Christianity and White Nationalism
Season 2, Episode 6
Our country was built on this idea of racial superiority. With America's long standing and deeply rooted history, Dr. Damon Berry, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at St. Lawrence University, joins us to discuss the role Christianity has played within the Alt right and American white nationalism.
Noelle: What up!
Miranda: Welcome to “The Unpacked Project.”
Noelle: We're your hosts, I’m Noelle.
Miranda: And I’m Miranda.
Noelle: We're here to explore all things social justice. It's through casual conversations, interviews and storytelling that we hope to inspire others to take action towards a more compassionate and equitable world.
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Noelle: For real, we can do better people.
Miranda: Alright, let's start unpacking.
Today, on the show, we have Dr. Damon Berry. Assistant professor of Religious Studies at St. Lawrence University. Damon's research focuses on the imbrication of religious and radicalized discourses that shape and inform logistics of exclusion and violence. He's published in various journals in his monograph, published in 2017 is titled ‘Blood and Faith: Christianity in American White Nationalism’. Damon's current book project focuses on the relationships between the alt-right and Christianity, including responses by various Christian communities to the emergence of the alt-right during the 2016 US Presidential Election. Thanks so much for being here. Can you just tell us a little bit more about yourself and really how you got into such interesting work?
Dr. Damon: Sure. Well, first of all, thank you for having me on this great podcast. I'm very delighted to be here. So, I think I've been interested in religion throughout my life, practicing different religious traditions and just being, you know, generally interested, but I went to college quite late in life and while I was, you know, in my undergraduate career very early on, that's when 9/11 happened and I became immediately interested in the intersections of religion and violence as many people did, trying to figure out and trying to understand what happened. But as my studies progressed, I found that while most people were interested in Islam and foreign-based terrorist groups, there was this whole constellation of domestic terrorist groups that were informed by religion as well that weren't getting the kind of attention I think their history warranted. So, rather than doing what it seemed everybody was interested in doing at the time, I began to explore the relationships between especially extreme right domestic terrorist groups and their engagements with Christianity of various different kinds but also other religious traditions and that interest led me to, you know, pick my dissertation topic which was how Christianity has been a problem for some of these groups because of the incredible religious diversity, and that interest has sustained itself to the present.
Miranda: Awesome. Thank you. And I think, you know, such attention needs to be paid to that, right? Just like you said, there's been such a large focus outside of our country when I think a much larger percentage is happening here in America, you know, the media just isn't giving attention to, so thank you.
Dr. Damon: Yeah.
Noelle: And we also talked to… oh, sorry. We were also talking on one of our previous episodes about how like, that even the FBI in terms of the resources that they devote to fighting, you know, violent extremism, most of the resources tend to go towards, you know, Islamic extremism and it's not really… there's not much of a focus like there should be on white nationalism and extremism here, here in the country.
Dr. Damon: Yeah, the… I think the weight of that has shifted some because we have seen incredible increase of what seems to be racially motivated. It's a little more complicated than that, right? There are a lot of things that inform this kind of violence. But, you know, Christopher Wray of course, very publicly… the director of the FBI publicly clashed with the narrative of the former administration and congressional hearings saying, this is the most significant terrorist threat domestically by far. And of course, this is… he's rather late to the game because people who were studying these things were noticing this already and hopefully, not that this is without its own set of issues, we'll have more of these law enforcement resources focusing on where the threat actually seems to lie.
Noelle: Yeah. And, you know, we have a long-standing history of white nationalism in this country. You know, in fact, our country was built on the idea of racial superiority as you mentioned, you know, those racial implications and a lot of the extremism and we saw white nationalism as a particular form of white power activism in the United States emerge really after a World War II era, so can you give our listeners a little bit of some historical background here with that?
