Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Tales of the Unexpected by Roald Dahl

Source of book: I own this.


Most people in the English-speaking world are likely familiar with Roald Dahl. He wrote a number of modern classics for children, several of which, such as Matilda, have been made into plays or movies - or both. For those of us of my generation or later, we grew up with these books, and found them to be deliciously subversive of authority, zany in their imagination, like nothing else in the children’s section. Not all of our parents were thrilled about this, of course. 


That said, far fewer people are aware of two other facets of Dahl’s life. First, he was a spy during World War Two - he spied for Britain against the United States. Second, he also wrote stories for adults - which are every bit as wicked and subversive as the ones for kids. And even more macabre and poisonous. 


I ran across a used copy a couple years ago of this one, and decided to read it this month - it is always good to have some short stories on the nightstand to savor. There are a total of 24 stories in this book, all of them fairly short, and most with a nasty twist of some sort at the end. 


Just as a sampling, there are a number of spousal murders, poisonings, people turning into insects, adultery, devious servants, and most of all, terrible marriages. If it wasn’t obvious from the kids’ books, Dahl was not “nice” in the usual sense. His mind went to nasty places, and he indulged in a bit of cruelty toward the deserving. (Think Trunchbull in Matilda, or the fate of the kids in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.) Things are similar in this collection. The deserving often meet gruesome fates, the proud and snooty get their comeuppance. But also, weird crazy stuff happens. 


I hesitate to describe the stories more than that, because it would be a shame to ruin either the setups or the twists at the end. I will, however, quote a few lines. Dahl is always full of wit with a razor edge to it. Take, for example, this description of the social climbing nouveau riche Mike Schofield in “Taste.” 


But he was a stockbroker. To be precise, he was a jobber in the stock market, and like a number of his kind, he seemed to be somewhat embarrassed, almost ashamed to find that he had made so much money with so slight a talent. In his heart he knew that he was not really much more than a bookmaker - an unctuous, infinitely respectable, secretly unscrupulous bookmaker - and he knew that his friends knew it, too. So he was seeking now to become a man of culture, to cultivate a literary and aesthetic taste, to collect paintings, music, books, and all the rest of it. 


Dahl isn’t wrong. As a lawyer, I know a very few stockbroker sorts who are scrupulously honest. But it is hard to do that job without a certain amount of self-serving, and to become truly rich, one must be able to sell with a straight face. The comparison to a bookmaker seems very apt. 


This next one, from “Galloping Foxley,” the rare story that is not gruesome, but merely awkward to a real extreme, also describes a recognizable sort. 


Personally, I mistrust all handsome men. The superficial pleasures of this life come too easily to them, and they seem to walk the world as though they themselves were personally responsible for their own good looks. 


A much more bloody story is “Neck,” which opens with the description of an excessively eligible bachelor who recently inherited a fortune and a newspaper empire, and thus has to expose himself to the predations of female society. 


Naturally, the vultures started gathering at once, and I believe that not only Fleet Street but very nearly the whole body of the city was looking on eagerly as they scrambled for the body. It was slow motion, of course, deliberate and deadly slow motion, and therefore not so much like vultures as a bunch of agile crabs clawing for a piece of horsemeat under water. 


Dahl does have a bit of a misogynist streak in some of his writings, although men don’t fare that much better in this story collection. He is pretty equal opportunity in his poisonous descriptions. Another story that goes after women of a certain sort is “Nunc Dimittis,” in which the narrator commissions a painting of a woman from third-rate artist, whose “technique” is to paint in layers, starting with a nude, then working his way up one layer of clothing at a time. The narrator gets the portrait, then carefully peels back one layer at a time to see first undergarments, then the nude. Which he publicly displays. (But wait for the twist at the end of this one, of course…) The best line is about the narrator’s disappointment about women of a certain age and social standing, once he sees the underlayers. 


Quite fantastic the whole thing seemed to me as I stepped back a pace to survey it. It gave me a strong sense of having somehow been cheated; for had I not, during all these past months, been admiring the sylph-like figure of this lady? She was a faker. No question about it. But do many other females practice this sort of deception, I wondered. I knew, of course, that in the days of stays and corsets it was usual for ladies to strap themselves up; yet for some reason I was under the impression that nowadays all they had to do was diet. 


Don’t worry, this unpleasant narrator gets his in the end. As do most of the deserving. 


One of the most bizarre and disturbing stories is “William and Mary.” The husband is dying of cancer, but his surgeon convinces him to have his brain and one connected eye kept alive if possible. The wife only finds out about this after the fact, when she receives a letter her (mostly) late husband wrote her before his final wishes were carried out. The letter mostly describes the discussion with the doctor, the proposed operation, and so on. But it also has a postscript which is pretty indicative of the relationship. 


P.S. Be good when I am gone, and always remember that it is harder to be a widow than a wife. Do not drink cocktails. Do not waste money. Do not smoke cigarettes. Do not eat pastry. Do not use lipstick. Keep my rose beds and my rockery well weeded in the summers. And incidentally I suggest that you have the telephone disconnected now that I shall have no further use for it.


I will leave to the imagination what happens after that. Some men really have no idea that widowhood meant freedom to women throughout most of history - for the first time in their lives, they could own their own property, and indeed own their own lives. 


