S4 E10. Crisis of Faith

Trump may have pandered to hardline religious conservatives, but their quest for authority runs deep.

Donald Trump definitely lost in 2020, but his support among white evangelical Protestants remained strong. As many as 80 percent voted for the former president, a litigious real estate mogul and alleged sexual predator. Trump himself is not widely known for his religious views, but our guest today says he served successfully as a vehicle for the Christian right to achieve new heights of influence in American politics. This fact is now coming into high relief as the Supreme Court, with Trump’s appointees in place, appears poised to dismantle abortion rights. But if you think antiabortion sentiment is what got religious conservatives organized in the first place, think again.

Photograph by Nicole Glass via Shutterstock.com

A critical Supreme Court decision in the early 1970s galvanized white evangelicals and set them on a path to outsized political influence in America. Roe v. Wade? Nope: Green v. Connally. This more obscure ruling two years earlier, in 1971, really got the religious right fired up, says historian Anthea Butler. That case stripped private, segregated academies — often religious schools — of their tax-exempt status. And the backlash to this ruling reveals how racism, money and power lie behind a movement’s claims to moral authority.

When it comes to the contemporary political influence of white evangelicals, Anthea Butler says, Sarah Palin “is the mother of them all.”

Photograph by Christopher Halloran via Shutterstock.com

In their conversation with Butler this week, Siva and Will also look at how the Republican Party came to engulf, and be engulfed by, religious conservatives in the last 40 years. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton may have been Southern Baptists who hit the notes of the Old South while also courting black voters. But, more and more, the evangelical bloc rewarded presidential candidates whose backgronds were secular, urban and urbane. Namely: Ronald Reagan, the Bushes, and ultimately Donald Trump. Why? Well, Butler reminds us that religion is as much about political power and its efficacy as it is about mores and values.

And curiously, she gives former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, John McCain’s vice-presidential running mate in 2008, a lot of the credit for energizing the Christian right in the last decade and a half.

About our guest

Anthea Butler is an associate professor of religious and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She holds the Geraldine R. Segal endowed position in American social thought and chairs Penn’s religious studies department. Her work focuses on the intersection of religious practice with race, politics and gender. Butler’s two books are White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America (UNC Press, 2021) and Women in the Church of God in Christ: Making a Sanctified World (UNC Press, 2007). She held a Luce/ACLS fellowship in 2018, and serves as president of the American Society of Church History. Butler is a frequent contributor to MSNBC, the New York Times and others. Follow her on Twitter @AntheaButler.

This episode was released on April 27, 2022.

What we’re reading

By our guests

White Evangelical Racism traces the racist origins of America’s religious right — from its defense of slavery in the 19th century to its support of Trump’s immigration policies in the 21st.

Butler’s first book, Women in the Church of God in Christ, follows female leaders of a major African-American Pentecostal denomination as their influence grew, both in the church and in the black community, over the early 1900s.

Keep up with all of Butler’s takes on religion in the United States in her essays for MSNBC.

Bible thumpers showed up on the National Mall in protest of President Obama’s first inauguration in 2008.

Photograph by Ryan Rodrick Beiler via Shutterstock.com

Following the oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court on Mississippi’s abortion ban, Butler wrote of the powerful alliance among evangelicals and conservative Catholics. It’s a movement that has brought Roe v. Wade to the brink of defeat.

Meanwhile, she argues, Democrats have failed to energize black religious constituents because they aren’t supporting drastic measures to preserve voting rights.

Butler has also discussed the case of two (as it turns out) not-so-peculiar bedfellows: religious conservatives in the United States and Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

From around the web

Writing for Politico in 2014, Randall Balmer of Dartmouth College brought the importance of Green v. Connally to light.

He was an actor who knew how to work a crowd — and this crowd in particular. Ronald Reagan attends the National Religious Broadcasters Convention, in 1984.

Photograph by Mark Reinstein via Shutterstock.com

A decade after Green, the Supreme Court affirmed that earlier ruling in a more well-known case, Bob Jones University v. United States. This time, the high court found that in prohibiting interracial dating, the Christian school had to sacrifice its tax-exempt status.

Historian Daniel K. Williams details how President Reagan courted evangelicals in the South, in a volume examining Reagan’s legacy.

In recent years, religious conservatives have lent their support to voter-suppression efforts; they have embraced — remarkably — a philandering president; and they have leaned on notions of religious liberty to discriminate against minority groups in health care and other social services.

June 17, 2020: Five years later, a memorial remains. This young woman stops to mourn the victims of the massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.

Photograph by Andrew Nordine via Shutterstock.com

What counts as religious freedom in America has always been uneven. On June 17, 2015, an avowed white supremacist walked into a bible study in a black church in Charleston, S.C., and gunned down nine worshippers. When their killer was arrested, police got him lunch from Burger King. The day before, Trump had announced his run for the presidency by railing against immigrants from Latin America and sounding racist dog whistles.

Despite support for Putin from evangelists like the Rev. Franklin Graham, general outrage over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may be putting some cracks in this phenomenon.

Putin embraces Patriarch Kirill during a ceremony held in Kyiv in 2013.

Photograph via Shutterstock.com

Recently, religious leaders across the world took umbrage with the Russian Orthodox Church and its leader, the Patriarch of Moscow, for supporting the war in Ukraine.

In the gospels, Christ defends the meek, the peacemakers, the infirm and the sinners. But he also busts up the stalls of vendors and loan sharks in the temple. In her 2020 book Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, Kristin Kobes Du Mez says the Christian right favors the image of a rugged, hypermasculine Jesus to support, paradoxically, an authoritarian worldview.

Want to hear more about the role of religion in U.S. political culture? Flash back to our interview with religion scholar Matthew Hedstrom, on the ideology of Christian dominionism and the resistance among evangelicals to a pluralistic democracy.

A transcript of this episode is available here.

Heard on the show

Our theme music is the title track off the 2010 album Neogrotesque, by the Montreal band Tortue Super Sonic.

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