[05:06 – 10:00]
Dr. Damon: Sure. Sure. You know, the elements that become modern white nationalism had existed before. For example, Charles Lindbergh. The Charles Lindbergh wanted to avoid World War II when he was part of the America First movement. In part because he didn't want to see Europeans killing each other again. He felt that the actual threat was the rising tide of color to call upon an earlier work of white nationalist idealism, so that the notions that inform pan-European white nationalism post-World War II didn't necessarily get invented after World War II but they come together in a particular way after the defeat of state-based fascisms in Germany and in Italy, and they come out of… a lot of the ideas come out of the work of an American named Francis Parker Yaki, who is then championed later by people like Willis Carto and a person I wrote a lot about, Revilo Oliver, in rethinking exactly what the right wing in America should look like. So, the things that primarily identify American white nationalism is of course pan-Europeanism, right? So, their allegiance is not to the American government, as a matter of fact, they by and large view the American government as the enemy and they view racial identity or white identity as the basic political motive and foundation of any state and that that's what they try to create. Now, how they understand that is different? So, and as that continues post-World War II, leading off of Yaki, Oliver and others, you get further developments of this and of course the latest mutation, if we can use that word, that people are probably most familiar with is in the context of the alt-right and especially articulated by people like Richard Spencer.
Miranda: Yeah, definitely. Well, then over time, Damon, we see… well, at least we've… we perceive that there's been kind of two different camps that have emerged. You know, there's this one that rejects religion entirely and then one that incorporates it into white nationalism, you know, as you've been speaking. So, can you tell a little bit more about that evolution?
Dr. Damon: Yeah. You know, in many ways, that's an excellent taxonomy because that kind of friction between the atheistic or agnostic wing of white nationalism and that former white nationalism that's informed by some religious point of view, whether it's a version of Christianity or paganism or what have you continues till this day, but I think a lot of this history is sort of embodied in the journey of Revilo Oliver, who is a professor of classics at University of Indiana but also one of the founding members of the John Birch Society, wrote for National Review and at that time, he viewed Christianity as… or at least what he called historical Christianity, European Christianity, is sort of a foundational civilizational framework for Europe and of course America following. As his… a political journey away from American conservatism in part because he was purged because of his overt anti-Semitism and racism. As his political journey emerged out of conservatism especially as formulated by Buckley and he began exploring these more fascistic options, he also became more critical of Christianity in general, so he began to see all of Christianity, not just liberal Christianity as a problem and in particular in his later work, as something that poisoned the racial instincts of Europeans. Others that followed him like William Pierce of National Alliance and others felt that you could have religiosity without Christianity and that might be okay but yet others like Tom Metzger of White Aryan Resistance felt that this, what they called “spooks in the sky” narrative was a distraction from the biological necessity to fight a racial war.
Noelle: Wow, so… that's a lot. It's so interesting. So, you know, right now, what would you say the relationship is between white nationalism and religion in our country?
Dr. Damon: Extremely complicated.
Noelle: Well, we're here for it. Let us know.
Dr. Damon: Yeah, so in my latest book, when I talk about the relationships between Christianity, alt-right, what we come down to is that the tensions that I've described up to this point and that I led with in talking about my first book, haven't really gone anywhere.
[10:01 – 15:03]
Dr. Damon: It has played a part in splintering the alt-right, though the alt-right was always complex but, you know, whether a lot of people want to use that as a branding mechanism has been affected by their religious point of view, so Mormons who were identifying with the alt-right particularly Elias Stewart, if I'm saying her name correctly, she felt that Richard Spencer and others were attacking her Christian faith and so that became a part of the reason why she stopped using the term alt-right even though she's still a white nationalist. Carolyn Emmerich developed what she called the ‘folk right’ because she felt that the pagan sensibilities to put it that way, the indigenous European religious sensibilities from her point of view were not being properly implemented in Richard's atheistic framework, so she breaks from the alt-right and founds this much smaller movement called ‘folk right’. So, all those tensions remain and continue to shape how white nationalists engage with one another. Does that adequately address the question?
Noelle: Well, I think some of it too is just, you know, realizing that there's so many of these nuances between groups. It was one of the things that we learned in our… we interviewed Mark Pitcavage from ADL. And I think we went into this, well at least speaking for myself, I went to this thinking there was a little bit more… I mean, I guess, less diversity within the alt-right. Like, I didn't realize there was so many differences between all these groups and all these ideologies and, you know, Mark made a point of saying like, we really need to understand all these differences between them and in order to adequately, you know, address it and, you know, be able to fight extra violent extremism or religious extremism or whatever it looks like based on what the ideologies and beliefs are of those groups, so it's just something I found fascinating, you know, throughout all these interviews that that's kind of been the theme I think listening to that, so…
Miranda: Yeah, that's true. Yeah, so yeah, so you answered us. And also you just really wanted that background information as we kind of move into our interview, so, you know, we've discussed in previous episodes that the alt-right is really like, this mix of various beliefs and motives, right? But when it comes to religion, it seems apparent that these racialized versions of religious practice and these pro-white religious positions are… they're fairly consistent in that manner, so can you elaborate on the history and implications of this for us?