So many of the stories involve this situation of the tables being turned on a husband or wife. Another one with a great ending is “Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat.” So what does a woman do when her lover gives her a fur coat as a parting gift? It is a bit hard to explain to a husband. The opening of the story is wonderful. 


America is the land of opportunities for women. Although they own about eighty-five percent of the wealth of the nation. Soon they will have it all. Divorce has become a lucrative process, simple to arrange and easy to forget; and ambitious females can repeat it as often as they please and parlay their winnings to astronomical figures. The husband’s death also brings satisfactory rewards and some ladies prefer to rely upon this method. They know that the waiting period will not be unduly protracted, for overwork and hypertension are bound to get the poor devil before long, and he will die at his desk with a bottle of benzedrines in one hand and a packet of tranquilizers in the other. 

Succeeding generations of youthful American males are not deterred in the slightest by this terrifying pattern of divorce and death. The higher the divorce rate climbs, the more eager they become. Young men marry like mice, almost before they have reached the age of puberty, and a large proportion of them have at least two ex-wives on the payroll by the time they are thirty-six years old. To support these ladies in the manner to which they are accustomed, the men must work like slaves, which is of course precisely what they are. But now at last, as they approach their premature middle age, a sense of disillusionment and fear begins to creep slowly into their hearts, and in the evenings they take to huddling together in little groups, in clubs and bars, drinking their whiskies and swallowing their pills, and trying to comfort one another with stories.


A little background helps with this too: Dahl married an American actress (Patricia Neal), and they were married for 30 years, before eventually divorcing. From these years, Dahl got to see the Hollywood divorce carousel up close - and he isn’t entirely wrong when it comes to rich and powerful men marrying and discarding younger women, who take the chance to become financially independent with the divorce settlement. Obviously, this isn’t the case for most women, who end up financially worse off after a divorce - although often happier, if the man is abusive or neglectful. But for a certain sort of marriage, this description is pretty dang funny. 


The final bit I want to mention is from one of the few purely amusing stories, “The Hitchhiker.” The narrator picks up a hitchhiker in his new and powerful car, is convinced to show how fast it can go, and gets pulled over by a very irate police officer who threatens jail time and more. But the hitchhiker, despite his various stories, turns out to be what he calls a “fingersmith.” Not a mere pickpocket, but a true artist, who preys on the rich and powerful. Kind of a Robin Hood of the modern sort. 


“You’ve ‘eard of a goldsmith and a silversmith, for instance. They’re experts with gold and silver. I’m an expert with my fingers, so I’m a fingersmith.”


That gives a bit of the flavor of the collection. These aren’t exactly kids’ stories, but I suspect some of my more macabre kids would enjoy them. I found them quite diverting, if occasionally shocking and disturbing. This collection appears to have about half of Dahl’s complete short stories, so it is a great start and easy to find used. I may have to eventually try to find the two volume complete stories, though - I am a bit of a completist when it comes to books. 


Monday, March 28, 2022

Firstborn by Louise Gluck

Source of book: I own this


This last Christmas was a good one for books, between gifts from others, and what I managed to find used. In this case, I had a gift card from Barnes and Noble to spend, and got the complete (so far) Louise Gluck. 


My experience of Gluck was pretty limited - just a poem here and there - but I liked what I had seen enough to add her to my collection. Her poetry feels very much in the style of the second half of the 2th Century: quirky, oblique, and often unexpected. This is not a criticism at all. One might say that she embodies what is best of the era. 


Gluck is having a bit of a moment these days, at least by the standards of poetry, since winning the 2020 Nobel Prize in Literature. She also has served as poet laureate, and won a Pulitzer and other prizes. The book I purchased covers 50 years of writing, which is impressive any way you look at it. Firstborn is, as indicated, her first collection, published in 1968.  


Gluck’s poems tend to be a bit dark and brooding. I was, in a way, reminded of Thomas Hardy, although their styles are quite different. Trauma is one of her recurring themes, and many of the poems seem to have been set in the aftermath of some sort of emotional catastrophe. At the same time, Gluck shows a strong attachment to nature, particularly that of the Eastern Seaboard. I am not sure how representative Firstborn is, although my understanding is that it isn’t as highly regarded as her mature works. In any case, I have plenty more of her poetry to read in the future. 


Here are the poems that I liked best. 


First is a cycle of three poems, entitled “Egg.” Having read it through several times, I am not confident that I understand everything she is trying to say, but with poetry, sometimes it is enough - or even best - to grasp it by feel. Here is the third poem, my favorite. 




Always nights I feel the ocean

Biting at my life. By

Inlet, in this net

Of bays, and on. Unsafe.

And on, numb

In the bourbon ripples of your breath

I knot . . . 

Across the beach the fish

Are coming in. Without skins,

Without fins, the bare

Households of their skulls

Still fixed, piling

With the other waste.

Husks, husks. Moons

Whistle in their mouths,

Through gasping mussels.

Pried flesh. And flies

Like planets, clamped shells

Clink blindly through

Veronicas of waves . . . 

The thing

Is hatching. Look. The bones

Are bending to give way.

It’s dark. It’s dark.,

He’s brought a bowl to catch

The pieces of the baby. 


That’s not exactly the most idyllic nature description, to say the least. But find it creates an impression that is as “true” as the more peaceful one. I am intrigued by the Veronica reference. The legend of the saint is that she wiped the face of Christ during his procession to the cross, and his face imprinted on her cloth. So one wonders precisely how Gluck imagines the waves to wipe - and retain the impression. I’ll have to think that one over a bit. 


