Greg Chatterley (University of Chicago) and Andrew Kunze (University of Chicago) respond to Scott C. Alexander’s essay, “Seasons of Our Discontent: Anti-Catholicism, Islamophobia, and Systemic Racism in the United States.” For the April issue of the Forum, Alexander offers a comparative historical analysis of two summers in American history of heightened anti-Catholicism (1854) and Islamophobia (2010), and he characterizes these summers as “seasons of discontent” (cf. Shakespeare’s Richard III), although the “seasonal quality of social discontent has far less to do with the rhythms of the solar year, and far more to do with the nativist rhythms of our national psyche and mood.” As Professor Alexander writes, “This essay seeks to identify two specific ‘seasons’ of nativist U.S. American discontent with two minoritized religious out-groups: Roman Catholics and Muslims. It will argue that, as chronologically distant as these two micro-historical ‘seasons’ are from one another other (some 156 years), they share a striking number of common elements, not the least of which is the way in which they intersect with and reflect the macro-historical systemic perpetuation of white power and privilege as a key component of national identity. ” In the final portion of the essay, Professor Alexander considers the implications of his comparative analysis for thinking about the recently concluded presidential election season and the opening months of the 45th president’s term.

The first response to Professor Alexander’s essay comes from Greg Chatterley. Greg is a Ph.D. candidate in Religions in America at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His interests include mutually qualifying relationships of race and religion in 20th-century U.S history. Chatterley’s current research addresses the reciprocal effects of material economic development and political activism on white evangelical influence, growth, and transformation in Chicago’s suburbs.

The second response comes from Andrew Kunze. Andrew is a third-year Ph.D. student in Anthropology of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He studies the Hindu diaspora, with a focus on American Hinduism, and the mass media—that is, smartphone apps, websites, and magazines—that Hindu organizations use to facilitate devotional practice and to foster senses of belonging in their transnational networks.

We invite you to join this conversation by sharing your thoughts in the comments section.

People of the Fog

by Greg Chatterley


Scott Alexander’s valuable contribution to what I might call a project of “comparative religious bigotry” in United States history provides, in his words, an “outline of a distinct ‘matrix of oppression’ [that] appears to be emerging out of an historical fog.”1 The common metaphor of historical fog—not unrelated to the “seasons” of discontent under review—is further amplified by Alexander and his colleague, Fr. Edmund Foley, through Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. I will not retell the details of Ishiguro’s myth here, but will instead focus on the role and function of the fog in it. In the story, we discover the fog served a seemingly valiant purpose: to maintain peace and order after a brutal war between Britons and Saxons. It did so, however, dishonestly: by stifling long-term personal and social memory. As the dragon who created the fog died, the clans once again remembered their prior antipathy and its accordant violence, inviting fresh division and chaos. Foley, for his part, sees the fog of our own history lifting with the election of President Donald Trump, displaying social divisions not so much freshly created, but more so realized once again. Alexander, accordingly, attempts to trace the shape of those pre-existing divisions at the nexus of anti-Catholicism, Islamophobia, and white supremacy in both 19th- and 21st-century events.

I am sympathetic to Alexander’s project, so I want to provide what I take to be an important corrective to the way we understand how historical fog has functioned in the United States, particularly in regards to white supremacy and the social divisions it creates, even requires, to perpetuate its own existence. I take my departure from one of the 20th century’s most erudite interpreters of race and, importantly, white racial identity: James Baldwin. Like Ishiguro’s Britons and Saxons, who had a “barely perceptible” or “gnawing” sense of “communal amnesia,” Baldwin’s white American was “mysteriously shipwrecked forever, in the Great New World,” waking at night with their Ellis Island name (Smith or Palmer) and the phantom pains of amputated identity (Goldsmith?…Pappavasiliu?).2 Baldwin’s black Americans, much to the contrary, never forget who they are in part because widely shared church traditions constantly remind them to “know from whence you came.” Most other reminders for who a black American “was”, Baldwin argues elsewhere, came from whites themselves, served a different purpose and never ceased or waned. Baldwin, for his part, meant to remind his readers that the ability to forget—to construct peace and order by literally denying reality to some social divisions and not others—is essential to white identity and power. In other words, white supremacy both carefully guards and selectively deploys its amnesia as a matter of self-preservation.

