How the history of white evangelical racism has led to Donald Trump’s election and continues to shape support for his presidency

Believe Me 3dI begin with a caveat. This post is not implying that all white evangelicals are or have been racist. Many white evangelicals have been anti-racist and have fought hard to curb systemic racism in American life. But, as I argued in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, these are not historical forces that led many white evangelicals to vote for Donald Trump in 2016. They are not the historical forces that have led many white evangelicals to continue to support Donald Trump. They are not the historical forces that will lead many white evangelicals to vote for Donald Trump in 2020.  And they are not the historical forces that have led many white evangelicals to reject systemic racism in the wake of George Floyd’s killing.

But here is some history:

1 .After Nat Turner’s slave rebellion, which resulted in sixty white deaths in Southampton County, Virginia, fearful white evangelical Christians in the South began to fight harder for the expansion of slavery to the west in the belief that its spread to more open country might reduce the proximity of slaves to one another and thus make insurrections more difficult. White churches responded to Turner’s rebellion with missionary efforts in the hope that the chances of passion-filled revolts might be reduced if slaves could be monitored more closely by white clergy and lay church leaders. Yes, the idea of African Americans rebelling and causing disorder has been around for a long time.

2. The anxieties stemming from slave insurrections led Southern ministers to develop a biblical and theological defense of slavery. These ministers argued that anyone who read the Bible in a literal, word-for-word fashion (as God intended it to be read) would conclude that God had ordained this system of labor. Commonsense interpretations of Bible passages that referred to slavery were often difficult to refute. Old Testament patriarchs such as Abraham owned slaves. Slavery was a legal institution in the New Testament world, and the apostle Paul urged the Roman Christians to obey government laws. In the book of Philemon, Paul required the runaway slave Onesimus to return to his owner. Writing in the immediate wake of the Nat Turner rebellion, Thomas Dew, a professor of political science at the College of William and Mary, used the Bible to defend the view that all societies had a fixed and natural social structure. Citing 1 Corinthians 7:20-21, Dew reasoned that Africans should remain slaves because God had created them to fulfill such a role in society. Slaves had been given a divine “calling” and, in Paul’s words, “each one should remain in the condition in which he was called.” One South Carolina Presbyterians went so far as to say, “If the Scriptures do not justify slavery…I know not what they do justify.” I am reminded here of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Albert Mohler’s remarks about slavery.

3. Evangelicals thought that the South’s social order, and its identity as a Christian culture worthy of God’s blessing, was grounded in a proper reading of the Bible. In other words, the people of the South–and eventually the Confederate States of America–believed that they were living in a Christian society precisely because they upheld the institution of slavery.  The abolitionist argument against slavery was not only heretical because it violated the explicit teaching of Scripture; it also threatened the Christian character of the United States. Robert L. Dabney, a Virginia Presbyterian clergyman and one of the strongest defenders of slavery and white supremacy in the South, contended that the notion that slaves–or any Africans for that matter–had “rights” and thus deserved freedom was a modern idea introduced in the eighteenth-century by the progressive thinkers of the Enlightenment, not by the expositors of God-inspired Scripture.  James Henley Thornwell, another powerful theological voice in support of slavery, understood the Civil War as a clash between atheist abolitionists and virtuous slaveholders: “The parties in this conflict are not merely abolitionists and slaveholders–they are atheists, socialists, communist, red republicans, Jacobins on the one side, and friends of order and regulated freedom on the other. Sound familiar? Watch this or most other episodes of the Eric Metaxas Show. One of Thornwell’s students, New Orleans Presbyterian minister Benjamin Palmer, said that the South had been called “to conserve and to perpetuate the institution of slavery as not existing.” It was a duty to “ourselves, to our slaves, to the world, and to almighty God.”

4. Southern evangelicals also feared the mixing of races (even though the races were mixed mainly because of the long history of master raping slaves). Slaveholders believed that their defense of a Christian civilization was directly connected to the purity of the white race. One Presbyterian minister in Kentucky claimed that “no Christian American” would allow the “God-defying depravity of intermarriage between the white and negro races.”  South Carolina governor George McDuffie, who  said that “no human institution…is more manifestly consistent with the will of God, then domestic slavery,” also claimed abolitionists were on a “fiend-like errand of mingling the blood of master and slave.” In the process, McDuffie argued, they were contributing to the “end of the white republic established in 1776.”

