The Post-Trump Crack-Up of the Evangelical CommunityHistorians in the News
tags: Christianity, authoritarianism, evangelicalism, Donald Trump, White Supremacy
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 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.)