The intersection of white supremacy and anti-Catholicism offers one historical expression of white supremacy’s deployment that shifted boundaries between orderly society and chaotic outsiders. As Alexander rightly notes, the social status of American Catholics was far from settled in the 19th century, especially as white identity found its early moorings in Anglo-Saxon Protestant mythologies. Accordingly, beyond their supposed religious peculiarities, Catholic immigrants—primarily Irish—found themselves in an indeterminate racial gray zone, sometimes called “white negroes” or further implicated by a black appellation, the “smoked Irish.” In that context, the American-born Chief Justice Roger B. Taney’s Dred Scott decision offered an early assist, one that married efforts to combat religious bigotry with an appeal to anti-black racism. Taney’s statement reminded “black Africans” they were not and could not be Americans; but his place on the bench showed that white Catholics could be. For immigrant Catholics, then, the project to become white offered a clear path to acceptance in America. As Noel Ignatiev’s now-classic work How the Irish Became White shows, Irish immigrants often followed Taney’s suit and appropriated extant antipathies of anti-black racism as one conveyance up the social ladder.

In the early 20th century this project continued, albeit transformed by compounding migration in the American urban north. In Parish Boundaries, historian John T. McGreevy documents another step of Catholic racial development when “[e]thnicity was flattened into race.”3 As disparate but established Irish, Italian, Polish, or German Catholic neighborhoods witnessed increasing black migration, they selectively forgot their often divisive ethno-national allegiances and appealed to a shared “Caucasian” or white identity—only possible in the presence of blacks—in order to maintain full control of the resources invested in and autonomy created by their parishes. Occasional explosions of violence, like the 1919 Chicago race riot, intended to enforce literal neighborhood boundaries as much as they meant to remind black migrants of their special distinction and place in American society. Later in the 20th century, Catholics—now white Americans rather than “ethnics”—more easily integrated with their former white Protestant tormentors in orderly, peaceful neighborhoods, completing a process of mutual amnesia in support of white supremacy.

Catholic participation in what Alexander calls a “matrix of oppression,” or what Michael Omi and Howard Winant would call “projects” of racial formation, further reminds us that white supremacy is not a fixed entity. That is why Alexander could not discover equal parts anti-Catholicism, Islamophobia and white supremacy in his effort to explain Donald Trump’s birtherism. The promiscuity of racial, ethnic or religious identifications necessary to support such a particular project does not allow for preconfigured input. Rather, characteristics of whiteness or alterity are picked up and discarded as necessary for any given political project; that flexibility is part and parcel of white supremacy’s constant attempts to “contain” social challenges to its (in)coherence and “rearticulate” its power to account for and suppress those challenges, to further deploy Omi and Winant’s language.4 In other words, intangibility, mutability and migratoriness are essential qualities of the white historical fog; they are necessary for fog to fulfill its purpose, to be what it is.

For scholars, white supremacy’s transitoriness further requires a watchful eye, especially when its fog partially lifts and recalls internal divisions; these moments are usually those of transformation. The election of Donald Trump has given occasion for such consideration, as it has for Alexander, and myriad other historians, journalists and pundits have scrambled not so much to discover, but to remember what caused his election. The popular historian of modern American conservatism Rick Perlstein has gone so far as to issue a mea culpa on behalf of his field for misunderstanding the persistent, deep-rooted, often rabid anti-liberalism of various right-wing movements and subcultures.5 Perlstein argues that historians must revise their assumption that conservatives “excommunicated” this lunatic fringe in the 1960s, given the now-apparent fact of its influential continuity.