Several of the poems describe failed or failing relationships. It is difficult to know exactly how autobiographical they are. Gluck struggled with anorexia and mental health in general during her college years, and was partway through a short and disastrous marriage when she published Firstborn. I have a hard time imagining she could write these poems without some traumatic relationship experience. This one is brilliant, but really tough to read. 


The Edge


Time and again, time and again I tie

My heart to that headboard

While my quilted cries

Harden against his hand. He’s bored -

I see it. Don’t I lick his bribes, set his bouquets

In water? Over Mother’s lace I watch him drive into the gored

Roasts, deal slivers in his mercy … I can feel his thighs

Against me for the children’s sakes. Reward?

Mornings, crippled with this house, 

I see him toast his toast and test

His coffee, hedging. The waste’s my breakfast.


I love how she turns sexuality on its head. Every word picture feels like it is about sex, but also maybe isn’t about sex. He’s bored, and she is frustrated - that much is clear. But how and why? With everything serving as a metaphor for her relationship - or is it that she sees the relationship in every detail of life? - everything is interconnected and inseparable. 


Also interesting is that this poem looks at first glance like free verse, in part because the line lengths do not fit a pattern. But it definitely has a rhyme scheme. ABABCBCBDEE as I scan it. That B rhyme - board, bored, gored, reward - is already viscerally disturbing even out of context. The A and C rhymes are very approximate, and the E rhyme is almost but not quite. And then, “house” stands out as the only ending which doesn’t rhyme with anything else. Indeed, it feels out of place with every other word in the poem: it has a unique vowel sound that doesn’t show up anywhere else. 


There are layers to this one, which is why it stood out to me. 


Another poem with a form caught my eye. It feels very formal compared to most of the other poems in the collection. Again, though, her choice of words to rhyme is unusual to say the least. Take a look:


The Lady in the Single


Cloistered as the snail and conch

In Edgartown where the Atlantic

Rises to deposit junk

On plush, extensive sand and the pedantic.


Meet for tea, amid brouhaha

I have managed this peripheral still,

Wading just steps below

The piles of overkill:


Jellyfish. But I have seen

The slick return of one that oozed back

On a breaker. Marketable sheen.

The stuffed hotel. A shy, myopic


Sailor loved me once, near here.

The summer house we’d taken for July

Was white that year, bare

Shingle; he could barely see


To kiss, still tried to play

Croquet with the family - like a girl almost,

With loosed hair on her bouquet

Of compensating flowers. I thought I was past


The memory. And yet his ghost

Took shape in smoke above the pan roast.

Five years. In tenebris the catapulted heart drones

Like Andromeda. No one telephones. 


There is a lot of approximate rhyme, and a few that really require a squint. And then the shift to AABB in the last stanza is interesting. And, who else would compare that sort of a failed relationship to dead jellyfish washed up on the shore? 


This next one is another that is so unexpected, it shocks every time I read it. I am a cave lover - and a bat lover - so the references are plenty understandable - but where she goes with it…


Memo From the Cave


O love, you airtight bird,

My mouse-brown

Alibis hang upside-down

Above the pegboard

With its dangled pots

I don’t have chicken for;

My lies are crawling on the floor

Like families but their larvae will not

Leave this nest. I’ve let

Despair bed

Down in your stead

And wet

Our quilted cover

So the rot-

scent of its pussy-foot-

ing fingers lingers, when it’s over.


That muddying of the very concept of line and word at the end - breaking words over the line - is an interesting technique, and makes it fun to read out loud. How to read it is really the question - as one long line for the last three…or hesitating a bit over it? 


For the most part, the poems feel more personal than political. But there is one definite exception. It seems fitting for our time. 




The year turns. The wolf takes back her tit

As war eats at the empire

Past this waxworks, the eternal city.

We have had our round. What 

Lords rise are not of Rome: now northward some two-bit

Vercingetorix sharpens his will. A star

Is born.                    Caesar

Snores on his perch above the Senate.


This is history. Ice clogs the ducts; my friend

I wake to frost

On marble and a chill men take for omen

Here. The myth contracts. All cast

For comfort, shunt their works to pray,

Preening for Judgment. Judgment fails. One year, 

Twenty -- we are lost. This month the feasts begin.

Token slaves suck those dripping fowl we offer 

To ensure prosperity.


It does help to know a bit of history and mythology for poems like this, of course. Or at least be able to look it up. But the commentary on empire is timeless - and for all empires. 


I want to quote another nature poem, one that feels less connected to a specific relationship, and more of a mood. I feel like the ending sounds of the lines are a progression where some element of each new line is linked to the last one. Maybe I am seeing (hearing?) things, but that is my experience of this poem. 




Long Island Sound’s

Asleep: no wind

Rustles down the inlet

In the sagging light

As, stalled at 

Vanishing, two Sunday sailboats

Wait it out,

Paralysis, or peace,

Whichever, and the drained sun

Sinks through insects coalesced

To mist, mosquitoes

Rippling over the muddy ocean. 


The final poem I want to look at is my favorite from this collection. It share some images with “Egg” and a setting with several other poems about the shore. But it is a brilliant distilled moment, with the sort of shift to the inward at the end that reminds me of the best of Emily Dickinson


Cottonmouth Country


Fish bones walked the waves off Hatteras.