5. Longstanding racial fears did not fade away with the Union victory in the Civil War. Reconstruction amendments that ended slavery (Thirteenth) and provided freedmen with citizenship rights (Fourteenth) and voting rights (Fifteenth) only reinforced Southern evangelical racism. A classic example of this was Dabney’s opposition to the ordination of freedmen in the Southern Presbyterian Church. During an 1867 debate over this issue, Dabney said that the ordination of African American minister in the white Presbyterian church would “threaten the very existence of civil society.” It was God, Dabney argued, who created racial difference and, as a result, “it was plainly impossible for a black man to teach and rule white Christians to edification.” He predicted a theological version of “white flight” by suggesting that black ordination would “bring a mischievous element in our church, at the expense of driving a multitude of valuable members and ministers out.” Dabney would not sit by and watch his denomination permit “amalgamation” to “mix the race of Washington and Lee, and Jackson, with this base herd which they brought from the pens of Africa.”

6. Northern Protestant fundamentalists at the turn of the 20th century were aware of the moral problem of racism, but they did very little to bring it to an end. While they did occasionally speak out against lynching and other acts of racial violence, they failed to see how their literal views of the Bible contributed to systemic racism in American life. White terror groups seemed to understand this better than the fundamentalists did. As historian Matt Sutton has shown, the Ku Klux Klan regularly sought partnerships with fundamentalists. The Klan’s leaders believed Protestant fundamentalist crusades to save Christian America made them a natural ally in the war against African Americans, Catholics, Jews, and immigrants. Some fundamentalist commentaries on race could have been lifted from the collected works of 19th-century pro-slavery theologians such as Lewis Dabney or James Henry Thornwell. A.C. Dixon, the fundamentalist pastor of the Hanson Place Baptist Church in Brooklyn, called the Fifteenth Amendment (the amendment that gave African Americans the right to vote) “the blunder of the age” because African Americans were “ignorant” and thus ill-equipped to cast a ballot. Other fundamentalists upheld typical racial stereotypes that portrayed African Americans as rapists, murderers, and threats to white women. In 1923, Moody Monthly, the flagship publication of fundamentalism, published articles defending Klan activity. Fundamentalist fears about the decline of Christian America regularly manifested themselves in racism.

7. In the wake of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, an event which historians have called “the single worst incident of racial violence in American history,” several evangelical and fundamentalist clergymen were quick to put their white supremacy on display. Edwin D. Mouzon, the bishop of the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, said he did not know who was to blame for the massacre. But if you read the front page of the June 6, 1921 edition of the Morning Tulsa Daily World, “black agitators,” including black activist and historian W.E.B. Du Bois, were to blame.
Mon, Jun 6, 1921 – Page 1 · The Morning Tulsa Daily World (Tulsa, Oklahoma) · Newspapers.com

Mouzon said, “there is one thing…upon which I should like to make myself perfectly clear. That is racial equality. There never has been and there never will be such a thing. It is divine ordained. This is something that negroes should be told very plainly…At the same time, we must have a Christian attitude toward the black man; he is made by the same creator; he is subject to the same Christian laws, he is our brother in Christ.” On the same day, Reverend J.W. Abel of Tulsa’s First Methodist Church said, “What other nation in all human history has done as much [for] a people as the white race has done for the race which but a brief century ago emerged from slavery? A race which even in slavery was a thousand times better off than the black princes who ruled their race in Africa.” Abel continued, “But the sin of this [black] race is that they are all too ready to protect a member of the race in crime, for no other reason that he is a negro…some day the negro will come to know that the white race is his best friend.” Dr. Howard G. Cooke, pastor of Tulsa’s Centennial Methodist Church, noted that “there has been a great deal of loose-mouthed and loose-minded talking about the white people of Tulsa being equally to blame with the blacks. This is not true.” He added, “[The massacre] should be the beginning of a new regime of law and order in this city.” This is is an interesting observation in light of the fact that a self-proclaimed “law and order” president will be holding a rally in Tulsa tomorrow night, only a few weeks after the 99th anniversary of the massacre.  (Thanks to historian Kenny Brown for bringing this material to my attention)

8. In the mid-20th century,  white evangelicals had a mixed track record regarding racial issues facing the country during the civil rights movement. Billy Graham was famous for desegregating his evangelistic crusades, and many evangelical leaders and publications supported the Brown v. Board of Education decision ending segregation in public schools, just as they supported the Civil Rights Acts (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965). But very few Northern evangelicals actually participated in the movement, and strong pockets of segregationist thought and practice continued to exist in the evangelical South. Most white evangelicals were not particularly interested in the civil rights movement; they were far more concerned about–and opposed to–the way the federal government used its power to enforce desegregation and oppose Jim Crow laws in their local communities. Historian Mark Noll has argued that race and civil rights served as an entry point for the white conservative evangelicals critique of active government.

