Dangerous Devotion: Congressional hearing examines threat of white Christian nationalism
The House Oversight Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties held its seventh and last hearing on the threat of white nationalism this month.
One principal focus was white Christian nationalism, which has driven anti-democracy extremism in recent years. The hearing was welcome as the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project has monitored this threat with growing concern.
As Amanda Tyler, co-organizer of Christians Against Christian Nationalism, testified during the hearing: “Christian nationalism seeks to manipulate religious devotion into giving unquestioning moral support for its political goals.”
Tyler is also executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.
White Christian nationalism combines American exceptionalism – the belief that the U.S. occupies a special and privileged place in the world – with the belief that God is the source of all American liberties and prosperity. This includes the belief that Americans are more valued in God’s eyes than people from other nations.
What’s more, large segments of the U.S. population are seen as un-American. Some leaders of this movement uphold the racist idea that white Americans are the image of sacred Americanness. Civil rights advocates who struggle for a pluralist, multiracial, equitable democracy are often smeared as Marxists, communists and even pedophiles by this movement.
What is truly problematic is not the religious belief involved. Many Christians oppose the conspiracy theories that are like statements of faith for white Christian nationalism and believe instead in the separation of church and state. The true problem is the mixture of falsehood and certainty that results, motivating people to attack the very democratic institutions they say they are defending.
The danger of this ideology was apparent during the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Amid the chaos of that day, Christian symbols, including crosses and Christian flags, were displayed next to “Make America Great Again” and QAnon banners. This placement was not accidental, but for some that day, these symbols expressed their false belief that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump, who was God-sent to restore their republic.
The ways that white Christian nationalism was showcased by hard-right extremist groups on Jan. 6 was shocking to many who watched it play out on their TV screens at home, but the threat is still active today.
Eric Ward, senior adviser at Western States Center and executive vice president of Race Forward, told the committee that the insurrection really has not ended – it is a “daily reality” in so much of the country. This is exemplified, he said, by the attempted attack on Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, which resulted in the injury of her husband.
This threat runs through many grassroots organizations that aim to interfere with the U.S. election system, driven by unfounded conspiracy theories of election tampering, according to the testimony of Mary McCord, executive director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University Law Center. The threat also includes militias that have changed their tune since the post-Jan. 6 arrests, attempting to make themselves look community- and family-friendly, but have not stopped their extremist activity.
Hard-right extremists have refocused their energies on local elections and school board meetings. Extremist activity has focused on minority communities, such as LGBTQ+ events and organizations, and – by opposing inclusive education and anti-racism initiatives in local schools – such activity targets Black and Brown communities as well.
Today, white Christian nationalism continues to spread. Traveling revivals were the primary organizing strategy in 2022. Groups such as the ReAwaken America Tour combine conspiracy theories about election tampering and COVID-19 with public baptisms, using the symbols and narratives of Christianity to make their political beliefs look divinely ordained.
However, it’s only a veneer of respectability.
The witnesses at the hearing spoke about the antisemitism that is sometimes found in white Christian nationalism. As one witness explained, the conspiracy that progressives are pedophiles who traffic and kill children draws from old antisemitic tales about blood libel and the undermining of Christian youth. Some politicians and public figures aligning themselves with white Christian nationalism have, unfortunately, helped renew this anti-Jewish hatred for another generation and stoked recent anti-LGBTQ+ activities.
Alejandra Caraballo, a witness who is a clinical instructor at Harvard Law School’s Cyberlaw Clinic and who is an LGBTQ+ rights advocate, underscored the sharp rise in rhetoric and even attacks against LGBTQ+ people, and trans people in particular. According to her testimony, social media influencers such as James Lindsay and the Libs of TikTok have helped stoke hatred against LGBTQ+ persons and groups, labeling them “groomers” and contributing in no small amount to the worrying increase of protests and attacks against trans and LGBTQ+ persons and institutions. Caraballo also shared her own experience as an activist and advocate, having been doxxed and verbally abused for standing up for LGBTQ+ persons.
Despite the grim threat of white Christian nationalism, there are steps that can be taken to counter it. The SPLC offers the following recommendations:
Though these are distinctly minority views, the strength of white Christian nationalism and hard-right extremism comes from the organizing that is radicalizing local communities. It is important for individuals and groups to reach out to their neighbors to support them and to provide another vision on the local level for a pluralist, open and equitable democracy.
Coalitions featuring a diversity of race, ethnicity and religion can promote national and community-based initiatives to address the threat of white Christian nationalism and extremism. Coalitions between Christian communities and their neighbors especially are needed.
We must know the extent of this threat. Current data collection of hate crimes is woefully inadequate. During the hearing, for example, subcommittee members voiced their concerns about the inadequate hate crime data in the FBI’s annual hate crimes statistics report, which had just been released. What’s more, we need to know the extent of extremism in the military and law enforcement. Congress and the Biden administration can and must do more to protect the rule of law and support a robust, equitable and pluralistic democracy.
Social media and online radicalization
Committee testimony rightfully focused on social media and other online avenues for radicalization. Increased oversight is essential – and needed soon – to combat these trends. This is even more important now, as social media sites have demonstrated how unable they are to oversee themselves. The SPLC and American University’s Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab are leading trailblazing work to prevent online youth radicalization.
Local funding for education and prevention
Funding is required for local communities, election officials and governments to build community resilience against extremism and white Christian nationalism. Funding is also needed for community-based prevention and anti-racism initiatives.
Overall, community challenges require a community response. Communities need cooperation between local and national civil rights, human rights and other advocacy organizations. These efforts are needed to move toward a horizon in which all Americans live in a nation that lives up to its highest ideals of justice and equality.
As Tyler, the co-organizer of Christians Against Christian Nationalism, said in her committee testimony, “Understanding the political ideology and cultural framework of Christian nationalism is imperative to both dismantling white supremacy and preserving religious freedom for all. ... Our belonging in American society must never depend on how we worship, what we believe or how we identify religiously.”
Joseph Wiinikka-Lydon is a senior research analyst for the SPLC’s Intelligence Project.
Photo at top: A supporter of Donald Trump holds a Bible outside the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Amid the chaos of that day, Christian symbols were displayed next to "Make America Great Again" and QAnon banners. (Credit: AP Photo/John Minchillo)