And there were other signs

That Death wooed us, by water, wooed us

By land: among the pines

An uncurled cottonmouth that rolled on moss

Reared in the polluted air.

Birth, not death, is the hard loss.

I know. I also left a skin there.


I’m not sure what else I can say, other than that I found that to be a singularly breathtaking poem. Eight short lines, a simple form, a fairly traditional structure. But what worlds are contained in it. 


I think I will be enjoying Gluck in the years to come. I am getting a pretty decent poetry collection in my library, and am the richer for making sure I am constantly reading from it. There is so much that has to be read between the lines - “slant” as Dickinson describes it. Gluck, even before she came into her own, already showed this ability and a mature ear for language. 


Friday, March 25, 2022

White Evangelical Racism by Anthea Butler

Source of book: Borrowed from the library


This short book is one of a few that are on my list of books to give people who are starting to question their association with white evangelicalism. (Others that come to mind are Jesus and John Wayne and The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.) It will not persuade the committed evangelical, for reasons that Anthea Butler makes clear in the book. Those who have stayed during the Trump Era have already tipped their hand - the racist politics are their core values, not anything connected with the example or teachings of Jesus Christ. 


For those who follow my blog, you will know that our family left organized religion five years ago, in the aftermath of the election of Trump. In retrospect, we were forced out of our longtime church for speaking out against Trump and his racist rhetoric and policies. As we later came to find out, open white supremacists (as in, the sort that follow and repost neo-Nazis like Steve King and Milo Yiannapolous) are and remain in leadership positions. And this is not at all unusual within white evangelicalism. You can be a Proud Boy and be comfortable in church, but not a Democrat. 


While there are a few things I learned from White Evangelical Racism, most of what is in there are things I already discovered from other sources. Butler is not breaking any truly new ground with this book, but rather distilling down to the basic facts and history the longstanding connections between white supremacy and the evangelical movement. This starts back with the Puritans, of course - they were big supporters of enslavement and genocide of indigenous peoples. But the evangelical movement as we know it got its real start and its name in the early 19th Century. 


Butler notes in passing that even the genesis of the name has some issues. “Evangelism” for the last few hundred years hasn’t so much meant spreading the teachings of Christ, but in spreading white theology and culture to the supposed “savages” with browner skin. It is as much a form of cultural imperialism as it is anything else. All of my grandparents were missionaries to countries that had already been “Christianized” hundreds of years before by the Spaniards. They were already colonized, conquered, and brutalized. And their populations were already overwhelmingly Christian. But not the right kind of Christian. They were Catholics, not Protestants, to start with. And their cultures were a fusion of Spanish and indigenous, and not northern European/American. So, my ancestors set off to convert Christians to a more WASPy culture and theology, essentially continuing the old imperialist wars between the Spanish and Anglo-American empires. Sigh. 


So even the origins of evangelicalism have a lot of the worship of whiteness built in. 


But, as Butler lays out, evangelicalism as a whole, isn’t really a religion, but a political movement, one dedicated to maintaining the status quo, the political power of white males over everyone else. I discovered this to my horror when I became the enemy for pushing back against the politics and racism. Never mind that I made an argument from Christian theology. That was unimportant compared to the political values. 


Rather than specifically reiterate ideas from the book, I think I will just put some quotes out there for consideration. I do recommend reading the book. If, like me, you want to go deeper, Butler gives a suggested reading list at the back. There are also plenty of resources available online that can be helpful in seeing how the politics have driven the religion, rather than the other way around. I have cited many of them over the years on this blog. 


The bottom line is that evangelicalism has numerous denominations - including the larges, the Southern Baptist Convention - which were founded during splits over the issue of enslavement. And the current evangelical mainstream consists of those who were on the pro-slavery side. The Ku Klux Klan consisted of white evangelicals. Most evangelical denominations and churches were segregated for 100 years after the Civil War, and loudly fought against the Civil Rights movement. The Religious Right was founded to preserve segregation at evangelical colleges, and has been wedded to the Republican party ever since. And, a higher percentage voted for Trump than for any candidate in American history - not in spite of, but because of his racism. There is no person who more perfectly embodies evangelical values than Donald Trump. And that is the problem. (And also why we are done with organized religion.) 


Without further ado, here are some highlights. 


It is racism that binds and blinds many white American evangelicals to the vilification of Muslims, Latinos, and African Americans. It is racism that impels many evangelicals to oppose immigration and turn a blind eye to children in cages at the border. It is racism that fuels evangelical Islamophobia. It was evangelical acceptance of biblically sanctioned racism that motivated believers to separate and sell families during slavery and to march with the Klan. Racist evangelicals shielded cross burners, protected church burners, and participated in lynchings. Racism is a feature, not a bug, of American evangelicalism.


I will add that it is racism that causes evangelicals to oppose universal healthcare, the minimum wage, and other social programs. It was this realization that racism is a feature, not a bug, that was the end for me. And it was the words of so many I thought were better that made me realize this. 


Furthermore, it isn’t exactly hatred or prejudice that drives this. It is greed and a lust for power and privilege. 


The ubiquitous support demonstrated by white evangelicals for the Republican Part made them not just religiously or culturally white: it made them politically white conservatives in America concerned with keeping the status quo of patriarchy, cultural hegemony, and nationalism.