Dr. Damon: Yeah, the notion that if a religion or any ideology really is pro-white, comes down to sort of the basic foundation of American white nationalism and that's the idea that whatever's good for the white race is good. So, if it advances those interests, then they might be inclined to be okay with it. So, you see this with developments and what was called the North American New Right where you had many of those involved in that movement advocating for this sort of religious toleration for the purpose of accomplishing the political goal of securing the future of the white race, and then you would have that echoed on websites like Stormfront where independent people who were posting on that board would say the same thing. You know, one person actually said ‘I don't care if you're for the flying spaghetti monster, if you can make it pro-white then it's okay’ but again, there are still others who are convinced that either (a) their religious point of view is not respected and by and large, they would be Christian, or that their religious point of view informed by, you know, for example, Norse paganism or at least a racialized expression of Norse paganism needs to be at the center of this identitarian movement, then they would be disinclined to agree that simply being pro-white in this broad sense is meaningful. And of course as I found with those who are activists outside the context of the United States, their boundaries aren't necessarily white or Black. The way they understand ethnic difference is more complicated. So, the being pro-white doesn't necessarily mean anything important for them. So, they want to maintain British ethnicity in the context of, you know, some… you know, Australian activists for example. So, it gets, again, that's, you know, it's extremely diverse and elusive and constantly shifting around.
Noelle: One of the other things that you've written about is this conspiratorial sense of collective victimhood as the element that directly characterizes the ideology of the alt-right, so in fact, you've stated that what seems to be driving the previous political successes is also motivating the terrorism.
[15:04 – 21:32]
Noelle: So, can you tell us more about this? What drives these beliefs and exactly how dangerous can this become?
Dr. Damon: Yeah, I mean the very beginnings of American white nationalism come out of this idea that Europeans are an embattled global minority, picking up on this much older discourse of, you know, the idea of this rising tide of Color that the world's lesser races are numerically overwhelming Europeans and if they continue to fight as Charles Lindbergh said in these fratricidal wars, they'll be overrun. And that kind of conspiratorial narrative continues through these white nationalist organizations all the way up through even Richard Spencer's rhetoric when he's talking about, you know, what the alt-right really means. For him, it's about preserving European heritage, culture and biological integrity for the future and of course behind that is this fear, this anxious paranoia that somehow Europeans are an endangered species and that their culture is the static thing that's attached to their biology and if the Europeans disappear, then European culture disappears and mankind doesn't advance or something like that, but even at a more subtle level, I mean some of the independent acts of terrorism by people who probably are not… would not be affiliated by the alt-right and certainly wouldn't be claimed by members of the alt-right, they're motivated by these similar ideas, right? So the shooting in El Paso, the shooting in Poway, in Pittsburgh, the Synagogue. These are all motivated by people who express very clearly like Dylann Roof that they thought what they were doing was in defense of their race or in defense of their culture or in defense of the nation and of course this maps on perfectly to the kind of racialist discourse that we found in Trump's campaign about Mexicans invading the border and overwhelming the country and the list goes on. So, you know, I think the most significant part about that discussion is the overlap between the conspiratorial narratives and how you find this expression not just in the alt-right but in the very political campaigns of people who will hold office.
Miranda: Yeah. I mean, fear is a very powerful tool and it's been really interesting to see… I mean, it's been used over, you know, the years of American history, right? But, you know, more interestingly, in the past, you know, four to six years in politics as well, you know, so in an interview with Sixoh6, I believe that's how you pronounce that.
