Now We Call It White Christian Nationalism. It Used to Just Be Called the KKK
Exploring white Christian nationalism's connections to white supremacist beliefs
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Scholars and experts today debate the term “white Christian Nationalism.”
Could other terms be used more effectively: fascist, christo-fascist, extremist, authoritarian.
All of those terms have utility and highlight specific aspects of this ideology more or less clearly. But the phrase “white Christian nationalism” has found currency in our discourse.
Those words individually—white, and Christian, and nationalist— and together convey critical elements of what has become the greatest threat to democracy and the witness of the church (see HERE for more).
But as a label, white Christian nationalism, can obscure its connections to the past.
In its most extreme forms, white Christian nationalism is an expression of white supremacy baptized with religious language and symbolism.
In its effort to impose a strict racial, gender, and political hierarchy in the name of Christianity, the modern white Christian nationalist movement is an ideological descendant of the Ku Klux Klan.
In 1922, the New York World newspaper published a three-week exposé series on the KKK. In response, William J. Simmons, the founder of the Jim Crow era revival of the Ku Klux Klan published his own series of articles. In one article he cites the exposé and its description of the Klan’s nativist beliefs.
A New York Times recap of the article states:
Speaking of the result of The World’s exposé, [Simmons] asserts that it showed an organization admitting to membership none but "native born, white, Gentile, Protestant Americans, whose statement of principles was a restoration of the fundamental principles of American democracy as embodied in the Constitution of the United States, an organization whose code of conduct was Christianity."
Simmons did not refute that description.
These quotes reveal how connected the beliefs of white Christian nationalists today are with the Ku Klux Klan of 100 years ago.
First, it is critical to acknowledge that white Christian nationalism exists on a spectrum. In their latest report on white Christian nationalism, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and the Brookings Institution identify a range of groups based on how strongly they hold to white Christian nationalist ideas—adherents, sympathizers, skeptics, and rejectors.
To compare today’s white Christian nationalism to the Ku Klux Klan is to draw lines of connection mainly from today’s extremists (adherents) to the extremists of decades past. It is not to say that everyone who is sympathetic to white Christian nationalist ideas is willing to burn crosses or participate in lynchings.
This distinction, too, has historical parallels.
Even with the KKK, only a small portion of members committed the most violent and egregious acts. But they did so with the tacit approval and complicity of many others who considered themselves more moderate.
Perpetuating racism includes not only malicious action but also negligent inaction.
In today’s terms, moderate believers in white Christian nationalism would be identified as “sympathizers” and together with the “adherents” make up nearly 30 percent of the total population.
The KKK conflated the United States with the Kingdom of God. It positioned the U.S. as “an organization whose code of conduct was Christianity.” It referred to the Constitution as an almost divinely inspired document on a level near the Bible. The Klan also spoke of the “restoration” of a bygone era of Christian morality to which the nation must return if it would be great again.
Most glaringly, the narrow racial ideology of Klan is exposed. The “true American” in the view of the KKK is a “native born, white, Gentile, Protestant.” That eliminates immigrants from any non-European nations, Black people, indigenous people, Jewish people, and Catholics among others.
Nowadays, the racial and national boundaries have become slightly more porous. And plenty of Catholics hold white Christian nationalist beliefs. People of color may also gain entry into white Christian nationalist circles, but only if they unfailingly adhere to their principles and the movement’s most prominent leaders remain white.
No matter how some adherents try to sanitize it, white Christian nationalism is neither mere Christianity nor simple patriotism. It is a dangerous ideology that resembles racist extremist movements of the past such as the Ku Klux Klan.
Even if one is not an ardent adherent of white Christian nationalism, those who are sympathizers enable the most egregious acts of political authoritarianism and religious hypocrisy.
Leaving the white robes and hoods of the Klan in the past does not mean their beliefs do not persist in the present. They do, and their new garb is white Christian nationalism.
Footnotes by Jemar Tisby is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
I’m skeptical that adherents only make up 10%. I live in the “sunshine” state and it feels like the adherents are the majority. It’s sickening. Speaking out has earned me more than one frightening encounter with physical intimidation.
What a great piece! I suppose it could have also been entitled the "coming out" of the KKK, no? . A special thank you for including the NYT summary. I'm going to have that printed on the back of a business card once I figure out the front. It may be "Ever heard of William J. Simmons?"