Let the Truth Have its Day: The Dark Knight, Anthea Butler, and White Evangelical Racism

By Matthew Brake

It’s dangerous to build a cause based on a lie because the lie may come back and bite you.

This is certainly the case in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. In the second movie, The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne believes that he can end his war on crime with the help of district attorney Harvey Dent. He thinks (wrongly) that his childhood sweetheart, Rachel Dawes, will leave her current boyfriend (the twist is that Harvey Dent is her boyfriend) and be with him if only he can hang up his cape and cowl once and for all with Dent’s help.

But if you’ve seen the movie, you know how it ends. Rachel chooses Harvey over Bruce and informs Bruce of her decision in a note left with Alfred. Unfortunately, the Joker kills Rachel, scarring Harvey and transforming him into the vengeful
Two-Face. Not wanting to discourage Bruce any further, Alfred burns the note from Rachel, leaving Bruce to believe that Rachel was going to leave Harvey for him.

Meanwhile, Harvey goes on a killing spree, ending with the kidnapping of Commissioner Gordon and his family, who are rescued by Batman. This, of course, jeopardizes the work Batman and Harvey (with the Commissioner and Rachel) have done to put away numerous criminals—the whole operation depended on Harvey’s pristine reputation.

So a lie is conjured up.

Harvey didn’t go on a killing spree. Batman did.

Fast forward 8 years to the events of The Dark Knight Rises

The villain Bane comes to Gotham City, and fearing Batman will be killed fighting him, Alfred resigns but not before letting Bruce know that he burned Rachel’s letter and castigating all of them (Alfred, Bruce, Gordon) for trying to suppress and ignore the truth: “Maybe it’s time we all stop trying to outsmart the truth and let it have its day.”

And the truth does have its day. Upon obtaining a resignation letter from Commissioner Gordon confessing the truth about Harvey, Bane exposes the truth to Gotham. As Bane himself says, he is Gotham’s reckoning, as well as the reckoning for all of the characters who’ve been living a lie.

Recently, I had the opportunity to read Anthea Butler’s White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America. Butler exposes the racial underpinnings of the rise of the Religious Right and the conservative push against the IRS, Government mandates, or government being “too large”—all responses to antiracist action.

Having grown up in the conservative evangelical culture, I recognized a number of issues that Butler discussed. The push for private or home schooling was big in the world I grew up in. A number of reasons for this were given, like the teaching of evolution in public schools and a general moral corruption attributed to when “God was taken out of schools” in the Engel v. Vitale case in 1962. But truthfully, as Butler demonstrates, these fears of moral corruption in the public schools and the push for private schooling began with cases like Brown v. Board of Education that called for the desegregation of public schools.

Likewise, while the decriminalization of abortion in 1973 is often seen by conservative evangelicals as the moment the Religious Right was conceived in America, it actually began with evangelical resistance to “forced” desegregation of Christian schools, who sought to challenge such rules in order to avoid losing their tax-exempt status. Evangelical resistance to the IRS, complaints about “activist judges,” and the 20th century talking points about states’ rights have their inception in the evangelical battle against desegregation.

Now, it should be said, some of the leaders who led the initial fight against desegregation (like Jerry Falwell, Sr.) eventually apologized for their resistance to the Civil Rights movement, but many of these same leaders seemed to conveniently forget the origin of their own movement, maintaining their positions while ignoring their racist origins. They sought to adopt colorblind language in order to hold these positions but evacuate them of their original racist intent, and then they wondered why Black communities, on the whole, weren’t willing to join the largely white evangelical Religious Right in its alliance with the Republican party (itself guilty of bad faith racial politics).

Butler argues that if white evangelicals were to admit these things, they might have to change their political allegiances, which would in turn affect their access to the halls of power (specifically access to the GOP in the age of Trump).

Now, it is certainly the case that Democrats are not innocent when it comes to racism and wrongs against Black communities (Michelle Alexander saves a majority of her criticism for Democrats in her book The New Jim Crow), but white evangelicals, in order to hold onto power, gave up their moral authority in order to support a candidate in 2016 whose character was quite questionable.

I still remember the 2000 election when evangelicals supported George W. Bush in order to have someone with “character” replace Bill Clinton. Many argued then that Clinton’s moral lapses made him unfit to lead, even if he was competent. I remember youth evangelist Ron Luce saying that President Clinton should repent for exposing children and teens to the discussions about oral sex, discussions generated by his actions. If only he could have seen two decades into the future when “grab them by the pussy” barely caused white evangelicals to bat an eye. But I digress….

Yes, Butler argues, white evangelicals have deceived themselves in the present by supporting Trump in their attempts to hold onto power, and they have deceived themselves about their past and the reason for holding onto many of their current (often conspiratorial views) about government (its mandates, and its so-called overreach). They will believe lies about fraudulent elections rather than believing the truth about Black experiences in this country.

Sins of the past continue to affect the present and will continue to affect the future of race relations in this country.

White Evangelicals have been at the forefront of perpetuating many of the systemic injustices Black communities have faced, whether it was apathetic support or outright resistance to the Civil Rights movement (complete with charges of Marxism, atheism, and the attempt to “fix problems on Earth that can only be fixed by Jesus in heaven”), the gutting of public schools and other resources, and the focus on abortion at the expense of how GOP candidates’ other policies and political strategies may negatively affect Black communities.

There is the call of John the Baptist, who said, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8, NIV).

This can’t be “symbolic” fruit (think the footwashings and reconciliation meetings of the 90s), nor is it merely about individual repentance from prejudice.

It is about recognizing historical wrongs, the complicity of participation in those wrongs, and the fruit that perpetuates those wrongs today, and then taking real, systemic, material actions (in policy and in the distribution of public resources) and commitment to the long-haul to right these wrongs.

Echoing some of Alfred’s words to Bruce, Butler asks white evangelicals to grapple with the truth: “I don’t like the lies you’ve told yourself, and continue to tell to yourself and others, in order to try to hold on to power” (147).

1 Peter 4:17 speaks of a judgment that comes for the whole world, but it BEGINS in the house of God. Indeed, it’s time for a reckoning with the truth of a racist past. Silencing any racial criticism under the guise of “banning CRT” won’t keep the truth from bubbling to the surface. Whatever “righteous outcomes” members of the Religious Right believe their movement has produced, the skeletons at the bottom will continue to come to light.

It is, indeed, time to stop trying to outrun or outsmart the truth and let it have its day.

Matthew Brake is the founder and editor of the Pop Culture and Theology blog. He is also the series editor for the Lexington/Fortress Academic Theology, Religion, and Pop Culture series and a series co-editor (with A. David Lewis) of the forthcoming Religion and Comics series from Claremont Press.


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