How Did We Get Here?
Bigotry, Antisemitism, and White Christian Nationalism
How did we get here?
If there’s a question I hear more than any other as our society continues to grapple with issues of discrimination, bigotry, and a continuing rise in violent white supremacy and Christian nationalism, it’s this one.
Since 2015, we have seen a rapid rise in hateful rhetoric, political attacks, gun violence and mass shootings against Jewish, LGBTQIA+, and Black and Brown communities often inflicted by individuals who have been influenced by conspiracy theories and the violent rhetoric of the far-right.
Many Americans struggle to recognize the root causes and deep historical underpinnings of these hateful ideologies. They don’t understand why our nation is so deeply polarized. And yet many gravitate to news sources or websites that reinforce xenophobic, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, anti-Black, and homophobic ideologies.
So how did we get here?
Let’s look more deeply at the history and structures that have led us to where we are today.
The lack of teaching substantive, impactful, and complex details of American history in a meaningful way over decades in our schools contributes to the problem.
The more recent attacks on any effort to teach this history – often labeled incorrectly as “critical race theory” – are an overt example of people in power doing what they can to maintain structures that continue to harm marginalized communities.
By controlling the narrative of our history and controlling who gets to decide what history is taught, far-right conservatives are taking a page out of the same playbook used in the 1900’s to the late 1960’s by southern Democrats, also known as the “Dixiecrats.” In the early 1960’s, Dixiecrats rallied around the words of racist Alabama Governor George Wallace and his statement, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” They proclaimed that “The Whites have rights too” and left the Democratic party in droves following the passage of the Civil Rights Acts in 1965 and the Fair Housing Acts of 1968.
Moreover, “controlling the narrative” has always been present in our education system. Until very recently, one could find history books that referred to Native Americans as “savages” and the American Civil War as “The War of Northern Aggression.”
More recent examples can be found with the decision just made in the last few weeks by Governor Glenn Youngkin of Virginia. With his new guidelines, the K-5 history curriculum for students now has no mention of Martin Luther King Day, Barack Obama, and Juneteenth. Meanwhile, Confederate figures and white supremacists like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson continue to receive priority in history class in Youngkin’s Virginia schools. Youngkin’s team also referred to Native Americans as “America’s First Immigrants,” before backing off following justified scrutiny.
In recent years, other attempts have been made to “soften” and “whitewash” US history. Descriptions of the experiences of enslaved Africans on US plantations as being “well-cared for” have shown up as has the attempt by at least one charter school in Texas which wanted to teach a “balanced view” of the institution of slavery to 8th graders who were asked to list “the positives of slavery.” The school and charter school chief later apologized. (1)
We have seen other examples attempting to “soften the narrative” about the history of white supremacy and Christian nationalism such as recent efforts to label enslaved Africans as “migrant workers” or as “involuntary immigrants.” (2) (3)
In addition to the attacks on education, the political attacks from far-right politicians, influencers, and from far-right evangelical church leaders have deep historical roots and have added a deeper and more foundational layer to these realities.
Many of the issues we are dealing with right now regarding white Christian nationalism, the rise of the Proud Boys, the anti-woke movements, and others trace their roots back to the early days of American history. Since the country‘s founding, there has been a visible tension between Americans who believe in the separation of church and state and those who believe that this country was Christian and “ordained” by their God to be a city on a hill.
In a country with rapidly changing racial and ethnic populations and dynamics, far-right conservative leaders and media influencers have been echoing white supremacist and Christian nationalist talking points by fearmongering about the “great replacement” of White folks by non-Whites. Some politicians, like Congresswoman Margorie Taylor Green, have been more overt, stating “We need to be the party of nationalism and I’m a Christian, and I say it proudly, we should be Christian nationalists.”
Supernatural views that reinforce the idea of the superiority of white people and the superiority of the Christian religion, helped guide and shape actions and decisions that were made throughout the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. We saw Christian nationalistic and xenophobic views justify:
- The institution of slavery
- The forced removal, genocide, and ethnic cleansing of millions of Natives Americans encompassing over 500 distinct tribes and nations
- The denial of women’s rights
- Xenophobia and nationalism during the age of immigration
- Japanese Internment Camps
- The forced expulsion and deportation of Mexican Americans in the 1930’s
- The rise of Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan
- And more…
Extremist Faith Leaders
For years, these extremist views have become embedded in right-wing Evangelical Christian rhetoric, mainly by religious zealots like Pat Robertson, Franklin Graham, John Hagee, RJ Rushdoony, and more recently, folks like Greg Locke, who believes he can identify “witches” who’ve “infiltrated” his denomination and who sees liberals and Democrats as the “demonic” enemies of his God. Followers are led to believe that there are angels and demons existing among us engaging in a cosmic battle that will ultimately determine our fates.