If President Trump is a contemporary effect of radical anti-liberal continuity, as Perlstein insists, then revised histories must account for which anti-liberal commitments he most clearly represents. Is it white supremacy? Islamophobia? Misogyny? Or is it populism? Nationalism? Economic interests? Religious interests? Whichever narrative cause wins the day now or in future histories of our era, voting statistics tell us that Trump found undying support among one group in particular: white evangelicals, who supported him by a whopping 62-point margin—the best margin for a GOP candidate since Ronald Reagan—despite his apparent disdain for “traditional evangelical values” like the sanctity of marriage, the purity of women or even the biblical imperative to welcome refugees into one’s home.

Early commentary on the Trump-evangelical phenomenon has attempted to reframe extant evangelical priorities and redefine our understanding of evangelical leadership. Kristen Du Mez has provided one convincing account, detailing the rise of “militant evangelical masculinity” as a primary influence for Trump’s favor with the demographic.6 Molly Worthen has offered a series of overlapping causes for Trump’s evangelical support.7 For one, Trump’s business credentials align with what Worthen identifies as evangelicalism’s long history of “pragmatic social libertarianism.” For another, Trump’s authoritarianism compliments the “imperial ambitions” of certain evangelical and fundamentalist ministers. According to Worthen, both pro-business libertarianism and ministerial “fiefdoms” resonate with Trump’s religious upbringing under the prosperity gospel of Norman Vincent Peale, whose religious progeny—Joel Osteen, among others—wield significant influence over contemporary evangelicals. Furthermore, Worthen implies that Trump’s commitment to an alternative fact-based reality may well spring from Peale’s “power of positive thinking.” Elsewhere, Worthen argues that “post-truth” evangelicals derive similar inspiration from creationist experts and educational institutions founded upon biblical worldviews and in opposition to the so-called empirical traditions of Western intellectual life.8

These analyses help to commence an account of evangelical support for Trump, one that nevertheless requires further consideration and qualification, but they continue to fail to explain how and why white evangelicals—a racially specific demographic—favored him so strongly. Possible historical explanations are not difficult to uncover, including some that find deeper roots for our “post-truth” society than those planted by recent pedagogies of the biblical worldview. For example, civil rights era white evangelicals regularly invoked language “disconnected from reality” in matters of racial import, as Charles Marsh describes in his excellent portrait of the Southern Baptist minister Douglas Hudgins.9 Hudgins’ vision for a “closed society”—in Marsh’s words, “a serene, self-enclosed world, undisturbed by the suffering of blacks and Jews”—required only a denial of the reality found outside the comforting fog of white society.10 Importantly, that denial was predicated on segregationist worldviews that supported “the status quo [and created] in turn their own logic and credibility” despite prevalent counter-evidence.11 Hudgins was not alone in commandeering this enterprise. Supposedly respectable evangelical segregationists often insisted that things were not so bad as the media and outside agitators made them out to be, despite consistent testimony to the contrary from local black voices. Even hesitant evangelical integrationists like Billy Graham insisted that all black Americans needed, even desired, was kinder personal treatment and the gospel, a message not inclusive of those offered by black protestors in the street.

White evangelical racial attitudes that appeal to selective truth and selective memory reach back even further into the 19th century. One may recall the narrative of early American evangelical transformation, where a radically egalitarian spiritual insurrection was appropriated and subverted by the patriarchal aristocracy of slave-holding classes.12 Then, too, evangelical ministers ignored reality to argue for Christian slavery’s supposed benevolence. Later in that century, Christian debates over slavery created denominational schisms that regionally isolated many of America’s evangelical people and institutions in the south; these divisions helped to build and support religious sanction for Jim Crow practices into the 1940s and -50s, lending Hudgin’s closed society its logic and credibility.