Noelle: You stated…
Miranda: Yeah, I'm like, 606. You stated that “racism is not the problem of extremists or the alt-right, that it's an American problem and that it's our problem and that Christian organizations and individual Christians need to do some serious soul-searching and be ready to face themselves and their history, really to pay attention to those voices and from other targets of racism and other forms of bigotry and ask themselves ‘what part do I play in this suffering?’”, which we think is a great place to begin for anyone starting their anti-racism journey but before Christians and specifically white Christians can even get there, this idea of white ignorance that you touch on needs to be understood and dismantled. So, can you tell us a little bit more about that concept and how religion reinforces it?
Dr. Damon: Yes, I think this, you know, really comes off the last answer very nicely because, again, my consistent concern is not and has never really been ‘oh, my gosh, look at these extremists’ and as a matter of fact, I think the discourse of extremism needs to be revisited because very often that becomes a distancing mechanism. So, like, how do we talk about the more complex relationships between average everyday sort of settler colonialist narratives that people walk around with and celebrate all the time, and the kinds of extremists, you know, so-called extremist violence that happens, you know, in the context of these mass shootings where minorities are targeted whether that's in Atlanta or El Paso or in Pittsburgh or any of the number of cases that we could reference, and I think the part of the problem is that the extremists offer an alibi for everybody else to act as if they're not implicated in this stuff, that somehow their rhetoric, their speech, their dreams, the things that they think they should have and the things that they're willing to do to get them are somehow not connected to the exact same kind of stated motive that a shooter would have and of course the actions are different, but, you know, the more complex relationships between racism as a necessary part of how the cultural imagination of many Americans has been constructed needs to be addressed and the proximity between themselves and the so-called extremists needs to be discussed and I think that's what we see for example in the southern Baptist convention where you have their vote in 2017 during their convention, their annual convention where they wanted to address or at least some wanted to address the alt-right and officially condemn it and that didn't happen, that led to a big debate on the floor of the convention, they revisited the proposal to officially condemn the alt-right and finally passed it but the damage had already been done because what they did in that moment is sort of reminded not just the general public but the African-American members of their community that they hadn't really adequately addressed their history rooted in slavery, rooted in support for segregation, and that continues to bedevil the convention as African-American leaders keep leaving over the general convention's inability to come to terms with Black Lives Matter, with critical race theory being included in theological training.
[21:33 – 25:17]
Dr. Damon: And I think that's a symptom of the inability of Christian institutions and especially white Christians to come to terms with their own history and how embedded they actually are and how invested they are in these racialized narratives.
Noelle: So, it's interesting you just note… you just mentioned critical race theory being involved in religious trainings. In season one, when we were talking about educators and making sure that we're, you know, training teachers to be able to understand, you know, have cultural competence and be able to engage with our students across all different races, we talked about is their training for that? Like, are they being taught, you know, how to best educate all of our students, and so, is that something that you see happening like, in religious training? Are they starting to incorporate critical race theory in certain sects or what do you see with that? What's happening with that?
Dr. Damon: That's absolutely happening. There are Christian organizations and Christian denominations or fellowships, there are individual Christians, there are pagans that are actively engaging in dismantling and confronting and dealing with racialist narratives and racist practices in their traditions but, you know, when it comes to the kind of groups that I study, part of the thing that I've turned my attention to is the overlap with certain political concerns and so, I think, for example, Sojourners magazine is this very important evangelical magazine but it comes from a politically progressive left point of view, so when they were dealing with the alt-right, they were already ahead of that discourse saying ‘this is a continuation of things that have continued to be a problem in our society’ whereas for other Christian organizations like The Mormon Church for example or for The Southern Baptist Convention, you know, it was more of like ‘we need to have this moment where we take a certain position very publicly because we have to deal with this history that's still a part of how we engage with communities’ so, you know, it's very much situational, so… but there are, you know, religious organizations and religious individuals and whole denominations that are trying very hard to incorporate better understanding of critical race theory to get at these pernicious problems.
Noelle: That's good to hear. I mean, we clearly have a long way to go and there's just so much to it. You know, like you continually say, like, it's complex and there's just so much to it, but for you to even begin reimagining a world without Christianity in white nationalism, where do you suggest we even begin?
Dr. Damon: I think it starts with listening. Listening to those people who are most affected by the history of racism the way that racism has been institutionalized and the rhetorics that normalized those racist practices in our institutions and render them invisible to people who don't feel their effects. So, for example, I was in a discussion about diversity training and I was struck that you had people being pulled saying ‘this is something that we need in our institution’ and then directly somebody who is a part of the institution saying ‘I really need you to hear me when I talk about these things that this is needed’.