It’s why millions of Americans believe their God “chose” Donald Trump to lead the country, and that Donald Trump is here to fight the “evils” of liberalism, multiculturalism, LGBTQIA+ communities, and Democrats, and that those who oppose Donald Trump oppose their God.
When individuals are predisposed to believing in supernatural ideas, they may become more easily persuaded to believe the unbelievable in politics and in our society. It can allow people to convince themselves that a leader, who is openly supporting and regurgitating the views of white supremacists, who in any other normal setting would be considered vile and immoral, can be considered an agent of their God. It can cause them to act out in ways that are incredibly harmful and dangerous.
These realities are also a disservice to millions of Christians who practice and find meaning in their traditions and contribute to society in positive, impactful, and loving ways. There is a danger in lumping all Christians from a wide spectrum of denominations in with the actions and ideologies of Christian Nationalists. Millions of Christians are horrified and despondent at the rise in Christian Nationalism and deeply committed to ridding our nation of white supremacy and bigotry.
However, we can’t ignore the reality that we live in a time when an American President can confidently claim that “there were very fine people on both sides” following the white supremacist attacks in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. We live in a time when far-right leaders can rise to power by proclaiming that “we have to stop the woke,” and that “the election was stolen” without any evidence to support their claims. We live in a time when a former president – who just announced he is again running for office in 2024 – can be found dining at his residence with an avowed and open white supremacist and antisemitic leader and influencer like Nick Fuentes and still have an entire political party struggle to condemn him.
It was no surprise for me to see, in the immediate aftermath of the midterm elections in 2022, people taking to social media to denounce our “godless“ democracy” and the “perversion” of the promotion of transgender rights and healthcare, and the “evil and murderous” support of women having the right to reproductive healthcare, abortion, and bodily autonomy.
I’ve heard from multiple people who were harassed for supporting causes that advanced equity and inclusion to marginalized communities. I was personally on the receiving end of comments denouncing the results of the midterm elections and casting personal attacks on anyone that supported the rights of transgender people, gay and lesbian folks, or a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion. One individual even went so far as to mockingly state “here’s your democracy” and suggest that I was personally responsible for contributing to “this perversion” and warned that their God was “watching me.” Similarly, we’ve heard comments from leading politicians and influencers on the far right who spread misinformation and have echoed many of the same sentiments… that the political battles in society today are a supernatural battle of good versus evil.
Where do we go next?
For those of us who are committed and working daily to creating a more just and equitable society, we can’t stop. We can’t stop working and trying to create a world that uses whatever tools are at our disposal to soften hearts and open minds. We can’t stop teaching about our past so as to not replicate it. We can’t stop lifting up, standing with, advocating for and supporting marginalized and oppressed communities. We can’t stop insisting that anything less than a truly equitable society, where all people can live their lives authentically, love who they love, not live in fear for their safety and well-being, and live out their full potential as human beings contributing their talents and gifts to society, is unacceptable.
We can’t stop insisting on using logic, reason, and evidence to determine what is factual. We can’t stop listening to the lived experiences of individuals and communities and believing that deep down, most people are good and doing the best they can to make sense of a complex and rapidly evolving world. We can’t stop educating ourselves, creating authentic relationships with one another, and connecting with communities that have been influenced by the forces of division to fear, distrust, and hate the unknown.
The midterm elections of 2022 provided a snapshot that may indicate that Generation Z, Independents, moderate Republicans, and Progressives rejected the politics of hate and the politics of MAGA and Christian Nationalism just enough to halt a political red wave. This was a flicker of hope that perhaps, just perhaps, our society was engaging in some introspection, reflection, and serious thought about the bigger implications of theocratic and racist political ideologies.
Perhaps folks are beginning to realize that when people yell “woke” they are usually doing so in an effort to deflect and distract from real issues and their failure to offer real solutions, while simultaneously continuing to make invisible so many communities that have historically, and in contemporary times, suffered from oppressive systems, white supremacy, and the theocratic ideology of Christian Nationalism.
Perhaps people realized that the issues of transphobia, hostility towards immigrants, homophobia, opposition to interracial marriage, antisemitism, and the overt and brazen white supremacy and racism that has become mainstream in a major political party were instilling fear in minoritized communities and causing deep harm to our country.
So, how did we get here?
Perhaps some folks are beginning to realize that we have always “been here,” and that for us to break this centuries-old cycle of white supremacy and Christian nationalism, more of us need to rise up and say “enough.”
- Texas eighth-graders asked to list positives of slavery; charter school chief apologizes – Los Angeles Times (latimes.com)
- Mother Shares Textbook Describing African Slaves as ‘Workers’ (nbcnews.com)
- Carson doubles down: Slaves were ‘involuntary immigrants’ | The Hill
- Founding Fathers: We Are Not a Christian Nation | HuffPost Latest News
- Amendment I (Religion): Thomas Jefferson, Autobiography (uchicago.edu)