In heeding Rick Perlstein’s revisionary call, we must now reconsider widely-accepted narratives of post-war evangelical national growth that are predicated on an assumed rejection or demise of regional white supremacy, and not, more simply and cogently, its sustained rearticulation in new contexts. It should no longer escape scrutiny, for instance, that contemporary narratives of evangelical ascension after the 1950s often center themselves in heavily subsidized, hyper-segregated and intranational white suburban enclaves, “serene, self-enclosed and undisturbed” as they were. Put otherwise, the economic conditions that facilitated the “democratization of wealth” in suburban evangelical communities indeed funded church growth and created the need for a prosperity gospel, as the evangelical historian Darren Dochuk narrates the story; but, those same conditions also made possible the mid- and late-century ghettos of urban black America.13 Historical narratives of 20th-century evangelical development have tended to relegate such causes to the background or even the dustbin, further informing the general surprise surrounding Trump’s election and white evangelical responsibilities for it.

Nevertheless, I will take care to say that white evangelicals alone cannot bear the full causal weight of President Trump’s election any more than they can take sole responsibility for the fog of white identity. Rather, like Ishiguro’s Britons, evangelicals represent one clan held captive by a shared American tradition of selective amnesia. As Alexander’s insight has shown, the historical matrix of oppression called white supremacy extends far beyond any single group or any momentary expression of antipathy. Accordingly, scholars of American religion owe careful attention to both the commonalities of comparative religious bigotry and the particularities of any given racial project, informed by contemporary white evangelical practice or otherwise, whatever the case may be. Only in the balance can we combat the “gnawing” anxiety that our stories are inadequate to an elusive truth. They are, in fact, so—and the sooner we accept that, the better equipped we will be to write new ones. But lacking a more complete accounting—a fuller memory, perhaps—we risk rearticulation of the status quo, doomed to remain ourselves a people of the fog.


Reply to Greg Chatterley

by Scott Alexander

Dear Greg:

I am humbled and deeply honored by what you have written. I say this with absolute candor and sincerity: your response is better than my essay! IMO, this is not only a testament to Joel Brown’s discerning eye in the search for wonderfully talented respondents (first Andrew Kunze and now you), but in the extraordinary quality of so many of your colleagues in the PhD cohort at the Divinity School and the Marty Center.

I could “hang” my gratitude for your incisive and tremendously helpful feedback on any number of specific “hooks” in your text. Here are just a few…

I’m so glad you brought Baldwin to the fore. I had toyed with introducing the Baldwin-Niebuhr exchange (esp. as recounted by James Cone in his masterful The Cross and the Lynching Tree), but couldn’t quite find a way to work it in without lengthening an already dangerously long piece.

Your much welcomed corrective for how the “fog” works is replete with insight. Although I like to think I’m aware of the strategic interplay between the “masking and unmasking” dynamic of white supremacy, I regret my failure to notice how critical identifying this dynamic is to a more robust understanding of the “fog” metaphor. In many ways, however, I see my failure in this regard—to adopt a famous phrase from the Paschal Exsultet—as a “felix culpa” or “happy fault” in that it afforded a voice far better equipped than my own to say something I could never have said nearly as well:

“Baldwin, for his part, meant to remind his readers that the ability to forget—to construct peace and order by literally denying reality to some social divisions and not others—is essential to white identity and power. In other words, white supremacy both carefully guards and selectively deploys  its amnesia as a matter of self-preservation.”

Now those are words which eloquently and succinctly convey how the “fog” works!

