressed here are hers. Read more opinion on CNN.
How can you defend White evangelicals?
When I talk to readers and people in my community about faith and my relationship with Jesus, this is what they ask me. These days, it seems to me, it is tempting to reply, “I can’t.” But I’m realizing that answer denies the power of history – mine, and many others.
During the Trump presidency, White evangelicals formed the bedrock of the former President’s political strength – a huge number voted for him twice and never wavered in their support for either the man or his policies.
As a result, White evangelicalism has emerged as a political and theological explainer for some liberals and progressives to understand the continuing appeal of Donald Trump. Several brilliant recent books, including Robert Jones’ “White Too Long,” Anthea Butler’s “White Evangelical Racism” and Kristen Kobes Du Mez’s “Jesus and John Wayne,” have generated important public conversations on the complicity between White evangelicalism (and White Christianity more broadly) and racism and sexism. For the most part, these authors insist that ideologies of Anglo-Saxon supremacy and misogyny are at the very core of American evangelical identity among its White adherents. Donald Trump – no matter his personal failings – embodies their deepest beliefs. He doesn’t just represent their interests. He is them.
These analyses are pointed and on target. It is true that White evangelicals maintain strong support for Trump. And their attitudes stand in stark contrast to Black evangelicals – who did not vote for him and have been among his most vocal religious critics.
These books present finely argued and nuanced histories. And yet, they are entering – and shaping – a fraught public discourse where, in much of mainstream commentary and social media critique, White evangelicals are a new cultural villain, scapegoats responsible for our national ills.
In recent weeks, I’ve been on a book tour and the most unexpected question I’ve heard in book talks is about the acknowledgments where I thank several evangelical organizations with which I was once associated. People have challenged me: “How can you be so generous to them? Don’t you know they are racist?” or “Your ability to be generous to such a dangerous religion is beyond me” or “Really? They don’t deserve your kindness!” It has been surprising that some readers have criticized my capacity for gratitude toward evangelicals.
Thus, I’ve been reflecting on the question: What’s good about White evangelicalism?
I’m not an evangelical, but I used to be one. I converted from my childhood liberal Methodism to being “born again” (the experience that makes one an evangelical) in 1974 and remained within evangelicalism for almost two decades. I graduated from a Christian college, attended a flagship evangelical seminary and did my doctoral work with George Marsden, the towering figure of evangelical history. Yet, by 1994, after stepping outside of theological bounds and failing to receive tenure at an evangelical college, I found myself on the outs of the subculture, shunned and silenced by evangelical institutions and churches, unable to work in Christian higher education and canceled by evangelical publishers.
This past year, I’ve reflected on this personal history while writing a spiritual memoir. In the process, I rediscovered why I’d become an evangelical in the first place. I’ve been reminded about what was good – at least in the 1970s – about White evangelicalism, and why that part of the subculture’s history needs to be brought into the light along with its more nefarious skeletons.
As an adolescent in the 1970s, I felt lost. Not an earth-shattering revelation, I expect. Lost-ness is a feature of the early teen years. But my lostness was compounded by my family moving from Maryland to Arizona when I was 13 – and by episodes of abuse when I was 14. More than anything else, I needed to find a safe home. I wandered into an evangelical church, and hearing about a Jesus who called the lost, a sense of warmth and security embraced me. I found Jesus; I found myself. That conversion gave me a new sense of confidence, purpose and freedom. Indeed, Jesus liberated me.
A few years later, at an evangelical college in California, I first encountered the radical Jesus: anti-racist, feminist, lover-of-creation, companion of the poor, proponent of social justice, universally inclusive. It was, of course, the 1970s. It was the heyday of what I call “liberation evangelicalism.”
I tell this story not because it was unique, but to emphasize that it was so common. I did not become an evangelical because I wanted to be racist. I certainly didn’t do so thinking that I would turn away from feminism. I didn’t want to deny worldly pleasure, didn’t hope for an apocalypse and didn’t think Democrats were evil or going to hell. The Jesus I encountered in those years saved the lost and set captives free.
What I didn’t know then, but what we all know now, is that another form of evangelicalism, that of an orderly, authoritarian, and politically ambitious strain was rising. Out there, in California, we laughed at Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. We eschewed anything that smacked of Southern fundamentalism. As far as we knew, liberation evangelicalism was evangelicalism. Sadly, events proved us wrong. In the 1980s, after Ronald Reagan was elected President, liberation evangelicalism would sink as rapidly as the sun over the Pacific on a winter evening.
All of this begs a historical question: Which is the real evangelicalism? The liberation evangelicalism of the 1970s? Or the White supremacist-misogynist evangelicalism that emerged in the 1980s and became so painfully obvious in the Trump years?
I’d like to say that the liberationist form is the real evangelicalism, and the authoritarian one an aberration. Most historians, I suspect, would have it the other way around.
Truthfully, White evangelicalism holds both possibilities and has since the 18th century. When evangelicalism was first birthed in the American colonies, it was an egalitarian spiritual movement that attracted mostly the poor, women, and the enslaved. Promising spiritual freedom, it threatened more conventional forms of church. Eventually, evangelicals traded their radicalism for social acceptance and political power, and they assimilated into White Southern culture. But the radical form never quite goes away. Every other generation or so, it reappears, followed by a reassertion of hierarchical authority. As a result, for nearly three centuries, White evangelicalism has vacillated between two visions – that of a liberating Jesus and that of an orderly Lord.
In American history, the orderly strain has most often won.
But the other strain is also there – most often found in Black evangelical communities, renegade marginalized groups (often of young adults) who form alternative communities and churches, among women who claim their voices in the public square when forbidden the pulpit. Like William Barber, Jo Sexton, Lisa Sharon Harper, the late Rachel Held Evans or Beth Moore.
These people may be the exception, but they are fighting for something that is true about evangelicalism – even in White communities – that liberating evangelicalism that was the first impulse of evangelical revival back in the 1740s. And that was the first evangelicalism I knew back in the 1970s.
And that’s what is good about White evangelicalism: what it once was and might be again. When it wasn’t quite so “White.” History reminds us that evangelicalism needn’t be “White.” It can just be evangelicalism. It needn’t trade its soul for power. Not only would that be good, but it would be Good News for the rest of us.