Evangelicals are, however, concerned with their political alliance with the Republican Party and with maintaining the cultural and racial whiteness that they have transmitted to the public. This is the working definition of American Evangelicalism. 


Butler also lays out the history of evangelical belief in the inherent inferiority of black people, bolstered by the Calvinist idea of predestination adapted to the idea that God created people for specific roles - and some were designed by God to be slaves. 


From using the Bible to support slavery to opposing the civil rights movement, integration, and interracial marriage, evangelicals have long employed a presumed moral authority to hide their prejudices.


Using a presumed moral authority to hide their prejudices. Man, that is spot on. And it continues today in evangelical politics. 


Butler, a black woman who grew up in evangelicalism, admits to struggling for decades with what she calls the “presumption of whiteness.” That is, the assumption that white is the norm, that white culture is the norm, white theology, white politics. 


I have taught and written about American evangelicalism for the past twenty years, and questions about the movement have always haunted me: Does being evangelical really mean being white? Does it mean that anyone who embraces evangelical beliefs has to give up parts of their culture? Does it mean that evangelicals always have to vote Republican?

To be honest, I have always known the answers. Evangelicalism is synonymous with whiteness. It is not only a cultural whiteness, but also a political whiteness. The presupposition of the whiteness of evangelicalism has come to define evangelicalism, and it is the definition that the media, the general public, and politicians agree on. 


I very much feel what Butler is saying about those decent people who haven’t left yet. They have to twist themselves into knots to try to identify with non-white evangelicals, but it is increasingly untenable. She, like myself, realized that the whole thing is rotten. It cannot be saved. There is no baby - only dirty bathwater. 


Butler, by the way, is hardly the first to criticize white evangelicals this way. She quotes Frederick Douglass, 180 years ago:


“For all the slaveholders I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst. I have ever found them to be the meanest, the basest, the most cruel and cowardly, of all others.”


And this is true today. When I think of the cruelest people I know, the ones who call for the most draconian punishment of immigrants, the most mass incarceration, the most police brutality - every single one is an evangelical. 


Probably the most appalling chapter in this book is the one that takes an honest look at Billy Graham. He has been canonized within white evangelicalism, and like most saints, his many faults have been covered up. The problem is, on the issue of race, he was mostly really terrible. Martin Luther King Jr. likely had him in mind when he railed against the “white moderate” who was even worse than the open bigot. Butler cuts away the hagiography and looks at the disgusting truth. Graham did a lot to further the cause of racism in America, and fed the “fear of the other” which drives evangelicals today, and led to the election of Trump. 


His brand of Christian fervor, fear, and fatalism defined American evangelicalism from the 1940s to the 1970s. He exemplified a kind of religion that combined Christianity, patriotism, and politics into a potent mix of respectability that was predicated on fear of the other. The other, for Graham and his followers, often was communists, Catholics, and immigrants. Graham convincingly instilled in his vast audiences an urgent sense that only by means of their individual salvation through Christ could America be saved.


And, perhaps the worst was Graham’s insistence that white hegemony shouldn’t be challenged politically. 


But Graham also preached about race in America. “Only when Christ comes again will little white children of Alabama walk hand in hand with little Black children” he famously said in 1963, when asked to comment on Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.


Let that sink in for a minute. MLK calls for a desegregated America. And Graham says “that ain’t happening, bro, before the end of the world.” Just disgusting. And you know what, Billy Boy? My white kids have walked hand in hand with black kids, and not because your imaginary white sky daddy came back, but because MLK and others ended Jim Crow. Despite your best efforts otherwise. It doesn’t get better. 


Women, immigrants, and people of color; especially African Americans, were expected to wait in docile obedience for their turn to achieve the freedoms available to available to white, male, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Evangelicals’ quest to win the world for Christ - a quest promoted by a white male leadership exemplified by Graham - was to save souls and make believers of all races conform to white, Western Christian ideals. Their quest helped dramatically to solidify for postwar America the racism that was embedded in evangelical beliefs, behaviors, and social prohibitions from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. 


While I have been aware of the National Association of Evangelicals since my childhood, I was not aware of its history. Did you know, for example, that while it took the bold step of including Pentecostals - controversial at the time - NO black denominations were invited? None. Segregation wasn’t just for busses, as Butler points out. 


There is more in this chapter too. Graham started to openly oppose MLK after the “I have a dream” speech. Other prominent evangelicals were even more openly racist - some joining the John Birch Society. W. A. Criswell went so far as to say “true Ministers must passionately resist government mandated desegregation because it is a denial of ALL that we believe in.”


Holy fuck. This was during my parents’ lifetimes, by the way. It isn’t ancient history. It is literally what was in the water when they were raised. (And unfortunately, it shows.) 


On a related note, I highly recommend The Paranoid Style in American Politics for a much deeper dive into the unholy alliance between racist evangelicals and the John Birch Society. The official platform of that disgusting group is pretty much mainstream Republican doctrine now, and has nearly complete overlap with white evangelical political positions. I was shocked at how many of the anti-Christian beliefs that are now core evangelical beliefs can be traced back to the John Birch Society. It is good evidence in favor of Butler’s premise that white evangelicalism is a political movement, not a religion per se. 