And then there’s your integration of the question of the “post-truth” white Evangelical support for Trump. Among the many things I have learned from you, even in this brief section of a necessarily brief intervention, is the critical importance of what Hudgins and his “closed society” appears to represent. It’s profoundly evocative for me to begin to reflect on the elective affinities between the crudely utilitarian deployment of “alternative facts” by the Trump campaign and White House, on the one hand, and the role the narrative of “the secular elitist imposition of alterity on the true Christian” plays in so many constructions of white Evangelical identity in the U.S. “This country is ours. Its greatness and very survival depends on us. And yet we have been made strangers and outcasts in it.” The vitality and currency of this narrative has, to a large extent, come to depend—not on an embrace of ignorance as a virtue (as many on the left would characterize it)—but rather on the creation of an alternative intellectual subculture with an epistemology rooted in the popular version of systems analysis: conspiracy theory. One way of putting this is that there was, and is, a certain powerful discursive symbiosis between Trump’s Machiavellian assault on normative truth (esp. as conveyed by the “mainstream media” and its “fake news”) and a certain white US Christian theological attack on the lies of secular modernity’s ‘worldly truths’, which reaches back at least to the first wave of 20th-century Christian Fundamentalism. I’m also reminded, however, that in Steve Bannon we have a conservative Roman Catholic—supported by certain conservative elements in the Roman Curia—playing a key role in the genesis and maintenance of this symbiosis! I suspect I ought to think about this more in light of what I wrote in my conclusion. What do you think? 😉

I also noticed a connection between what you go on to say about the “democratization of wealth” and the dialectal rise of white suburban enclaves and black urban ghettoes, and some of the issues (including misogyny) that Mary T. raises in the comment thread attached to the essay. I attempted to respond to Mary, in part, by a reference to Lassiter’s work in The Silent Majority. If you get a chance, have a look at my response and let me know what you think.

Once again, I am so grateful to you and Andrew for the incredible generosity of spirit and talent you both have shown me (and other readers of the essay) in crafting such rigorous and rich responses to my work.

A Response

by Andrew Kunze


Scott, thank you for this fascinating comparative essay! I appreciate your reminder that these recurrent ‘seasons’ perennially charge American political discourse with an energy that’s as maddening as it is destructive. I’m a student of American Hinduism, and I also notice ebbs and flows with this kind of hostile public suspicion. Certain moments, 9/11 for just one example, seem to trigger nativist scrutiny against ‘foreign’ ‘religions,’ albeit in unpredictable and counterintuitive ways. The phenomenon of confused hate crimes, targeting Sikh and Hindu practitioners, seemingly by accident, came in rashes after 9/11 and again after the 2017 inauguration of Donald Trump. I hope that comparative analyses, like yours, could help to further connect the dots between these frequent, confusing, infuriating American anti-religious episodes, and help us realize our role in this public discourse.

In this response, I’ll offer a couple thoughts about your post in the spirit of collaboration: I’ll point to the convincing comparisons you make and explain what I see as the through-line connecting them, what we could call heightened public scrutiny for both Catholics and Muslims. Then I’ll suggest a slightly modified version of your argument, which differs from the scholarship on whiteness and white supremacy, to consider the additional possibility of ‘Protestant Supremacy’ as part of the intractable American matrix of oppression you mention. And more specific than just ‘supremacy,’ I conclude by considering an idea of protestant ‘laxity’ as opposed to the ‘scrutiny’ experienced by others. For me, the connecting line between Whitney’s anti-Catholicism, Geller’s Islamophobia, and Donald’s nativism is the double-standard of American public discourse, which variably raises scrutiny for different religious groups, but almost invariably keeps standards lax for white protestant actors.

Parallel Propaganda

So I’m convinced: there are undeniable parallels between the discontented summers of 1854 and 2010. The twin tropes of ‘Papal Aspirations’ and ‘Creeping Sharia’ are too similar to dismiss. So too is the ever-fragile ‘Protestant Establishment,’ both gloriously permanent and yet terminally under threat. This paradoxical anxiety enables Whitney to fear a Catholic takeover, just as Jones fears a Muslim invasion. Also convincing are the parallels of religious critiques as inherently ‘illiberal’ systems: ‘Jesuitism’ and the Roman Papacy as anti-democratic (Whitney), Sharia as incompatible with American Law and International Human Rights (Geller, Gorka). This is all clear and helpful for understanding their enduring strategies of interrogation.

