The theology of white nationalism, the inevitability of Charlottesville, and the imagined America

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. 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.

The words of Evangelical preacher Bob Jones Sr. are nearly 60 years old, but they perhaps shed the most light - and context - as to why white nationalism has been etched into our country’s social fabric, why President Trump knows this, and why eradicating white nationalism is far more daunting than holding conversations on race.

                                   Bob Jones Sr.
Bob Jones Sr.

Jones, who founded Bob Jones University and was one of the most influential segregationist preachers of the 20th century, didn’t consider himself a white supremacist. But in framing a theology of white nationalism, he painted a picture of what it means to live in a white Christian America. As he noted in his April 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.”

While many commentators and politicians alike have expressed alarm at the rise of the alt-right and a more vocal expression of white nationalism in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, the reality is that Trump and others who are now the faces of this movement are merely inheritors of a pulpit that has seen many faces. Jones, perhaps sensing the inevitability of integration, laid the markers for how America as a nation should be idealized. That ideal, embraced openly by white nationalist groups and more subtly by far-right public figures, has become the central pillar of a theology intertwining America’s greatness with its (Christian) whiteness.

This theology has in many ways existed since America’s foundation, but in order to materialize as religion, white nationalism has had to adapt rituals and dogmas as a means of legitimization. The Confederate flag (and to a less visible extent, the Nazi flag) are part of the iconography of white nationalism. In this re-imagining of the Civil War, the South was a victim of “northern aggression” and the rights of states (a euphemism for the legitimizing of slavery) were trampled upon. The monuments erected in memory of Confederate figures were not post-war homages to a losing side, but rather were reactions to expanding civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s.

The maintenance of the superiority of white Christian America is the driving force behind the politics of resentment. It helped shape Nixon’s Southern strategy and the creation of the Reagan Democrat. It’s why public figures like Congressmen Steve King, Mo Brooks, or Mark Meadows can make overtly racist remarks and seemingly get away with it. It might even be worth remembering that Rep. Steve Scalise, who has recently condemned white supremacy, once boasted to a white supremacist group that he was “David Duke without the baggage.”

Like followers of any religion, white nationalists internalize myths and the imagination of a community held together by core values. The religiosity of white nationalism is based largely on the ideas that whites - particularly Christian men - are under attack by political correctness, predatory blacks, “nasty” women, and those who do not ascribe to the idea of America as a Christian nation.

What makes white nationalism so powerful is that one doesn’t need to be a neo-Nazi or an alt.right follower in order to buy into its tenets. Make America Great Again wasn’t just a clever campaign slogan, but a concerted attempt to imagine a country where hard-working whites were rewarded for their labor, and their jobs not taken by “enemies.” Trump found an audience already willing to believe what he was selling: that America was in decline because so many had become apostates to the idea of white American greatness.

This is why Trump’s equivocations and defenses of the alt.right make sense, in a cynical way. He has seized upon a previously subterranean anger, emboldened a new generation of white nationalists, and used the power of the presidency to legitimize white grievance in a way none of his predecessors could (or attempted to). Charlottesville likely isn’t the last battleground, and Trump is well aware of that. Mobilizing his most militant supporters - those who are the true believers in the church of white nationalism - required him to legitimize their existence and defend their actions (“both sides”). It also should be noted that as someone who craves loyalty , Trump knew his most loyal defenders - including some of the voices on Fox News - would somehow view anything solely blaming the alt.right as capitulation to the forces of political correctness.

For all of the condemnations and fallout from Trump’s response to Charlottesville, we are likely not any closer to healing racial divides or eradicating the ideal of white nationalism from the American social fabric. Trump - inheriting the pulpit from the likes of Bob Jones and David Duke - may have used white grievance to get a “win,” but by unleashing the full force of white supremacy in all its religiosity, we as Americans stand to lose the most. The only way to get through this is to acknowledge that racism can be just as destructive of a force as it was a half-century ago, and that the lessons of the past must be used to guide us in being vigilant and proactive in combating it. We simply cannot treat the Charleston massacre or Charlottesville as “one-off” incidents any more, and in an age of declining public ritual, we have to add them to the collective memory of our struggle against hate. After all, if Charlottesville and Trump’s response are to remind us of anything, it’s that we must never stop striving for that more perfect union.

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