After the civil rights acts were passed, for a time it became socially unacceptable to be openly white supremacist. In fact, during my childhood, it went mostly underground, only to reemerge as a backlash to the election of President Obama, and with the rise of Trump, saying racist shit in public has become resurgent. 


But, although I didn’t notice it until later, there was always a believe that Christianity and whiteness were largely synonymous. 


The general expectation of white evangelicals in both the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries was that nonwhite believers would take on the practices and viewpoints of white members and leadership, no matter the cultural contexts in which Black evangelicals had been born or raised. As a result, tensions surrounding race and ethnicity commonly lodged in harsh criticism of Black cultural practices of dress, singing, or worship expressions. In order for Black evangelicals to belong, they had to emulate whiteness.


Oh man, this is so true. I have mentioned many times on this blog the teaching that Bill Gothard promoted - although like everything else, he stole it from others - that music with “African” roots was demonic. This certainly hasn’t gone away either. While I was homeschooled, my high school diploma is from a school affiliated with fundamentalist college, PCC. Those video courses were good academically, and some teachers were subversive. But I do not remember seeing any non-white students. So, it was unsurprising to find this in the news feed recently. Gothard too believed that “godly” hair was….white hair. Specifically, of course, styles popular in the 1950s - peak Jim Crow. 


(Side note here: Gothard also HATED facial hair. I have it on insider information that he had sparse hair himself, and thus couldn’t grow a beard. And also that my decision to grow a beard while attending the law school affiliated with his cult pissed him off. That makes me so happy. Also, apparently, those of us who went to see Les Misérables during a school trip to London caused a sensation. I mean, there are prostitutes in the musical. Let the pearl clutching ensue. Never mind that Les Mis is arguably the most Christian musical ever written. So that makes me happy too.)


Moving on, the book looks at the founding of the Religious Right. I have talked a lot about this as well, and recommend reading Politico’s 2014 article - cited in the book, by the way - about the real reason the Religious Right exists. Literally to preserve segregation. Butler adds to this the infamous quote by Paul Weyrich. 


“I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people. They never have been from the beginning of our country, and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.” 


This idea is alive and well, and is currently being expressed by a wave of voter suppression acts in Republican dominated states. Unsurprisingly, they are doing exactly what was intended: keep non-white, non-Republican voters from voting. Note that the Weyrich quote is from my childhood - this isn’t ancient history - it is still happening today. 


Ah, speaking of my childhood….let’s talk about that notorious Sodomite, James Dobson. His teachings dominated my childhood, and eventually destroyed family relationships when my wife chose to have a career. Oh, and he came out as full-on white supremacist a few years back. But apparently, he always was, I just didn’t realize it. 


Butler examines the various para-church organizations that arose during this time. The American Family Association (which deserves its designation as a hate group), Focus on the Family, and a few others. Butler puts her finger on the underlying belief system:


All of these seemingly benign organizations had the specific purpose of lobbying government on evangelical concerns about the family, marriage, abortion, and education. They were also important in fostering an evangelical culture that promoted color-blindness and conservatism. The groups were not overtly racist, and all would at times feature African Americans in promotional materials, on radio shows, and as speakers at conferences. Yet the underlying message of these groups was that morality was essential to preserving the nation and that the sexual immorality of America, including race mixing, would be its downfall. Much like the nineteenth-century admonitions to protect white womanhood and discourage miscegenation, the message from evangelicals, specifically white evangelicals, was that they were poised to save the nation and civilization. If people would follow their lead - including adopting their agendas on abortion, education, voting, and nationalism - America would be much better off than it would be in the egalitarian, openly integrationist future being pursued through the civil rights and youth movements of the sixties and seventies.


And guess what? This too hasn’t gone away. I have been shocked at the re-emergence of people opposed to interracial marriage (particularly black-white marriages.) And an elected official recently had a classic Kinsey Gaffe where he said that Loving v. Virginia was wrongly decided, and that states should have the right to ban interracial marriage. This is the freaking twenty-first century. And we are still debating whether interracial marriage should be allowed or not? And literally the only people who seem to have this viewpoint are white evangelicals. 


Later in my childhood - the 1990s - evangelicalism, realizing it had a perception issue, tried to promote some degree of integration. Although it consciously avoided any talk that they might owe restitution for their behavior. I was a teen during a lot of this - we attended a very integrated church, and I learned a lot from being in a more multicultural subculture. This was also, unfortunately, where my parents got into Gothard, creating an untenable situation for me where I was literally playing “African” influenced music while my parents were increasingly opposed to it. Good lord, I still feel the trauma of that. And I still feel like my parents have no intention of listening to me on anything related to race or politics. They have their ideology, and that is all that matters - even more than a relationship with me. 


All that to say that Butler is correct that this small step in the vague direction of integration was also a careful doubling down on the political ideology. It was “safe” - that is, white-conforming people of color who were promoted. And, most importantly, racism was reduced to an individual sin, with no place for examining systems and certainly no need to change political affiliations. As Butler puts it, they were able to use stereotypes about how “spiritual” black people were to reinforce their existing political views. In essence, they promoted an “interracialism based in religion, not rights.” See how that works? It’s all fine because we have the same religion. So shut up already about equal rights. 


[E]fforts to combat racism over the years have been about comfort, not about substantive change.