But for me, the example with Supreme Court Justice Roger B. Taney and the infamous Dred Scott decision is a little less clear cut. Without psychoanalyzing Taney, it’s hard to be certain about his implicit strategy (softening on slavery to gain public acceptance as a Catholic). But also, some of the argument seems to turn on the question of whether or not ‘America,’ or its ‘dominant culture’ was anti-Catholic. Perhaps, as an alternative, we could say that in 1856 American political discourse, Catholics were viewed with higher levels of scrutiny than Protestants. As a participant in that discourse, Taney’s Catholic loyalties were subject to question, but nevertheless his nomination was successful. (This suggestion of ‘discursive scrutiny’ is just the slightest argumentative tweak to your post, but I’ll explain below why I make it.) And still, as you say, we can never know Taney’s heart of hearts or the importance of Catholic inclusion in normative whiteness for his Dred Scott opinion. My inclinations make me want to agree with you, but given the available evidence, it seems harder to make claims about ‘America,’ by and large, than about the apparent standards of its public political discourse.

White All Over?

I have no doubt that the American tradition of white supremacy was one important influence, or ‘intersection,’ for these two seasons, but I don’t think it’s the only one. Whiteness studies in the late-1990s, like White by Law,14 Whiteness of a Different Color,15 and White on Arrival,16 have settled much of this historical territory. The wave of scholarship helped us understand the construction, malleability, and political contingency of a dominant white race in US history. But I think there might be another intersection between Anti-Catholic and Islamophobic discourse, which your essay helps to illuminate, and that is Protestant supremacy. Needless to say, Protestant supremacy also has a long, persistent tradition running through American history from the Colonial centuries through our War on Terror millennium. Even if, like Foley’s ‘fog of amnesia,’ my own personal and familial naivety have lulled me into forgetting the reality of Protestant privilege, events of this presidency have, in the most heartbreaking, infuriating manner, provoked the ‘buried giant’ of this historical memory.

Scrutiny, Laxity

Then again, ‘supremacy’ seems like the wrong word, because I don’t want to use analytic terms that the ilk of Whitney would enjoy. Instead, we might consider ‘Protestant Laxity’ Most of what I see are higher bars of scrutiny rhetorically applied to the religions of ‘others.’ Higher scrutiny in 2010 for the Muslim community center in Manhattan: ‘What are they really doing there?’ Higher scrutiny in 1856 for Catholic Supreme Court Justices: ‘Is he really white?’ Higher scrutiny in 2008 for Barack Obama’s religious affiliations: ‘Crypto-Muslim or Rev. Wright follower–either way, he’s not a real Christian, right?’ One privilege of white American Protestants seems to be accountability to a lower, relaxed set of standards in public discourse. So I might not be discussing ‘Christian Supremacy’ as much as ‘Christian Laxity.’ In our contemporary political discourse, Christians need not explain themselves, justify themselves, defend themselves, with the frequency, the near inevitability, like other religious groups deemed ‘foreign’ by the public. When has Donald ever defended his religious practice? When did it matter what he believed? Was his religious practice ever considered disqualifying? So I offer scrutiny and laxity as relative terms, higher and lower standards in our public discourse. I hope this can help further the discussion. The public scrutiny may shift over different seasons–to Catholics and Muslims (and we could add Black and Brown Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, and others). However, as your post helps us see, white Protestant actors are perennially met with public laxity, lower bars for entry, and a seemingly unending season of contentment.


Reply to Andrew Kunze

by Scott Alexander

Andrew, thank you for this rich and enormously helpful critique. As I said in my introduction, this essay is an experiment. Like all thought experiments, it takes certain risks and offers untested hypotheses. And, like all thought experiments, its merits, if any, will depend on its capacity for emendation and refinement in and through the process of exchange with people who care enough about it to offer their honest assessment of its strengths and weaknesses.

I am excited by so much of what you have to offer by way of helping me refine my arguments and will try to address most of your main points.

