Let’s connect some dots that could help bring a couple of disparate strands of my immigration history project together. (Spoiler alert: I think some of the difficulties Swedish Lutheran immigrants experienced in the 1850s were similar to those confronting Buddhist, Hindu or Sikh immigrants today, and I think the “great replacement theory” of today is quite similar to the anti-Catholic hysteria of the 1850s. Some of these fault lines in American culture became apparent when a mod of Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol.) So, the first dot to connect is from a New Yorker profile of a Republican state Rep. from Pennsylvania that appeared yesterday on the magazine’s website:

The election of Donald Trump intensified certain strains of Christian nationalism. He fanned fears of pluralism with Islamophobic and anti-immigrant rhetoric. He often invoked Christianity, albeit in terms that were largely about ethnic identity rather than faith. “The greatest ethnic dog whistle the right has ever come up with is ‘Christian,’ because it means ‘people like us,’ it means white,” Samuel Perry, a sociologist at the University of Oklahoma and co-author of “Taking America Back For God,” told [Eliza Griswold of the New Yorker].

I hadn’t thought of it that way, but more and more I’m seeing “Christian” used as a dog whistle. Next, a verbatim quote from Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News early in April. It more like a brass band than a dog whistle, and it was quoted widely. I’m linking to a story in Business Insider because its link to the original video offers more context for the quote, and it links to several other reax stories. Carlson said:

“I know that the left and all the little gatekeepers on Twitter become literally hysterical if you use the term ‘replacement,’ if you suggest that the Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate — the voters now casting ballots — with new people, more obedient voters from the Third World,” Carlson told his audience, which is among the largest in cable news. “But they become hysterical because that’s what’s happening, actually. Let’s just say it. That’s true.”

The Anti-Defamation League, which has long tracked anti-Semitism, had a quote of its own, and gave a little context to the “replacement.” Of whom and by whom? ADL thinks it’s obvious. Business Insider quoted them as follows:

The Anti-Defamation League called for Carlson’s resignation or firing. The head of the Jewish rights group, Jonathan Greenblatt, called the theory “a white supremacist tenet that the white race is in danger by a rising tide of non-whites.”

“It is antisemitic, racist and toxic. It has informed the ideology of mass shooters in El Paso, Christchurch and Pittsburgh,” he said. “Tucker must go.”

The third is from a PowerPoint presentation on Understanding American Domestic Terrorism by Robert Pape and the Chicago Project on Security and Threats, which he heads, at the University of Chicago:

What we are dealing with here is not merely a mix of right-wing
organizations, but a broader mass movement with violence at its core.
▪ This is fundamentally a political movement, one not only centered in “red”
parts of the country, but also consisting of pro-Trump supporters who are
in the political minority in many places.
▪ All three studies have remarkably similar findings about the scope and
drivers of the insurrectionist movement. Specifically, all three studies find
statistically significant evidence that the “Great Replacement” – the idea
that minorities will have more rights than whites – is a key driver.

Next: An excerpt from Philip Gorski’s article on the Jan. 6 insurrection mounted by supporters of then-President Trump to stop certification in which he lost the office. Headlined “White Christian Nationalism: The Deep Story Behind the Capitol Insurrection,” it appeared first on the Australian national TV network’s website and was reprinted by the Berkley Center of Georgetown University:

At first glance, the protesters who gathered around the US Capitol on 6 January 2021 seemed to be a motley crew. One observer espied: “Preppy looking country club Republicans, well-dressed social conservatives, and white Evangelicals in Jesus caps … standing shoulder to shoulder with QAnon cultists, Second Amendment cosplay commandos, and doughy, hardcore white nationalists.” The symbolism on display also seemed like apples and oranges. One group erected a giant cross, another a wooden gallows. Someone in the crowd waved a “Jesus Saves” banner, while another sported a “Camp Auschwitz” hoodie.

But the closer you look, the murkier things become. Christians waved Trump flags. The “Proud Boys” kneeled and prayed. One man, decked out as a cosplay crusader, clutched a large leather Bible to his chest with skeleton gloves. What looked like apples and oranges turned out to be a fruit cocktail: white Christian nationalism.

White Christian nationalism (WCN) is, first of all, a story about America. It says: America was founded as a Christian nation, by (white) Christians; and its laws and institutions are based on “Biblical” (that is, Protestant) Christianity. This much is certain, though: America is divinely favored. Whence its enormous wealth and power. In exchange for these blessings, America has been given a mission: to spread religion, freedom, and civilization—by force, if necessary. But that mission is endangered by the growing presence of non-whites, non-Christians, and non-Americans on American soil. White Christians must therefore “take back the country,” their country. 

In another article posted to the Berkley Center’s website, Lauren B. Kerby, religious literacy specialist for Religion and Public Life at Harvard Divinity School, observes that the self-identified Christian right has inculcated white Christian nationalism. In 2014 and 2015 she joined “Christian heritage tours” of the US Capitol apparently designed to do exactly that. She explains:

At the heart of white Christian nationalism is a custodial relationship to the nation. In this view, it is the duty of Christian patriots to keep the nation on a righteous course. As the Christian right formed in the 1980s, its leaders issued a clarion call to these patriots. The nation was in decline, and salvation could only come from restoring things to the way they were in the past.

But not just any past would do. Leaders of the Christian right were not interested in peer-reviewed history that critically examined issues like slavery, religious diversity, or imperialism. They were interested in nostalgic accounts of the nation’s Christian heritage that justified a privileged place for white conservative Christianity in American laws, schools, and culture. A cottage industry sprang up to develop and disseminate this narrative, reimagining American history through monographs, textbooks, documentary films, and even Bibles. 