Um, yep. That’s exactly it. And then we start getting into people who were also part of my childhood. I almost need to do a whole post on John MacArthur, who I think is one of the nastiest men I have experienced. Even as a kid, he seemed arrogant and condescending, but whatever. Now, having already advised parents to disown their LGBTQ kids, he is on his hobby horse of how any calls for racial social justice are anti-Christian. Again, people of color should just shut the fuck up already about injustice and just let the old white dudes tell them the true meaning of Christianity. Gag. 


But another person comes into this book, Jack Hayford, of The Church on the Way. While we never attended, it was really close to where we lived, and I have always known people who went there. Hayford never seemed as small-minded as MacArthur, so it was disappointing to read Butler’s personal experience there during a “racial reconciliation” campaign. 


For me, it was the moment I found out that despite my frenetic activity and full-stream participation in the church, I was invisible. For the service, I was sitting by Hayford’s mother, who knew me from several other events. She turned to me at greeting time, and said, “Welcome to Church on the Way.” At that moment, I knew that no matter how much I had worked or served or prayed with people, I was simply a Black person visiting the Church on the Way. Much like many evangelicals of color, I was just a Black person in this woman’s white space. I had been welcomed due to the situation, but I couldn’t possibly be a member of the church she belonged to. That moment encapsulated for me what evangelical attempts at interracial cooperation accomplished. Invisibility.


Man, that just absolutely breaks my heart. And in my soul, I know this is true. And even though I am no longer an evangelical, I deeply apologize for being a part of the system that did this. I want to do and be better than this.


Butler also nails it on another issue. For those who are not aware, the SBC did not apologize or repudiate its history - its founding on the issue of slavery - until….wait for it….1995. Yeah, I was an adult by then. Yeesh. Of course, not much has changed substantively. White Southern Baptists overwhelmingly voted for Trump, just like other white evangelicals. But a few other things happened. Like, for example, the near-failure of a resolution to condemn white supremacy. It was going to get tabled until the most prominent black pastor threatened to walk. Russell Moore was forced out of the denomination due to his opposition to Trump. And Al Mohler is rattling on about “critical race theory.” The SBC is still a deeply racist organization, which is why I would choose hell over attending an SBC church. (They are also patriarchal and bigoted against LGBTQ people, so that would be a dealbreaker already. But I have been shocked at the casual racism of many Baptists I know.) 


Back to the issue of the apology. Here is what Butler has to say about it. 


Let us take a closer look at the resolution and Land’s statement in light of the history of evangelicalism and racism. First, while it is commendable that the convention’s statement acknowledges the role of slavery in how the Southern Baptist Convention was founded in the nineteenth century, it does not consider the theologies that were constructed around slaveholding or the perpetuation of those beliefs in the denomination. It does a great job at apologizing, but it does not address restitution for the structural racism within the denomination.


I agree. If it doesn’t address restitution, it is a bullshit apology. Butler further explains what that would entail. 


But my point is that, even while white evangelicals may have begun to change their social attitudes and habits in order to accommodate African Americans in churches and schools, in the political realm white evangelicals supported candidates and positions that were unremittingly conservative and designed to keep African Americans and other ethnic groups out of positions of power. 


Unless and until white evangelicals stop supporting the candidates, parties, and policies of white supremacy, all the rest is just words. It is just bullshit. You cannot have reconciliation without restitution. You cannot have restitution without true repentance. And you cannot have true repentance until you embrace the truth. And the truth requires rejecting the theology that was created to preserve the hierarchies. Which is one thing white evangelicals continue to refuse to do. 


And now we come full circle to the Trump Era. This has been, as a friend put it, “the great unveiling.” The mask has come off. The fake pretenses have been stripped away. And what is left is the disgusting truth that white evangelicalism is just racism and patriarchy with a bad spray paint of religion over it. Nobody outside of the bubble sees white evangelicalism in a positive light anymore. 


As we have seen in this trip through American history, racism consistently figured in the very structures of American evangelical life. Over the course of the twentieth century, racism persisted as poisonously as ever, though evangelical leaders learned how to deploy it covertly when they wanted to. Evangelical visions of political power would become a reality in the twenty-first century but came at the expense of the shield of morality that cloaked their ambitions. This vision and the activism that accompanied it have come at great expense to evangelicals. 


Hey, I wrote about this recently! The stink of Trump isn’t coming off. And evangelicals aren’t fooling anyone anymore. 


The last couple of chapters are more contemporary. I think that Butler is right that evangelicalism really gained power with George W. Bush. I also learned something I had not known before. 


Did you know that the Bush campaign (through its proxies at Bob Jones University - yeah, the one that prohibited interracial dating until 2000) created a bald-faced and very racist lie against John McCain, one that likely tipped the election in his favor. They accused McCain of having a black child out of wedlock, which was red meat to the southern evangelical base. 


It was, of course, a fabricated falsehood. In reality, Bridget McCain is neither black nor the product of an affair. She was an orphan with special needs in Bangladesh who McCain’s wife adopted after a visit. While she is a private person, what she has said about John McCain shows him to have been a thoroughly decent man in his private life. And also shows just how despicably he was treated by his own party, culminating in the insults Trump lobbed after his death. But this attack on a young girl, stoking racist fears and hatreds, was done by white evangelicals. And the book quotes them as considering it fine to lie about someone if the goal was lofty enough. 