9. This relationship between race and evangelical opposition to “big government” intervention into state and local affairs is best illustrated in the evangelical response to two Supreme Court cases. Green v. Connally (1972) removed tax-exempt status from private schools and colleges that discriminated against students based on race. At the center of the controversy was Bob Jones University, a school that banned interracial dating and denied admission to unmarried African Americans. In 1975, the IRS moved to revoke the tax-exempt status of the university, a case that was eventually decided in favor of the IRS in Bob Jones v. United States.  Green v. Connolly and Bob Jones v. United States also had implications for the hundreds of private Christian academies cropping up (at the rate of two per day) all over the United States. Many of these schools were in the South and had discriminatory admissions policies, which is not surprising given that many such schools were founded in the immediate aftermath of public-school integration. When President Jimmy Carter, a self-proclaimed “born-again Christian,” supported the Green v. Connally decision, he alienated many conservative evangelicals who ran these academies. To be fair, many segregationist academies were already beginning to admit African American students in the early 1970s, but the leaders of these schools, true to their Southern heritage, wanted to deal with the issues of segregation, race, and civil rights on their own terms. They certainly did not want the federal government forcing them to desegregate.

10. Thus, when Jerry Falwell and like minded conservative evangelicals created the Moral Majority in the late 1970s, they already had experienced the power of the central government when the Supreme Court intruded on the affairs of their segregated academies. In fact, historian Randall Balmer contends that it was this fear of big-government interference as it related to desegregation of institutions like Bob Jones University and Falwell’s own Liberty Academy that prompted the formation of the Christian Right. Paul Weyrich, one of Falwell’s closest associates and one of the leading organizers of the movement, told Balmer in a 1990 interchange that the Christian Right was originally founded, not on evangelicals’ opposition to abortion, but rather on opposition to the attempts by the IRS to desegregate Christian academies.

11. Many of Trump’s evangelical supports came to Trump’s rescue when, in August 2017, he drew a moral equivalency between white supremacy in Charlottesville, Virginia and those who came to the city to try to oppose them. Robert Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist Church–Dallas, went on Fox Business Network and said that Trump “did just fine” in his statement(s) about the event. He performed a rhetorical move that court evangelicals and other Trump supporters have perfected: he changed the subject and went from defense to offense. Jeffress warned Fox viewers that an “axis of evil” (Democrats, the media, and the “GOP establishment) were plotting to take Trump down. He then reaffirmed America’s Judeo-Christian roots without any sense that many of the Judeo-Christian influences that have shaped United States history were intricately bound up with the kind of racism that the nation had witnessed in Charlottesville. Watch:

It is time that white evangelicals take a hard look at its past and stop trying to “Make America Great Again.” It is time, as theologian Jurgen Moltmann once said, to “waken the dead and piece together what has been broken.” The operate word is reconciliation, not “renew,” “restore” or “reclaim.”

The Author’s Corner with Patrick Breen

LandPatrick Breen is Associate Professor of History at Providence College. This interview is based on his new book, The Land Shall Be Deluged in Blood: A New History of the Nat Turner Revolt (Oxford, 2016).

JF: What led you to write The Land Shall Be Deluged in Blood?

PB: Thanks for inviting me to this blog interview.  Even before I decided to pursue a career in history, I had been captivated by those southern authors who follow in the wake of William Faulkner, in particular Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy.  Interest in southern literature led to an interest in southern history, which soon enough meant that I had to grapple with slavery.  Many great historians have spent their careers wrestling with this demon—it is hard to think of a subject in American history that has led to more fabulous books—and my task was to find a subject that was both narrow enough that I could get my hands around it and important enough that my work might illuminate something important about slavery.  Simply because I had gone to William and Mary for school, much of my archival work had focused on slavery in the Old Dominion.  What could I write about in Virginia that would allow me to do what I wanted to do?  My mind kept coming back to Nat Turner’s revolt.  What did this extraordinary moment reveal about the nature of slavery?

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Land Shall Be Deluged in Blood?

PB: Nat Turner’s revolt was a moment when the consensus that undergird the slaveholders’ power—that slavery needed to be accepted—was transformed from a premise into a question. The Land Shall Be Deluged in Blood traces the remarkably varied responses among both blacks and whites to Turner’s revolt and argues that in the aftermath of the revolt the county’s landed gentry were able to get others to accept an account of what happened in ways that successfully restored their hegemony.

JF: Why do we need to read The Land Shall Be Deluged in Blood?

PB: Even before we read our first history book, Americans are taught a certain story about slavery—that it was an awful, inhumane system, in Edmund Morgan’s delightful phrase, “America’s original sin.”  This meta-narrative is incredibly powerful and has been even more useful, but there are many good reasons to adopt a new approach to slavery.

First, unlike those works that present unlimited oppression as a—or perhaps the—characteristic of slavery, power in Southampton is more fluid and interesting than that.  Influenced both by my teacher Eugene D. Genovese and postmodernists, I put hegemony at the center of my story about Nat Turner’s revolt.  Unlike many histories that lean on hegemony, the story here is dynamic.  Turner challenges the slaveholders’ hegemony, but Turner’s challenge fails and not just militarily.  The Land shows how the slaveholders used their power as judges, writers, and even church elders to create an account of the revolt that was compatible with a stable slave society.  This reminds readers how important the stories are that we tell ourselves about the past. 

