The October issue of the Forum kicks off with an essay by Damon Berry (St. Lawrence University), a scholar of religion in white nationalism, in which he explores the religious strategy employed by white nationalists at the Charlottesville protests this past August. For our October roundtable, we have invited several scholars of religion to reflect on the recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, recognizing #Charlottesville as a moment of national reckoning with white supremacy and the manifold forms of racism operating in American culture and politics, including both those which are explicit as well as subtle-but-no-less-sinister forms. Contributors to the roundtable will offer analyses of the relationship of religion to race and white supremacy, and they will think about the potential contributions of scholarship in religion for helping shape broader discourses about race in the US. We invite you to join the conversation by sharing your thoughts and questions in the comments section below.

Posted essays:

 

by Damon T. Berry

 

The chants of ‘blood and soil,” and “Jews will not replace us” at Charlottesville during the “Unite The Right” rally this past August shocked many Americans. The clashes between white nationalists and counterdemonstrators, and the murder of Heather Heyer and injury to others that occurred when James Alex Fields Jr. struck them with his Dodge Charger, galvanized demonstrations against other such right-wing rallies that were scheduled post Charlottesville, especially in Boston and Berkley later that month. And in Baltimore, confederate monuments were taken down over night, while in other cities arguments for the removal of confederate monuments took on new urgency. The President, however, equivocated on the matter, blaming the violence on “many sides.” Many white nationalists took this to be approval of their stance on Confederate monuments, as well as a hint of support from the White House for their ideas. The President has since offered harsher statements on NFL players’ protests, which has added support to such conjecture on the part of white nationalists.

There is certainly much to consider as we think about these events. But as a scholar of religion in the American far-right I want to say something that might be useful for others as they work to understand what happened at Charlottesville, especially concerning the still evolving relationship between white nationalism and religion. But even in my book I am careful to say that what I offer is not a final statement on the topic, and that further study is needed. I can therefore only provide a few things here for our consideration.

The first thing to say is that there is political and religious diversity among white nationalists. There is no one single organization or strategy that dominates. And even what we call the “Alt-Right” is comprised of various, often competing individuals and organizations, some of whom do not regard themselves as white nationalists. This is of course why there was a rally to “unite the right.” There is however an underlying logic common to all the various groups that can properly be called white nationalist. This logic is characterized by the conviction that the white race is perpetually in peril; threatened by racial integration, by “political correctness,” by multiculturalism, by an imagined racial Malthusianism in which racial groups are alleged to be in competition to outfight and outbreed one another. This conspiratorial victimology is coupled with the imperative to act to purify the biological stock and the ideology of the white race so that they might be able to effectively, in the words of white nationalist leader David Lane, “secure the existence of [white] people and a future for white children.” I have called this logic racial protectionism.1

This ideological formation has produced a considerable amount of debate within white nationalism concerning which religious perspective, if any, is suitable for the task of white racial survival. Christianity in particular, as I explain in my book, was one of the ideologies under such scrutiny since the end of the 1960s when white nationalism as a particular movement was being shaped. In this moment, former members of right-wing and conservative movements, like Revilo P. Oliver (1908-1994), one of the most significant figures in this construction of white nationalist ideology, began to rethink what activism should mean for what he and others regarded as “racially conscious” white people.

Oliver, though he is often ignored, was central to developing this new racialist ideology. Early on he was a cofounder of the John Birch Society and a writer of reviews for National Review when it first began in 1958. He was even called to give testimony before the Warren Commission for his conspiratorial writings in American Opinion, the John Birch Society’s magazine, blaming the Kennedy assassination on a communist plot.2 He was also a professor of classics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where his papers are still archived, until his retirement in 1977.

The signing into law of the Civil Rights Act, which Oliver and other racialist activists regarded as the conservative movement’s abject failure to support segregation and their acquiescence to racial inclusion, was too much for them to bear. In the latter years of the 1960s, Oliver helped to instigate a full break with conservatives, and with their Christianity. Many racialist activists began to believe that both conservative politics and Christianity were to blame for white Americans’ changing attitudes about race, or so they feared, and their eventual displacement amid a change in public opinion and demographics. Though they were not necessarily working in concert, Oliver and his fellow former members of the John Birch Society, Ben Klassen (founder of The Church of The Creator), and William Pierce (founder of the National Alliance), began working in the early 1970s on alternative religious and political ideologies that would in their minds ensure the future survival of the white race. In this context white nationalism was born.

The tensions between Christian racialists and the growing number of white nationalists influenced by racialist atheism and variety of racialist new religious movements and Paganism that had emerged in the 1970s had intensified from the early 1970s through the 1990s. This often-aggressive rejection of Christianity by white nationalists (even in its most racist forms) paralleled their hostility toward mainstream conservatives. That Reagan had come into office in 1980 with support from Evangelicals, and that Christian conservatives were openly and unambiguously in support of the nation of Israel, seemed to confirm for many white nationalists that both parties were betraying the white race. So white nationalists felt that their interests were served by neither the Republican Party nor Christian churches. Both were thought by white nationalists to be either too stupid or too blind to comprehend the ways in which they were harming whites, or they were imagined to be complicit with Jews and their plans to destroy the white race. Either way, conservatism and Christianity were inimical to the aims of white nationalists who wished to preserve the white race alone in the face of perceived existential threats.