I also want to note another thoroughly disgusting practice by white evangelicals. Pat Robertson is probably the most well-known for it, but so many do it. Butler cites Jerry Falwell after 9/11, which may have been one of the least defensible ways it was done. 


I call Falwell’s method of using a great tragedy as a way to signal the loss of morality of the nation or of individuals “evangelical hostage taking.” By making these kinds of statements to ascribe blame to groups they deem “sinful” or lacking morality, evangelicals draw their followers closer to them while at the same time broadcasting their issues loud and clear….Evangelical hostage taking has racial overtones as well. It upholds white Christian morality as the gold standard for living, while blaming anything antithetical to evangelical beliefs about sex, morality, and capitalism for the existence of suffering, death, and pain. 

Nailed it. This is personal to me as well. I am sick and tired of the existence of my LGBTQ child being blamed for everything bad that happens. Evangelicals, you are so disgusting when you do this. Can you even hear yourselves talk when your mouths move? 


It wouldn’t be a complete book without a mention of Sarah Palin, the proto-Trump. And oh my god was she horrible. I was not aware of all of the truly bat-shit racist stuff she said. (And that was the first election that I broke with the Republican party.) Just a few samples:


“I’m afraid if he [Obama] wins, the Blacks will take over. He’s not a Christian! This is a Christian nation! What is our country gonna end up like?”


Shades of “our good Christian race” there, yes? (Also, Obama is a devout Christian – unlike, say, Trump…)


“When you got a Negra running for president, you need a first-stringer. He’s definitely a second-stringer.”


And then there were the endless dog whistles she used that Trump later used to full advantage: “real Americans” “small town” “good old days” “Make America Great Again.” 


I’m only going to mention the shit from the AFA using the word “dark” to whistle about race, or James Dobson’s panicked “Letter from 2012 in Obama’s America” that hit every fear that he had stoked for decades, including Christians being put in concentration camps. (Note: didn’t happen.) 


I’m not going to even talk about the Trump Era - it is still too painful, and it was hard to read that chapter. 


The concluding section is a prophetic word. White evangelicals have revealed themselves to be inseparable from racism, and indistinguishable from the KKK in their political values. This is not really disputable if you are looking from the outside. The ones who disagree have left - or, like us, been forced out. Butler is willing to state that obvious truth. 


After taking this journey through the history of American evangelicalism, I know why evangelicals overwhelmingly support conservative Republicans and right-wing political positions and why they supported - unwaveringly - Donald Trump and his administration. That is, I know the answer to the question obsessively pondered by the popular press, pundits, and even experts in the study of American religion: Why do people who identify as evangelicals vote over and over again for political figures who in speech and deed do not evince the Christian qualities that evangelicalism espouses?

My answer is that evangelicalism is not a simply religious group at all. Rather, it is a nationalistic political movement whose purpose is to support the hegemony of white Christian men over and against the flourishing of others. 


I wish I could quote the whole chapter. But you should read it. I have to quote this bit, though. 


[E]vangelicals embraced racism because it reinforces a theological imperative buried in a practice of missionary endeavors. It is easy to consider other races and ethnic groups to be “less than” if they are either non-Christian or don’t practice Christianity according to Eurocentric cultural norms. Getting saved didn’t mean just leaving the world behind - it meant leaving whatever racial or ethnic or religious world you came from behind. It meant receiving the white version of Christ. Once saved, many new evangelicals of color tacitly accept cultural whiteness in order to be accepted by evangelicals. This cultural whiteness also lends itself to white American political concerns. 


I’ll end with this parting shot, which is badass. 


Access to power made evangelicalism brittle, and unforgiving. Ideology trumped the gospel. Loving your neighbor turned into loving only those who believe as you do. As a result, evangelicals live in silos to keep themselves pure. Theological, social, and cultural boundaries keep them from moving forward, leaving racially and ethnically different members with the cruel choice of having to deny their communities in order to be accepted or being kept on the fringes for “entertainment.”

As a result, evangelicals are regarded with disdain by the broader public. Evangelicals wear this as a badge of honor and as a sign of persecution of Christians. Evangelicals are not being persecuted in America. They are being called to account. Evangelicals are being judged for not keeping to the very morality they asked others to adhere to. They have been found wanting. Evangelicals comfort themselves in the arms of power, in symbols that Jesus disdained. They are the Pharisees. 


As I recently wrote, white evangelicals have left nothing but a smoldering wreckage in their wake. They have destroyed their reputation, they embrace hatred and abuse of power. If given their way, they will persecute “uppity” women and LGBTQ people and immigrants. And for what? So that your children and grandchildren inherit all this destruction? Butler notes that even a white evangelical “victory” will be a failure, because the greatest issue will remain unresolved, that of racism. You will never create that 1950s (or is it 1850s?) that never really existed. All the hierarchies in the world have never made it a better place. 


Looking at the wreckage of our nation, our society, our churches, and of my own extended family, I can reach no other conclusion than that the fruit is rotten. It causes nothing but death and destruction. It has been abundantly clear that white evangelicals love their racism more than they love their relationships. I know this first hand. Many I know - my own parents included, sadly - have been willing to lose the relationship rather than hear a call to repentance. That’s how and why we were forced out of our church. It really was just about racism the whole time. I know that now. It makes me sad to know that. But the truth that you know - and embrace - is what sets you free.