1. The Taney Argument

In my research for the essay, as I began to discover what I refer to as the “circumstantial evidence” that eventually led me to make my bold suggestion about the Dred Scott decision, I realized that I was taking a significant methodological risk. As you know, even when resourced with direct evidence,—such as a statement of intent—it is notoriously difficult for an historian to impute motive(s) to an historical actor. There are a number of reasons for this, not the least of which are the facts that human motivation is rarely, if ever, uni-dimensional,  entirely rational, or entirely conscious. Indeed, I’m not at all certain that even the opportunity to “psychoanalyze Taney” would resolve the serious methodological questions that arise when an historian attempts to discuss the motivation of a single actor.

The legitimate reservation you express regarding my use of Taney helps me to realize at least two things.

The first is that I wasn’t as clear as I needed to be that my ascription of the motive of assimilation to whiteness to Taney’s decision is less of an attempt to get at what was going on in the mind of an individual, and more of an attempt to locate the formulation of public policy (the nature of any Supreme Court decision) in the wider context of not only anti-black racism but also anti-Catholicism.

The second is that my focus on Taney as an individual Roman Catholic actor—especially in the absence of such a clarification—only serves to exacerbate the problem of my readers’ assuming that I am creating an inverted pyramid of causation based on the ultimately indeterminable psychological motive of one individual and what’s transpiring in his “heart of hearts.” My intent was to present Taney and his decision more as a Weberian “social fact” than a Carlylian “hero.” But I see now that, without emphasizing this more explicitly, my references to biographical evidence such as Taney’s courtroom denunciation of slavery as immoral when he was a young lawyer, his personal manumission of slaves, his being from Maryland, his connection to Jackson, etc., could easily be interpreted as an argument of individual psychological motivation rather than an example of “motivation”—especially in the case of a high profile public figure under open attack by other high profile public figures—as a point of convergence of key social forces producing certain significant social results.

As I was writing the piece it did occur to me to develop the argument about Taney in an alternative methodological frame. I toyed with the idea of taking a decidedly different tact and, using the language of Riffaterrian intertextuality, embed the idiolect of Taney’s decision into the sociolect of his context. My reason for doing so is at least twofold. First, I lack the necessary expertise to engage in a close reading of the decision and its relationship to the legal and other genres of the racial (including anti-black and anti-Catholic) intertext of Taney’s day. Second, because of this, I had not adequately explored the work of scholars such as Emery Roe who pioneered a method of “narrative policy analysis” which attempts to use Riffaterrian intertextual analysis to study the formation of public policy (Narrative Policy Analysis, Duke University Press, 1994, esp. ch. 7).

2. Political Discourse, Political Power, and “Discursive Scrutiny”

Perhaps this would be one way of addressing your intriguing recommendation of a “tweak” which focuses on “discursive scrutiny,” and your astute observation that “given the available evidence, it seems harder to make claims about ‘America,’ by in large, than about the apparent standards of its public political discourse.” Here I have two overlapping reactions. One is that I couldn’t agree more, although I would hasten to point out that any society’s “standards of public political discourse” teach us a great deal—albeit never everything we need to know or should be said—about a society. Which leads me to the second which is to wonder whether, on some level, we are talking about a distinction without a difference. Don’t Foucault and Said—among many others— teach us that “standards of public political discourse” are one of the primary media of inscribing and maintaining hegemony? I’m wondering if what you are saying is that explicit use of the “discursive scrutiny” lens might allow me to continue to adduce the ‘Taney factor’ as evidence of intersection between anti-Catholicism and white supremacy sans the confusion (referenced above) over personal motivation? Or, are you saying that the ‘Taney factor’ is ultimately insupportable?