Tours of Washington, DC, offered opportunities to tell this story and to point out the statues, inscriptions, and artwork that still enshrine Christianity in the capital. These Christian heritage tours began in the 1970s, and today they attract thousands of predominantly white conservative Christians from around the United States each year. 

During each tour, I witnessed participants wrestling with simultaneous feelings of belonging and alienation. Tour guides cultivated these feelings with the nostalgic stories they told about the past, which they juxtaposed with scathing indictments of the present. Security guards inadvertently alienated tourists further each time they searched bags or asked for quiet. But these feelings did not depend on specific historical facts or personal experiences. Tourists expressed them frequently, supporting it with fragments of half-remembered stories from their guides. 

George Washington, for instance, “was quite religious,” according to one tourist I interviewed. “Didn’t he, oh, I can’t remember now, but didn’t he read the Bible every day, and didn’t he preach some?” In all honesty, she could have been describing any of the great white men who dominated the stories of Christian heritage tours. But to her, the details were not what mattered. She had a feeling that Christianity had once been much more important to American leaders. “But it’s not anymore,” she added sadly. 

Central to her argument, and to the thesis of her book Saving History: How White Evangelicals Tour the Capital and Redeem a Christian America (University of North Carolina Press, 2020) is the idea of “lived history.” which she defines in the Berkley Center piece as “the messy, partial, and contradictory narratives we all tell about the past to make sense of where we belong and how we should act.”

Kerby argues that the Jan. 6 insurrection showed how dangerous this stuff can become, even though it may look relatively harmless, and how vital it is to understand its origins and it potential for further disruption:

The power of the Christian heritage narrative has nothing to do with its credibility among academic historians, who widely reject it. History is not just something scholars do. It is also something ordinary people do to make sense of their daily lives. I call this “lived history”: the messy, partial, and contradictory narratives we all tell about the past to make sense of where we belong and how we should act. On Christian heritage tours, I witnessed how someone’s lived history can be diffuse and fragmented yet still anchor their absolute conviction about what the nation was and ought to be.

What was the lived history behind the Capitol insurrection? What stories about the past did the invaders cobble together in deciding to storm the building? We know from their prayers and statements both before and during the events of January 6 that the Christian heritage narrative was a key component. As we seek to better understand the ideological formation of white Christian nationalists, we should pay attention to the history they deploy to justify their actions, just as we attend to questions about race, masculinity, immigration, and class. This lived history does not require names, dates, or citations. All it requires is a story that transforms a malcontent into an exile, and a terrorist into a savior.

iN a Jan. 15 article in The Atlantic, Kerby continued her argument to its logical conclusion. Citing a participant on one of the Christian heritage tours, she said she believes the peculiar mixture of militancy and grievance in white Christian nationalism is dangerous and should not be underestimated:

One mother told me that she’d brought her two children on a Christian heritage tour to prepare them for what lay ahead: “I truly believe they will be persecuted in their lifetime,” she said, explaining that when that happened, she wanted them to know what they were fighting for. (Consistent with academic norms, I agreed not to publish the names of the individuals I interviewed.) To her, persecution was not something to be avoided. Persecution was a sign that Christians were doing God’s will, despite the oppression of a hostile world.

Some Christian nationalists believe that Christians should welcome persecution and the loss of political power, as did one leader of a conservative Christian nonprofit I met on a tour. “If we end up as a minority group without the power we once had, we will be stronger for it. We have to rejoice that a family member is chosen to die,” he said. “We are suffering for Christ.”

But white Christian nationalism also unites nostalgia for a lost age of Christian power with a profound sense of victimization, and it baptizes death as a heroic sacrifice for the nation. No one should underestimate how dangerous this combination is, particularly among those who decide that their faith requires them to retake their nation.

Adherents are right about one thing: The fate of this nation is at stake.

Workd Cited

Philip Gorski, White Christian Nationalism: The Deep Story Behind the Capitol Insurrection,” Berkley Forum, Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs, Georgetown University, Jan. 22, 2021 https://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/responses/white-christian-nationalism-the-deep-story-behind-the-capitol-insurrection; ABC Religion & Ethics, Australian Broadcasting Corp., Jan. 13-18, 2021 https://www.abc.net.au/religion/philip-gorski-white-christian-nationalism/13055050.

Eliza Griswold, “A Pennsylvania Lawmaker and the Resurgence of Christian Nationalism,” New Yorker, May 9, 2021 https://www.newyorker.com/news/on-religion/a-pennsylvania-lawmaker-and-the-resurgence-of-christian-nationalism.

Lauren B. Kerby, “The Dispossessed? Lived History and White Christian Nationalism,” Berkley Forum, Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs, Georgetown University, Feb. 3, 2021 https://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/responses/the-dispossessed-lived-history-and-white-christian-nationalism.

__________. “White Christian Nationalists Want More Than Just Political Power,” Atlantic, Jan. 15, 2021 https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/01/white-evangelicals-fixation-on-washington-dc/617690/.

Robert Pape et al., “Understanding American Domestic Terrorism: Mobilization Potential and Risk Factors of a New Threat Trajectory,” Chicago Project on Security and Threats, University of Chicago, April 6, 2021 https://d3qi0qp55mx5f5.cloudfront.net/cpost/i/docs/americas_insurrectionists_online_2021_04_06.pdf?mtime=1617807009.

Eliza Relman, “Tucker Carlson embraces white-supremacist ‘replacement’ conspiracy theory, claiming Democrats are ‘importing’ immigrants to ‘dilute’ American voters,” Business Insider, April 9, 2021 https://www.businessinsider.com/tucker-carlson-endorses-white-supremacist-replacement-conspiracy-theory-2021-4.

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