Second, my sense is that the standard history of slavery is becoming less powerful politically.  The vast majority of historians who have written on slavery have done what they have done with at least one eye on the present.  It is no coincidence that so much of the great work on slavery has been a part of the attack on the obnoxious system of legal racial segregation.  For someone whose number one goal is to fight against an anomalous and odd system of formal legal segregation that persisted in the South, writing a history of Southern slavery as a dark and exceptional system makes a good deal of sense.  I admit that I too wrote The Land with an eye to the present, but the problems I see in society—things like inequality, racism, violence, alienation, and failures in education and democracy—seem less susceptible to an easy analogy with an unusual system.  That does not mean that there is nothing to learn from the history of slavery, just that we need a richer history of slavery from which to draw our lessons.

Third, rethinking slavery not as “America’s original sin” but perhaps as one of many terrible, but very human, institutions in American history has important ramifications for our conceptualizations of American history.  If the Civil War is the event that redeems America’s original sin, then it is justified, and America’s story fits a weirdly secular salvation narrative, something that appeals to the whiggish sensibility of so many Americans.  But if slavery was just one awful system, the success of the Civil War at ending this awful system was counterbalanced by the failure of Reconstruction to create a system that was much better and was, in some ways, worse.  (This is nothing but Woodward’s thesis, rewritten in a negative light.)  But the problem in getting people to accept this negative Woodwordian thesis is not that historians have failed to document the horrors of the Reconstruction and the age of Jim Crow, but that historians’ sense of slavery as completely different means that we have made it hard for people to see the ways that oppression continues, albeit in a different form, after the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment.  By presenting a human view of slavery, the entire arc of American history changes and not in a way that bends towards justice.  

Finally, the old view of slavery makes it almost impossible to access the world of so many slaves.  While some slaves led lives of quiet desperation in an awful Manichean world, so many (I want to say most) slaves did not live in such a moral universe.  They had to navigate a world filled with good and bad humans—many of whom used their almost unchecked power in obscene ways.  As a result, the idea of resistance, which has become so central to our understanding of how people should respond to slavery, was not obvious to the people who lived in slavery.  Maybe we know what Django should do (even before we shell out our $10), but there was much less certainty in Southampton, Virginia, even among the slaves, about what Nat Turner should do.  The Land Shall Be Deluged in Blood recaptures this uncertainty and ambiguity in ways that few works on slavery do. 

But I think that this last point might just be another way of saying that we should try to recapture all the craziness, complexity, and contingency of the past.  And these stories abound.  The Land tells the story of Hubbard, who saved his mistresses’ life, and then could not find her where he had hidden her because she feared that he would change his mind and betray her to the rebels. Her decision—while understandable—almost cost Hubbard his life as he was unable to prove his loyalty to whites who were looking for retribution.  It tells the story of the fight between a slave Burwell—who was delivering messages for the whites who were too afraid to travel—and the free black Exum Artist, who tried to cut the white lines of communication.  It tells the story of Boson, a convicted slave who escaped from prison and then got a white accomplice who unsuccessfully tried to sell Boson out of Virginia so that he could escape his death sentence.  It tells the story of a nearby biracial church that decided to excommunicate whites who wanted to exclude blacks from the church after the revolt, even as it adopted blatantly unchristian forms of segregation as a reform of the communion practice.  Most important of all, it tells a new story of Nat Turner, the most prominent, best documented and most compelling slave rebel in the history of the United States.  Their stories and many more deserve to be read.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

PB:  A bit more than twenty years ago, I was sitting in a dorm room at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, NY.  During the day, I was working in Kelvin Lynn’s lab where he was doing some really great stuff with positrons, which are a weird form of matter.  (They are pretty much just like electrons, but have a positive charge.)  The work was interesting, and I could easily see a career trajectory where I did similar studies for another forty years.  The only problem with this plan was that every night after finishing at the lab, I would go home and read literature and history.  I could not stop thinking about the questions that Eugene Genovese had raised in his history classes.  Even though I knew that the job market for physicists was much better than the job market for historians, I thought I would give history a try.  I’ve pretty much been trying to do history ever since.

JF: What is your next project?

PB: I have loads of things that have been piling up on my desk.  Perhaps the one that is dearest to my heart is a project on Lunsford Lane, whose narrative describing his efforts to buy himself and his family from slavery is an underappreciated work of genius.  (I take the epigraph for The Land Shall Be Deluged in Blood from his 1842 autobiography.)  Frederick Douglass’s polemical views of slavery were and still are incredibly powerful stories, but I do not think that people appreciate how Doulgass’s contemporary Lane anticipates the great insights of W. E. B. DuBois.