[25:18 – 30:15]
Dr. Damon: And I was struck about how little impact that seemed to have, because some in the institution maybe had a different perspective which is totally fine, but I think, you know, it's an ethical question and I get this from Judith Butler's ‘Giving an account of oneself’ that the fundamental ethical question is not what you're comfortable with in the sense of like ‘what am I… what can I do?’ but what you're willing to risk. The big ethical question is, are you willing to risk all the things that you thought were being unraveled and engaging with the need of someone who's saying ‘I'm hurting and I need help’. And that's the fundamental question that I think I keep coming back to. The question is, I'm not personally a Christian, so I leave that to Christians themselves, what kind of institutions do you want? Whose voice gets to shape what that institution looks like? What questions are you asking and who's asking them and who feels to need to answer them or not?
Miranda: So many questions. Well, you know, and I think that, you know, such a great answer to all this work that we're doing in terms of dismantling, you know, these years of oppression, you know, over racism in our country, right, is that people need to be able to listen and really we should be listening to the most oppressed person in the room. And, you know, because, you know, white folks really want to maintain that power, we see a lot of these issues, you know, coming up where it's like ‘well, I think that my voice needs to be heard or my opinion matters more’ and sure, it can be included in the narrative but really like, we have the best information to give, you know, so yeah. So, Damon, what other organizations should we be paying attention to for more education on this work, this really important work?
Dr. Damon: Well, again, I mean I… in full disclosure, I've written for Sojourners before, twice they invited me to say something even though I'm not myself a Christian, I've been upfront about that. You know, just from my point of view of somebody who studies these groups, what would I advise Christians. So, I would think Sojourners magazine is a good place to look, their website's a good place to look. Heathens United Against Hate is a Facebook organization which brings together… Yeah. So, well, Heathen of course, you know, the word ‘pagan’ comes from a word that means country person and ‘heathen’ basically means the same thing in a different language. So, they reclaim these words that have been used to denigrate whole people to sort of talk about their revived or revised or reconstructed pre-European or pre-Christian European practices. So, they use the catchy name, ‘Heathens united against hate’ but it's sort of an aggregate social media presence that has brought together a lot of different pagan groups and pagan voices together to address this within the context of paganism of all different kinds, Norse inspired or what have you. And then, I think of individuals too, individuals that I've been attracted to their ideas and the way they talk about things and they have impressed me, not simply because of what they have to say but because they're constantly inviting these interesting people who can share ideas with us and of course, that's the Reverend Kelly Brown Douglas whom I greatly admire. She's amazing. I would encourage anyone interested in the intellectual activist side of this stuff to listen to her and to pay attention to her podcasts and her guests, and then Dr. Simran Jeet Singh. He's also one of these people that… you know, he's a big, pretty big media presence, he's a practicing Sikh American, so a practitioner of Sikhism but, you know, offers, again, another great sort of one place where you can go and see these discussions happening.
Miranda: Awesome. Thank you.
Noelle: All right. Well, thank you so much, Damon, for being here with us. We were super excited for this interview and you did not disappoint. So much great knowledge and information, so thank you so much for being here and continuing to do this work. Listeners, again, make sure to check us out on YouTube. That is new this season, so please head to our channel: The Unpacked Project and like and subscribe and share so that everybody can access all this visual content this season. Next week, we'll be joined by Patrice O'Neill from ‘Not In Our Town’. Not In Our Town is more of a local movement that is… talks about how we can stop hate, bullying and just have more inclusive communities at a local level, so we talk a lot about, you know, systems, level change, we've talked about government, we've talked about research and, you know, people that are doing this work at ADL and all these other places but we really want to talk about how we can empower communities to do that work as well.
[30:16 – 31:05]
Noelle: So, make sure you join us next week to hear all about that. We're looking forward to it. Bye.
Noelle: Show the Unpacked project some love and be sure to like, subscribe and review our podcast. You can also check us out on Instagram @the_unpackedproject.
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Noelle: Shout out to all of our listeners who unpacked with us today.
Miranda: See you next week.