In 2017, beloved Bible teacher and evangelical personality Beth Moore had the chance to meet a theologian she’d long admired. As she later recounted on her blog, she was eager to share a meal with the iconic figure, left unnamed in her recounting, and talk about scripture. That encounter proved to be memorable, though not for the reasons that Moore, often called a “Southern belle,” imagined. The theologian, within an instant of meeting her, scanned her up and down, smiled approvingly, and remarked that she was better looking than another well-known woman Bible teacher.
It wasn’t the first time Moore had been degraded for merely being a woman, and it wouldn’t be the last. As early as the 1980s, when she began to share devotionals with other women in her aerobics class, she was met with contempt by many men in the Southern Baptist Convention, or SBC. By tradition, women were not to have leadership roles; they were to sit cheerily at the feet of men. Even though she took care to call herself a “Bible teacher,” rather than a “preacher,” and even though she diligently wore flats so as not to emasculate men of shorter stature, Moore was regularly “dismissed and ridiculed.”
She nevertheless became an influential force in the evangelical community, managing to reach an estimated 21 million people with her Bible studies and filling arenas wherever she went to speak. Had it not been for her foray into political commentary, Moore’s star likely would have soared even higher. But she began to bleed followers when, against the urging of evangelical leaders, she condemned the misogyny of Donald Trump, first as a candidate and later as president. She also spoke about the sexism she’d experienced within her faith community. Between 2017 and 2019, the same year it was revealed that the SBC was embroiled in a massive sexual abuse scandal, she lost $1.8 million. Nevertheless she pushed the envelope even further in 2020, expressing grave concerns about the corrupting influence of white supremacy and Christian nationalism among evangelicals. Her critics rebuked her and called her “woke”—the insult they also lob at those who support critical race theory and the like.
Last week, Moore finally broke ties with the Convention, along with her longtime publisher, Lifeway, telling Religion News Service, “I am still a Baptist, but I can no longer identify with Southern Baptists.… I don’t identify with some of the things in our heritage that haven’t remained in the past.” Her announcement set Twitter and the Christian blogosphere ablaze. Some have accused her of going the way of “Satanic cannibals” and demanded her repentance. Others have flatteringly compared her to Meghan Markle. But the more urgent debate surrounds the nature and history of the institution Moore has rejected, and the fault line that her stance has cracked open.
There are those, such as SBC President J.D. Greear, who insist that the problems of the evangelical community are cultural, not doctrinal; others express regret that the movement has been hijacked by politics in recent years—an idea the media seems to have tacitly accepted. Still others rightly question these framings, noting that there was never a heyday when doctrine, rather than politics, defined the movement, nor when evangelicalism was not synonymous with white patriarchal power. It is precisely because the voices of these latter critics have long been excluded from the narrative-making that so many Americans are startled, along with Moore, by the state of white evangelicalism. In order to comprehend such phenomena as the storming of the Capitol by militarized men waving Christian and Confederate flags, it is imperative to acknowledge the racist, sexist politics undergirding the modern evangelical movement since its foundation—history that those who have controlled the narrative have gone to some lengths to leave out.
There is a new generation of religious scholars doing such corrective history. Anthea Butler wrote her forthcoming book, White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America, to redress what she calls the “White Savior” approach to evangelical history: The tendency of media-savvy religious leaders and “insider” academics to illuminate the noble efforts of abolitionists and other do-gooders, while giving little or no thought to evangelicalism’s more incendiary projects. Her book discusses how nineteenth-century missionaries used the gospel to control heathen (that is to say: nonwhite) others; how the SBC was founded in 1845 expressly to protect the interests of Southern slaveholders from the interference of Northern Baptists; and how Southern evangelicals valorized white femininity in order both to justify their abuse of supposedly barbarous Black men and obscure their own sexual violence against enslaved women.
Nowadays, Butler explains, purity culture allows for white evangelicals to disparage Black families who don’t adhere to the two-parent model, while, again, not applying the same moral codes to their own leaders. Butler tells The New Republic that for those who have been “born again,” no scandal is insurmountable: “Like the phoenix, they can rise out of virtually every situation because Christ died for them, but not for other unwashed, unsaved sinners.” (Theologically, white evangelicals do believe Jesus died for all, but this conviction does not always inform their actions.)
The emphasis on an emotive conversion experience—one of the four pillars of evangelicalism, according to insider historian David Bebbington—also abets the effort among white evangelicals to downplay racial injustice. Last June, when the nation was reeling from both a global pandemic and the horrific murder of George Floyd, Moore made pointed mention of this fact after SBC leaders chose that moment to fret about critical race theory. (In November, leaders formally condemned the theory.)