Not all those who wanted to preserve the white race against perceived dangers were ready to abandon their racialist forms of Christianity. And this strain within white nationalism at times seemed to threaten any possible unity for white activists to organize for the same cause. Recently, some white nationalist thinkers have recognized this tension and have sought to argue for religious tolerance on the grounds of mutual political interest. One of the thinkers who has articulated this increasingly influential position is Greg Johnson, founder of the North American New Right (NANR). In a 2010 article, published the same year the NANR was founded, Johnson argued that though he agreed Christianity was a central element in the decline of white power in America, he regarded white nationalism as a fundamentally political movement rather than a religious one. He argued that accommo­dation of racialist Christians was important so as to not disunite white nationalists or alienate potential allies on the right. The goal, Johnson argued, was a homeland for whites in North America, and such a “political goal is shared by Christians and non-Christians alike.”3

Johnson’s position is quickly becoming the dominant one for white nationalists, especially the younger generation. In some ways this attitude among younger white nationalists toward religion is tracking with the general population in their age group, as many of them are more often describing religion as either unimportant or secondary to other social and political concerns. I see the “Unite The Right” rally at Charlottesville as a manifestation of this shift in attitude and direction in activism. It is also in perfect keeping with the ideology of racial protectionism. The goal was to promote white nationalist unity and to disregard internally contentious subjects, like religious preference, in the hopes of furthering the political objective of strengthening white power in America with the ultimate aim of establishing a white ethno-state that will in turn ensure the future survival of the white race.

Alt-Right leader, Richard Spencer, at the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, VA, August 12, 2017, which he helped organize. (Chip Somodevilla | Getty Images)

The rise of the “Alt-Right,” whose members were forefront in organizing Charlottesville rally, may be seen as representing the explicit turn to the “political” and the effacement of the more recognizably “religious.” But I argue that this does not mean they are neglectful of “religion.” Rather, they are rethinking what “religion” means to the movement, especially as they try to rebuild long broken bridges back to the conservative mainstream. They are to be sure more intensely focused on issues that they think are links between their white ethno-nationalism, and the perspectives of white conservatives—opposition to multiculturalism, “political correctness,” open immigration, support for “English only” initiatives and the proposed border wall, and a nativist “America first” disposition. But they are also trying to ensure that the history of hostility toward Christianity within white nationalism does not poison efforts to woo the predominantly Christian right. But religious diversity among the racist right is only one part of the challenge that white nationalists face in their efforts to influence the political mainstream.

As the “Alt-Right” appeared in the public discourse during the 2016 presidential campaign in full support for Trump’s election, The Southern Baptist Convention, one of the most reliably republican religious groups in the U.S., voted in June to condemn white supremacy, and the “Alt-Right” in particular. And though the vote was contentious, and there is the obvious recognition that such groups have a long way to go before white supremacy is eradicated from their institutions, initiatives like this seem to offer white nationalists seeking partners among the Religious Right a potential challenge. Even as some of President Trump’s Evangelical advisors defended his response to Charlottesville, others offered the unambiguous condemnation of white nationalism he failed to provide. And later condemnation of the administration’s DACA decision from Latino Evangelical leaders like Tony Suarez, Executive Vice President of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference and a Trump supporter, signals a potentially fraught political environment that white nationalists will continue to have to navigate as Evangelicals of color continue to exercise influence on political parties and individual candidates who must either maintain or obtain their voting allegiance.

There is certainly more to be explored and discussed, but I will end by saying that scholars of religions in America in particular can offer insight on this topic precisely because racism and organized racist activism are so familiar in American religious history. And as public discourse turns to a focus on white nationalist “extremists,” I hope that we can keep in mind that white nationalists’ strategy relies on the ubiquity of their perspectives among white Americans. This moment, then, not only provides a challenge for white nationalists, but also for the Republican Party, for Christian churches, and indeed for all of us. The larger question for me is not how extreme is the racism of white nationalists, but how ordinary is racism in America? ♦

Damon T. Berry is an Assistant Professor of religion at St. Lawrence University and the author of the new book, Blood & Faith: Christianity in American White Nationalism. His work focuses on the relationships between religious discourses and ideologies and racism and other forms of bigotry, particularly among the American right. He has published in Journal of Hate Studies, Security Journal, and has contributed an entry in the forthcoming third volume of The Encyclopedia of Religion & Ethics.

 

* Feature image: Zach Roberts | NurPhoto | Getty Images

  1. Damon T. Berry, Blood & Faith: Christianity in American White Nationalism (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse Univ. Press, 2017).
  2. Carl T. Bogus, William F. Buckley Jr. and the Rise of the American Conservative Movement (New York: Bloomsbury, 2011), 183–84. Oliver’s testimony before the Warren Commission regarding the Kennedy assas­sination is, of course, a matter of public record, but it is also discussed in J. Allen Broyels, The John Birch Society: Anatomy of a Protest (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964), 33–34, and is given in full on a website established in Oliver’s honor: see Revilo P. Oliver, “The Testi­mony of Professor Revilo Pendleton Oliver before the Warren Commission,” Sept. 9, 1964, at http://www.revilo-oliver.com/rpo/Warren_Commission_Testimony.html.
  3. Greg Johnson, “The Christian Question in White Nationalism,” Occidental Ob­server, May 14, 2010, at http://www.theoccidentalobserver.net/authors/Johnson-Christianity.html
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