Two articles by scholars published in the wake of the mass murder at the Tops Friendly Markets store in Buffalo struck me like Thomas Jefferson’s fire bell in the night. The scholars are Samuel Perry, of the University of Oklahoma, and Philip Gorski, of Yale; they have written extensively about white Christian nationalism — the belief that white Christians are threatened by an increasingly diverse, pluralistic America — and I’ve been reading their work with growing alarm since the Jan. 6 insurrection by supporters of former President Trump in 2021.
But the lessons Perry and Gorski draw from the May 14 murders in Buffalo — not to mention the act itself — were truly alarming. And they reminded me of Jefferson. When he learned in 1820 of the Missouri Compromise, he predicted — accurately — it would set in motion the controversy over admitting slave states to the Union that led 30 years later to the Civil War. He wrote to a friend, “this momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. it is hushed indeed for the moment. but this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence” [boldface in the original].
I don’t know if we’re headed into a civil war — although that, too, has been predicted lately — but Perry and Gorski paint a troubling picture of the degree to which white Christian nationalism influences today’s debates ranging from the very similar “grand replacement” conspiracy theory to the anti-abortion movement, the turmoil over Jan. 6, voter suppression laws and the conservative drift of the US Supreme Court.
I can’t sort these issues out in my mind — more than I like to admit, I didn’t see them coming and I haven’t had time to think them over — so I will quote pertinent passages from the articles and link them below for further study. The verbatim quotes follow with any editorial changes indicated in brackets.
Samuel Perry interview on Relevant website
Now the reason this is actually, I think, connected to Christian Nationalism in some powerful ways is that we can actually show in survey data that White Christian Nationalism is associated with all of these fears. Even in the shooter’s own words, he says he’s not a Christian, he says that he has not prayed for God’s forgiveness, he hasn’t confessed his sins and that kind of thing. But he does say “I do try to live out Christian values,” as he is about to go perpetrate this act of evil.
Later on in his manifesto, he talks about how Whiteness is both White genes and White culture. And then he describes what White culture is and he says that White culture is characterized by the Christian religion. He says the best culture — the culture that he wants to perpetuate is not only White genes — but it’s also White culture characterized by Christianity.
That actually gets us pretty close to White Christian Nationalism. It’s divorced from any kind of Jesus talk. It’s not about loving your neighbor and it’s not about sacrifice. It’s about culture and Christian values, whatever that means. And it’s connected to Whiteness and nationality and what we want to see in our society. So, without coming out and saying, “I’m a White Christian nationalist,” he’s giving all the indicators that these things we see, they go hand in hand together.
WaPo story by Samuel Perry and Philip Gorski [links are in the original]
Both the racist massacre in Buffalo last weekend and the antiabortion legislation spreading rapidly through the states in anticipation of the overturning of Roe v. Wade next month are linked to white Christian nationalism, despite a pair of glaring paradoxes: The suspect in the Buffalo shooting doesn’t claim to be Christian in a religious sense, and many “pro-life” Christians are pro-death-penalty, pro-guns and pro-police brutality.
It makes sense in context. The ideology’s adherents are committed to instituting an ethno-culture that represents a shrinking minority — a traditionalist Christian social order in which the freedoms of White Christians are privileged. Theirs is a world where race, religion and national belonging have become virtually inseparable and are not necessarily tied to spirituality. And the spread of this kind of thinking is rapid and startling.
In citing the “great replacement” in a lengthy document posted online, the Buffalo suspect appears to have justified plans for his murderous assault by articulating what many of his fellow citizens already believe. “If there’s one thing I want you to get from these writings,” the suspect begins, “it’s that White birth rates must change.” Combined with a menacing “invasion” of non-White immigrants, low White fertility rates, he warns, “will ultimately result in the complete racial and cultural replacement” of Whites.
According to a recent survey by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, a third of all American adults now embrace the idea that “an effort is underway to replace U.S.-born Americans with immigrants for electoral gains,” even if they wouldn’t shoot up a grocery store in its furtherance.
That “American” implies “Christian” is not an uncommon belief, especially if you’re a White American. In a nationally representative survey we fielded in March, we found that 28 percent of all Whites and half of conservative Whites affirm that “being a Christian is very important to being truly American.” For many White Americans, Christianity is more of an ethnic culture and identity than a set of spiritual beliefs. It means “White people like us.”
It’s important to note that white Christian nationalism is not the same as conservative White evangelicalism. Some evangelicals reject the ideology, and many non-evangelicals and even some non-Christians embrace it. In our book we show that about 20 percent of Americans who believe that the federal government should declare the nation Christian don’t even identify as Christian — a view that aligns with the Buffalo suspect’s view of Christianity. Answering his own question about whether he thought of himself as Christian, he wrote in his online post: “No. I do not ask God for salvation by faith, nor do I confess my sins to him.” He added that “I do however believe in and practice many Christian values.”
The Supreme Court itself is now an instrument of minority rule by White Christians. Consider: Of the five justices who reportedly voted to strike down Roe, four were nominated by presidents who lost the popular vote, and five of the six conservative justices were confirmed by senators representing a popular minority. The new conservative majority on the court represents a shrinking minority of conservative White Christian Americans. It is a bulwark against the popular will and, increasingly, a battering ram against settled law.
White Christian nationalists want control over the other two branches of government as well. In previous studies, we showed that even before the 2020 election, Christian-nationalist ideology was a leading predictor that White Americans thought we make it too easy to vote. If the goal is control, then the last thing you want is full democratic participation. Rather, you want to raise the bar so that only the “worthy” can have a say. There is nothing new about this. In 1980, Paul Weyrich, a co-founder of the Moral Majority, said the quiet part out loud: “I don’t want everybody to vote.” White Christian nationalism is powerfully related to belief in Trump’s “big lie” about a stolen election, and today, some adherents of white Christian nationalism favor insurrections and bullets over elections and ballots.
As the Buffalo suspect explains, the perceived threat is not just racial but religious or, more specifically, ethno-cultural. The White Western way of life needs defending, by law or by violence.
Of course, not all conservative White Christians embrace the “great replacement” theory. And very few would endorse the shooter’s acts. Still, any remaining boundaries between white nationalism and Christian nationalism are becoming blurrier by the day.
Citations and bios
Samuel L. Perry, “What Role Did White Christian Nationalism Play in the Buffalo Massacre?” interview with Tyler Huckabee, Relevant [ca. May 15-20, 2022] https://relevantmagazine.com/current/nation/what-role-did-white-christian-nationalism-play-in-the-buffalo-massacre/.
Samuel L. Perry and Philip S. Gorski, “With the Buffalo massacre, white Christian nationalism strikes again,” Washington Post, May 20, 2022 https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2022/05/20/white-christian-nationalism-buffalo-abortion/.
Thomas Jefferson, “Fire Bell in the Night (Quotation),” Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia, rpt. Montecello, Charlottesville, Va. https://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/fire-bell-night-quotation.
Samuel L. Perry is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Oklahoma. He is co-author of “Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States” and, most recently, “The Flag and the Cross: White Christian Nationalism and the Threat to American Democracy.”
Philip S. Gorski is a professor of sociology at Yale University. He is the author of “American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present” and co-author of “The Flag and the Cross: White Christian Nationalism and the Threat to American Democracy.”