When I was in Charlottesville as part of a clergy delegation to protest the Unite the Right rally, I got to look into the faces of “out” Nazis and white supremacists for the first time in my 61 years. And they looked scarily normal. They’re the guys arranging stock at the local big box store or the desk jockeys in a cubicle farm. Decent. Clean cut. Surprisingly young. And white. No doubt I looked into these faces before — on the street, in a restaurant, in church — but I didn't know it because they weren't carrying Nazi and Confederate flags, semi-automatic rifles and shields.
What would possess these young white men (and a few women) to chant hateful anti-Semitic and racist slogans, to shout homophobic, xenophobic and misogynistic slurs, to speak of putting Jews in ovens and driving people of color off of "their" soil (land stolen by their immigrant ancestors from the Native Peoples)?
That’s the question many of us are asking.
After returning home from the Charlottesville protest, I came across an interview with Christian Piccolini, a former white supremacist. As a teenager, Piccolini was recruited and radicalized by an extremist group. “There are so many marginalized young people, so many disenfranchised young people today with not a lot to believe in, with not a lot of hope, so they tend to search for very simple black-and-white answers,” he explained. Savvy extremists ready to dispense those easy answers have no shortage of potential recruits, easily accessible through the Internet.
Piccoloni’s words seem equally relevant in Afghanistan or Syria, Virginia, Ohio or Arizona.
I suppose that's part of the shock of Charlottesville: while Islamophobic Americans were developing conspiracy theories about Sharia law coming in from the outside, our own brand of violent extremism was brewing in our basements.
Piccolini warns, “What people need to understand is that since Sept. 11, more Americans have been killed on U.S. soil by white supremacists than by any other foreign or domestic group combined by a factor of two. Yet we don't really talk about that, nor do we even call these instances, of the shooting at Charleston, S.C., or what happened at Oak Creek, Wis., at the Sikh temple or even what happened in Charlottesville this weekend — as terrorism.”
The draw is “not necessarily because of the ideology. I think that the ideology is simply a vehicle to be violent,” Piccolini explains. “I believe that people become radicalized, or extremist, because they're searching for three very fundamental human needs: identity, community and a sense of purpose.”
When a disenchanted or disaffected young person who feels alienated and alone goes online, Piccolini explains, they're able to find purveyors of that community, identity and purpose they seek.
Sadly, Piccolini’s analysis aligns with the Nazi historian Richard J. Evans’ description of young men in 1920s Germany, as Jim Friedrich noted this week:
In examining the rise of Nazism in the 1920s, [Evans] saw desperate and resentful young men being attracted to extremism and violence "irrespective of ideology." They weren’t looking for ideas, but meaning... a pick-me-up to restore a sense of personal significance. "Violence was like a drug for such men… Often, they had only the haziest notion of what they were fighting for." … Hostility to the enemy de jour — Communists, Jews, whomever — was the core of their commitment. As one young Stormtrooper later reflected on the bonding effect of collective violence, it was all "too wonderful and perhaps too hard to write about."
White nationalist and "alt-right" leader Richard Spencer seems to understand this desire for meaning, personal significance and “bonding effect” described by both Evans and Piccolini. Famous for his Nazi salute and exclamation of "Hail Trump!" after Trump's election, Spencer has gushed about the torch-lit march in Charlottesville in religious terms: "I love the torches. It's spectacular; it's theatrical and mystical and magical and religious, even."
In a December 2016 conversation, journalist Graeme Wood, a former high school classmate of Spencer's, was surprised when Spencer started talking to him about religion, not defending Christianity but “he longed for something as robust and binding as Christianity had once been in the West, before churches surrendered their power to folk-singing liberals and televangelists.”
Piccolini, Evans and Spencer himself are telling us something we need to understand: White nationalism isn’t simply an extremist political ideology. It is an alt-religious movement that provides its adherents with its own twisted version of what all religions supply to adherents: identity, a personal sense of who I am; community, a social sense of where I belong; and purpose, a spiritual sense of why my life matters. If faith communities don’t provide these healthy, life-giving human needs, then death-dealing alt-religions will fill the gap.
So as traditional Christian institutions shrink, stagnate and struggle, Spencer and his white-supremacist allies, feeling supported by Donald Trump, are creating a violent alt-Christianity, as their counterparts in the Middle East have created an alt-Islam. They are supplying their followers with alt-liturgies, alt-mysticism, and alt-magic and are willing to smash, burn, destroy and kill for it, as they idolize their vision of "America" as a white “ethno-state,” an absolutized, divinized race and nation.
In Charlottesville, I saw Nazi flags on American soil and alt religious fervor in the faces of American Nazis and white nationalists. The message I will bring to faith leaders around our nation is both urgent and clear: Aristotle was right. Nature indeed abhors a vacuum. If we don't provide emerging generations with genuine identity, community and purpose through robust and vibrant spiritual communities, somebody else will do so. If good religion slumbers and stagnates, bad religion is the alternative.