While the South lost the war, this secessionist religion not only survived but also thrived. Its powerful role as a religious institution that sacralized white supremacy allowed the Southern Baptist Convention to spread its roots during the late nineteenth century to dominate southern culture. And by the mid-twentieth century, the SBC ultimately evolved into the single largest Christian denomination in the country, setting the tone for American Christianity overall and Christianity’s influence in public life.
The theologically backed assertion of the superiority of both “the white race” and Protestant Christianity undergirded a century of religiously sanctioned terrorism in the form of ritualized lynchings and other forms of public violence and intimidation.
The link between political leaders and prominent white churches was not just incidental; these religious connections served as the moral underpinning for the entire project of protecting the dominant social and political standing of whites.
This book puts forward a simple proposition: it is time—indeed, well beyond time—for white Christians in the United States to reckon with the racism of our past and the willful amnesia of our present.
White Christian churches have not just been complacent; they have not only been complicit; rather, as the dominant cultural power in America, they have been responsible for constructing and sustaining a project to protect white supremacy and resist black equality. This project has framed the entire American story.
American Christianity’s theological core has been thoroughly structured by an interest in protecting white supremacy. While it may seem obvious to mainstream white Christians today that slavery, segregation, and overt declarations of white supremacy are antithetical to the teachings of Jesus, such a conviction is, in fact, recent and only partially conscious for most white American Christians and churches. The unsettling truth is that, for nearly all of American history, the Jesus conjured by most white congregations was not merely indifferent to the status quo of racial inequality; he demanded its defense and preservation as part of the natural, divinely ordained order of things.
The historical record of lived Christianity in America reveals that Christian theology and institutions have been the central cultural tent pole holding up the very idea of white supremacy. And the genetic imprint of this legacy remains present and measurable in contemporary white Christianity, not only among evangelicals in the South but also among mainline Protestants in the Midwest and Catholics in the Northeast.
After centuries of complicity, the norms of white supremacy have become deeply and broadly integrated into white Christian identity, operating far below the level of consciousness. To many well-meaning white Christians today—evangelical Protestant, mainline Protestant, and Catholic—Christianity and a cultural norm of white supremacy now often feel indistinguishable, with an attack on the latter triggering a full defense of the former.
At the base of that fear was what Smith calls the “grand bargain” of white supremacy, buttressed by paternalism and evangelicalism, whereby the southern white masses relinquished political power to the few in exchange for maintaining their social status as better than the black man. It was a bargain that required no paperwork or signatures. This deal was silent, embedded so deeply in southern white culture that it functioned as a political institution in and of itself, checking and balancing the forces of change. “No white southerners, rich or poor,” says Smith, “ever sat down and wrote out this bargain as a creed to believe and to live by, or ever said aloud or whispered in their own minds all of it at one time, or even faced in their hearts its full implications for people who claim to be Christian and democratic; for it grew on them, little by little,” she explains. “It was absorbed by them from their newspapers, from their friends’ talk, in smoking compartments of trains, in wispy little odds and ends of jokes and rumor,” Smith noted, and “from politicians’ speeches and promises.”
Ever the dealmakers, these southern white elites bent their culture to their political will, trading democracy for power. When that power was threatened by the civil rights revolutions, they struck another grand bargain—this time with the Grand Old Party—the terms of which have yet to expire.
This book is not about any single election, for that matter, nor is it a history of realignment or a longitudinal quantitative study. Rather, it is a panned-out, backward glance at the long-term implications of the Republican Party’s decision to court southern white voters. Initially, the GOP acted on the advice of Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona who, in a speech following Richard Nixon’s loss to Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy in 1960, told fellow Republican leaders, “We’re not going to get the Negro vote as a bloc in 1964 and 1968, so we ought to go hunting where the ducks are.” To do so, the GOP decided to capitalize on white racial angst, which was not in short supply in the South. However—and this is critical—that decision was but one in a series of decisions the party made not just on race, but on feminism and religion as well, in what is called here the “Long Southern Strategy.”
This southern white way of life, however, is not based solely on white superiority. Rather, it is best viewed as a triptych with religious fundamentalism and patriarchy standing as separate hinged panels that can be folded inward—bent to cover or reinforce white supremacy throughout much of the region’s history. The stereotype of southern white womanhood, for example, by which delicate, sacred white women of privilege need constant protection from black males, was constructed and maintained to justify everything from slavery, to lynchings, to segregation. It was a red herring from its inception, promoted to cast white supremacy as chivalry while relegating southern white women to a distant pedestal where they could be seen and not heard. This two-for-one deal criminalized black men while silencing white women and kept southern white male power unchallenged. Any threat to such authority by African Americans could be met with swift violence. Southern white women, on the other hand, needed cultural reinforcement of their “special” status as the fairer of the sexes, or so they were taught from childhood via countless Sunday sermons where patriarchy came wrapped in scripture. As a result, the cult of southern white womanhood requires women to participate in misogyny—or at least in the way that philosopher Kate Manne describes in her 2018 book, Down Girl , where misogyny is defined as the constant practice of correcting and policing women’s behavior to maintain male power. 26 For many southern white women, at a subconscious level, submissiveness became their duty. Their oppression became their privilege. Tradition became their cause, and faith became their defense, just as it had been for much of the Confederacy.
Once the GOP was seen as the protector of the southern sacraments of white privilege and patriarchy, many southern white voters flocked to it, turning the South solidly red in 1984 for the first time in history.