“The current state of American Evangelicalism is what we get when the gospel is reduced to an entrance exam,” she tweeted. The broader emphasis on spiritual, rather than earthly, salvation, too, contributes to what Jemar Tisby, in his own book about racism in Christianity, refers to as “complicit Christianity.” During Reconstruction and the civil rights era, white evangelicals emphasized the saving of souls over earthly reforms, either opposing integration outright or advocating for a more limited set of incremental (that is to say, white-friendly) reforms. The influential Reverend Billy Graham, for instance, made a point to appear aligned with the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other Black faith leaders, all while obstructing their efforts toward racial harmony. His “eventually, but not now” attitude toward civil rights isn’t fully apparent in the hagiographies that many evangelicals have since produced.
Religion scholar Kristin Kobes Du Mez agrees with Butler that white evangelical men “have played an outsized role in writing the history of American evangelicalism,” which in turn left Americans ill prepared for evangelicals’ full-throated embrace of Trump. (Eighty-one percent cast their vote for the philandering xenophobe in 2016.) Her book Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation dispels the notion that support for the famously licentious Trump constituted any sort of aberration for the movement.
Already in its fourth printing since its June publication, Du Mez’s book traces the crooked path to Trumpism: the celebrity evangelist Reverend Billy Sunday’s championing of “muscular Christianity” and Christian nationalism in the late 1800s and early 1900s; Graham’s more polished and calculated efforts in the midcentury to resist both civil and women’s rights; the Promise Keepers’ turn to “soft patriarchy” in the nineties to push complementarianism (essentially, the doctrine of “separate, but equal” applied to men and women); and post-9/11 white evangelicals’ return to the warrior-like masculinity that Sunday originally bolstered. Jesus and John Wayne takes all of the mystery out of a recent study that found that evangelicals suffer from phallic insecurity: They Google “male enhancement,” “ExtenZe,” and “penis pump” more often than their peers.
It’s the lack of such scholarship as Butler’s and Du Mez’s (as well as that of Tisby, Robert P. Jones, Matthew Avery Sutton, Sarah Posner, and Samuel L. Perry and Andrew L. Whitehead, authors of the above-mentioned study) that explains a recent New Yorker piece, which offers a curiously depoliticized history of evangelicalism. Author Michael Luo attempts to account for white evangelicals’ Covid-19 denialism, their unfounded beliefs in election fraud, and their embrace of QAnon conspiracies, by discussing the anti-intellectualism that has long pervaded evangelicalism. Luo engages the work of revered evangelical historian Mark Noll, who locates such anti-intellectualism in eighteenth-century revivalism, which idealized fervor and individualism, as well as early twentieth-century fundamentalism, which insisted upon a literal reading of scripture as a way of resisting Darwinism and other perceived threats. There’s no mention of the racism, sexism, and Christian nationalism that animated believers during these and other epochs. It’s as if evangelicals’ hostility toward truth emerged from an ideological vacuum.
Several religion scholars called attention to the piece’s glaring failure to engage more recent scholarship. “I love Mark, but the book is 26 years old. What are we doing here?” asked Suzanna Krivulskaya. In a recent essay on a 2019 anthology edited by Noll, Bebbington, and another establishment historian, George Marsden, Christopher D. Cantwell was even more pointed in his criticism: “The sense of surprise that continues to confront evangelical zealotry for Trump might be [their] greatest legacy.” Despite the “veritable cottage industry of editorials, hot takes, and academic research” that took shape after Trump’s election, too many are still wondering, “How did we get here?”
Cantwell is hopeful about the new cohort of scholars (including Du Mez and Tisby) included in the volume, but he also warns of attempts on the part of conservative evangelicals to accommodate new lines of inquiry while clinging to apolitical definitions. He suggests, for instance, that scholars beware of the metaphors describing evangelicalism. He counted “no fewer than thirty-nine similes, metaphors, analogies, and other extended (and sometimes tortured) turns of phrase,” including “kaleidoscope,” “mosaic,” and “patchwork quilt.” These linguistic devices are as prescriptive as they are descriptive, he says. They “serve to control and contain less favorable expressions of evangelicalism by positioning them against … truer, more authentic, and more admirable” expressions of the faith.
Cantwell cautions against writing off the Capitol-stormers as fake Christians. The point seems intended for scholars—but it’s not terrible advice for the many lay people processing the state of white evangelicalism. There is a temptation, perhaps made stronger by the fact of an ascendant liberal Christianity, to expose the gulf between Christ’s teaching and the ethe of many conservative Christians today. (Many quip that were Jesus to walk the earth today, white evangelicals would deride him as “woke.”) But as an increasing number of evangelical historians are demonstrating, and as Beth Moore seems to have intuited, such thinking runs the risk of selling the subject short. When we depoliticize religion, reducing it to some essential doctrine or piety, we obscure the varied ways religion actually works in the world. So when another spectacle like the Capitol-storming unfolds, we may still find ourselves scratching our heads, wondering how it came to this, when the answer has been at hand all along.