3. Protestant Supremacy?

I also am very appreciative of what you have to say about “Protestant supremacy.” At the same time, I can’t help but ask myself if “Protestant supremacy” is another “important influence” alongside white supremacy, or another threshold of white supremacy? I’m not sure where you stand on this. Noel Ignatiev (1999), for example, argues that, critical to the Irish being granted substantial—albeit only partial—white privilege was their willingness to back off their initial “foreign born” support for abolition. As light-skinned immigrants, the primary threshold for establishing the national loyalty of the Irish was not set at their willingness to abandon fidelity to the pope, but rather to abandon advocacy for abolition. Ignatiev maintains that a critical component of the evolution of the U.S. from what he refers to as a ‘Protestant ascendant’ republic to a “white republic” coincided with the pre- and post-emancipation decision of both Protestant and Catholic capitalists to agree that white supremacy was perfectly consonant with their shared claim to normative republican values. “[I]t is no exaggeration to say,” Ignatiev writes, that in 1877, when the Irish flexed their political muscle in the national arena, as they had done in 1844, it marked not the dedication of the Union to a new birth of freedom but the restoration of the White Republic” (p. 202).

4. A “Scrutiny/Laxity” Dialectic

As for the “scrutiny/laxity” dialectic you suggest, I suppose my initial response would be to ask whether these carefully nuanced and intellectually compelling terms also have the moral force necessary to describe (even the rhetorical dimensions of) structures that lead to people being marginalized to the point of the violation of their civil and human rights, including physical injury and death? One of the reasons I chose the language of “white supremacy” is because most ‘people who think themselves white’ (e.g., me) reserve this term, in adjectival form, for the identity politics of extremist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, Aryan Nations, and the like. Over the years, I have become convinced by the arguments of scholars of color as well as by the experiences of women and men of color that these groups are merely the tip of a massive submerged iceberg of institutionalized racism in the U.S., a “tip” normatively deployed to distract from the presence of what is beneath the surface. A case in point is Bryan Massingale who describes—with equal parts sober scholarly analysis and deep moral conviction—that the U.S. Roman Catholic Church is a “white supremacist” institution.

Once again, thank you so much for taking the time to read and respond to my work with such care and insight. You have challenged me to keep thinking about what I am trying to say and the most legitimate and effective ways of saying it.

  1. Scott C. Alexander, “Seasons of Our Discontent: Anti-Catholicism, Islamophobia, and Systemic Racism in the United States,” Religion & Culture Forum, 14 Apr 2017,
  2. James Baldwin, “The Price of the Ticket,” in James Baldwin: Collected Essays (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1998), 841.
  3. John T. McGreevy, Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter with Race in the Twentieth-Century Urban North (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 36.
  4. See Howard Omi and Michael Winant, Racial Formation in the United States, 3rd ed, (New York: Routledge, 2015). See especially chapter seven, where Omi and Winant frame “containment and rearticulation” as a late-century racial reaction to developments of the civil rights era.
  5. Rick Perlstein, “I Thought I Understood the American Right. Trump Proved Me Wrong.,” The New York Times Magazine, April 11, 2017,
  6. Kristen Du Mez, “Donald Trump and Militant Evangelical Masculinity,” Religion & Politics, January 17, 2017,
  7. Molly Worthen, “A Match Made in Heaven,” The Atlantic, May 2017,
  8. Molly Worthen, “The Evangelical Roots of Our Post-Truth Society,” The New York Times, April 13, 2017,
  9. Charles Marsh, “Douglas Hudgins: Theologian of the Closed Society,” in God’s Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997) 82-115.
  10. Ibid, 106.
  11. Ibid, 88.
  12. See Christine Leigh Heyrman, The Southern Cross: The Beginning of the Bible Belt (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998).
  13. See Darren Dochuk, From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2011) and Arnold Hirsch, Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago 1940-1960 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).
  14. Haney-López, Ian. 1996. White By Law: The Legal Construction of Race. New York University Press.
  15. Jacobson, Matthew Frye. 1998. Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race. Harvard University Press.
  16. Guglielmo, Thomas A. 2003. White on Arrival: Italians, Race, Color, and Power in Chicago, 1890–1945. Oxford University Press.
Skip to toolbar