As racial justice and Civil Rights movements grew in the United States throughout the 20th century, white supremacists always responded powerfully — and brutally — with violence. Whether exhibited in lynchings, state-supported beatings and imprisonment, or expressed in sermons or publications, white supremacists acted with the sincere belief in the theological underpinnings of their racial resentment. For example, in 1958, Baptist minister R.A. Raney stated, “Integration is condemned all through the Bible, but not justified any where (sic) in the Bible. But since God established segregation in creation.… It follows that segregation is a Bible teaching or doctrine.”
White supremacy and white Christian nationalism are grounded in a theology that posits the glory of what was promised to white people: a homogeneous Christian nation in which the supposed divinely sanctioned rights of white men supersede all others. When demographic changes and social progress threaten that promise, the backlash is both rapid and long-term. Post-Reconstruction disenfranchisement of Black people, segregationist housing policies in the North and the South, and the Southern strategy illustrate such violence.
White Christian nationalism is the underlying premise behind both backlash-inspired terror and the proactive, systemic efforts to disenfranchise American racial and religious minorities.
Evangelical leader Bob Jones most succinctly expressed the theology of white Christian nationalism. His belief that the Bible did not sanction the mixing of races grounded his opposition to Civil Rights and integration.
“If we would just listen to the word of God and not try to overthrow God’s established order, we would not have any trouble. God never meant for America to be a melting pot to rub out the line between the nations. That was not God’s purpose for this nation,” Jones said. “When someone goes to overthrowing His established order and goes around preaching pious sermons about it, that makes me sick — for a man to stand up and preach pious sermons in this country and talk about rubbing out the line between the races — I say it makes me sick.”
Jones claimed his white supremacist views were not rooted in animosity towards minorities, but in the belief that all people were not created equal and therefore were not deserving of equal rights. As he noted in a 1960 radio sermon:
“When it comes to quality of races, all these races have quality. They have good qualities and bad qualities…. I have had the sweetest fellowship with colored Christians, with yellow Christians, with red Christians, with all sorts of Christians — the sweetest fellowship anybody has ever had, we have had. Christians have always had it. We have never had any trouble about that. The trouble today is a Satanic agitation striking back at God’s established order. That is what is making trouble for us.”
Since Jones made these comments, white supremacists have frequently tried to rationalize their positions by claiming to only be pro-white. But pro-whiteness, as constructed by the architects of white supremacy, is based on the providence of an exclusive, white Christian nation, an “established order” where all others are either deemed invaders or undesirables, or both. Within this paradigm, Jews and Black people have been constantly on the outside looking in, and other groups like Muslims, Hindus, Latinos, and the LGBTQ+ community were added as America became more diverse.
White Christian nationalism is religious because it is dogmatic, ritualistic, rooted in symbolism, and dependent upon the charisma of figurehead missionaries who have espoused its virtues over the years.
In the Trump era, white Christian nationalism has become a safe space for those who feel aggrieved by multiculturalism and claim victimhood through the perceived loss of identity and nation. For example, evangelical leader Robert Jeffress noted that Trump was “fulfilling his God given responsibility” by attempting to build a wall at the Southern border — Constitution be damned.
White Christian nationalists claim to be refugees of demographic change, and many politicians and messiahs before Trump have tapped into that sense of displacement. But what Trump has done more effectively — and destructively — than his predecessors is to link his self-preservation to the future of a white Christian America. Attacks on Trump become attacks on white Christian identity. Even as Trump tries to denounce hatred and anti-Semitism, his actions are a wink and a nod to white Christian nationalists to keep doing what they’re doing. His embrace of the symbols of white Christian aggression (Robert E. Lee monuments and Confederate flags, for example) only cements the tribal sanctuaries of white Christian nationhood.
Trump has brought the grievances of white Christian nationalists into the open, making visible the hate shared among themselves and on social media. He has institutionalized white Christian nationalism as the pillars of both his domestic policies and worldview, while mainstreaming xenophobia, racism, and anti-Muslim sentiments that even many conservatives once rejected as cringeworthy and fringe-worthy.
Today, some progressives and Democratic politicians are living in a state of denial about the state of white Christian nationalism. They view the Wisconsin gurdwara massacre in 2012, the South Carolina terror attack in 2015, and the mass shootings at synagogues in Pittsburgh and San Diego over the past six months as aberrations, mere blots in a march towards progress. Even former vice president and Democratic presidential frontrunner Joe Biden calls Trumpism — the political manifestation of white Christian nationalism — an aberration.
Unfortunately, white Christian nationalism is now in the open and hard to sweep under the rug, no matter who the president will be. Its strength lies within a self-fueling and self-sustaining narrative, an ever-growing sense of loss and victimhood, and politicians who will mimic Trump’s success in future years to rejuvenate it. The only way the United States can absolve itself from the sins of white Christian nationalism is to acknowledge that it exists and that our very social, political, and economic narratives have long been predicated upon white supremacy. Until the country confronts that narrative, Trumpism will not be an aberration — it will soon become the norm.
About the Author
Murali Balaji is a journalist, author, and academic with nearly 20 years of experience in diversity leadership. He is the founder of Maruthi Education Consulting and is a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of The Professor and the Pupil (2007), a political biography of W. E. B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson, the editor of Digital Hinduism (2017) and co-editor of Desi Rap (2008).