YouIn the wake of the horrific massacre at Buffalo, many people have attempted to comprehend what caused such violence. This young white man linked his motivations to fears about demographic and cultural changes in the U.S., dynamics that he believed were resulting in the replacement of “the white race.”
The shooting has spurred a national discussion about the mainstreaming of these concerns, often summarized under the term “replacement theory.” Most of the attention has been given to the demographic component of this theory, while the cultural aspects have been overlooked.
However, the fear of cultural substitution has an unambiguous history that provides it with specific content. At the center of the “great replacement” logic, there is—and has always been—a desperate desire to preserve some version of western European Christendom. Many contemporary analysts and the Department of Justice have failed to see that the prize isn’t just the country’s racial makeup, but also the dominant racial or religious identity. We will miss the true power of ethno-religious appeal and underestimate its power if we don’t grasp it.
The Buffalo gunman wrote in a 180-page racist screed that he was inspired by New Zealander, Michael O’Neill, who committed the Christchurch massacre, which resulted in 51 deaths. The Christchurch shooter also left a manifesto entitled “The Great Replacement,” which talked at length about “the Muslim invasion of Europe.” So, the incident that most inspired the Buffalo shooter was a man of European descent murdering Muslims praying in mosques located in a city pointedly named “Christchurch.”
The Christchurch shooter in turn took particular inspiration from the ideology of a terrorist who killed nearly 100 people at a youth camp on Utøya island in Norway in 2011. The Utøya shooter also published a manifesto, which contains clear white Christian nationalist appeals throughout. He asked God to help him succeed in his mission to expel all Muslims from Europe, and he decried the way multiculturalism was deconstructing European culture and “European Christendom.” Toward the end of the document, he proclaimed, “Onward Christian soldiers! Celebrate us, the martyrs of the conservative revolution, for we will soon dine in the Kingdom of Heaven.”
This drive to maintain white Christian dominance in America was the basis of Ku Klux Klan’s worldview when it returned in the first half of the 20th Century. While we all remember terrorist acts against Black Americans, the KKK was explicitly anti-Jewish. It existed in order to preserve the Anglo-Saxon dominance of a Protestant America.
In 1960, in my home state of Mississippi, Governor Ross Barnett regularly blended his Christian identity with talk about the threat of “white genocide.” Off the campaign trail, Barnett also served as head of the large men’s Sunday school program at the most influential church in the state, First Baptist Church. FBC gifted Barnett with a Consecration Service and a Gift of a Pulpit Bible after his success in the segregationist campaign.
Why is there a rise in white supremacist violent acts over the last decade, and why are they happening? The election and reelection of America’s first Black president coincided with the shift to not being predominantly white Christian country (as I wrote in my book). End of White Christian AmericaWhite Christians fell from 54% and 47% to 47% during that time, to just 44% now. The twin shocks of centuries of Christian dominance by white Christians set the stage to Donald Trump.
Trump’s “Make American Great Again” formula—the stoking of anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and anti-Black sentiment while making nativist appeals to the Christian right—contains all the tropes of the old replacement theory. The nostalgic appeal of “again” harkens back to a 1950s America, when white Christian churches were full and white Christians comprised a supermajority of the U.S. population; a period when we added “under God” to the pledge of allegiance and “In God We Trust” to our currency.
These fears about the “great replacement” are not fringe among conservative subgroups today, according to recent data from PRRI. While only 29% of Americans agree, for example, that “Immigrants are invading our country and replacing our cultural and ethnic background,” that number rises to dangerous levels among a range of groups comprising the conservative base in U.S. politics: 67% among those who say they most trust Fox News; 65% among QAnon believers; 60% among Republicans; 50% among white evangelical Protestants, and 43% among white American without a college degree.
A significant proportion of white Americans believe in Christian nationalism, while two-thirds are agnostic to replacement theory. Both views have been associated with greater support among whites for violence and political action.
* White Americans who agree that “God intended America to be a promised land for European Christians” are four times as likely as those who disagree with that statement to believe that “true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country” (43% vs. 10%).
* White Americans who believe that “Immigrants are invading our country and replacing our cultural and ethnic background” are nearly six times as likely as those who disagree with that statement to believe that “true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country” (45% vs. 8%).
The Department of Homeland Security has declared that white supremacists “remain the most persistent and lethal threat in the homeland.” President Joe Biden, importantly, became the first U.S. President to use the words “white supremacy” in his inaugural address; and in the wake of the massacre in Buffalo last weekend, he called white supremacy a “poison…running through our body politic.” But while each identified white supremacy and dangerous “ideologies,” there is no acknowledgment of the documented ways right-wing Christianity has nourished these views.
There is a troubling religious double standard in the U.S.—one which threatens our safety and our democracy. If these same kinds of appeals and violent actions were being made and committed by Muslims, for example, most white Americans would be demanding actions to eradicate a domestic threat from “radical Islamic terrorism,” a term we heard relentlessly during the Trump era. Its role in domestic terrorism support has been virtually unimaginable, however, because Christianity is the most dominant religion in this country.
A clear history and modern attitudinal evidence warrant a discussion about white Christian nationalism, which is a growing and serious threat to the democracy. To understand today’s danger, we must be able use white Christian nationalism as well as domestic terrorist to communicate our concern.
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