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America’s Proclivity for Extremism Has Religious Roots

6 minute read
Fanestil is the author of American Heresy: The Roots and Reach of White Christian Nationalism. An ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, he serves as executive director of Via International, a nonprofit serving border communities in San Diego and Tijuana

Was the United States founded as a Christian nation? The question invites a “yes” or “no” answer, fracturing conversations about the role of religion in American public life along ideological and partisan lines. But the truth is far more complicated.   

Liberal and progressive Americans celebrate the enlightenment strains of American origins—the rise of modern science, the constitution of a non-sectarian republic. Their heroes are American revolutionaries (think Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson) who explored the cutting edges of intellectual life in the late 18th century.

On the other hand, conservative Americans, especially religious ones, lionize the American founders who were enthusiastic defenders of the Christian faith–Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry are favorites. And many enlightened revolutionaries like Jefferson, conservatives rightly note, remained devoted to the religious institutions and values that shaped their lives.

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Read More: The Roots of Christian Nationalism Go Back Further Than You Think

But what if today’s ideological divide causes us to miss something essential about religion and American life? In his 1922 book, What I Saw in America, the Englishman G.K. Chesterton famously characterized America as “a nation with the soul of a church.” What if the church which is the soul of America has always tempted its adherents—and still tempts them today—to embrace heretical expressions of the Christian faith?

“White Christian Nationalism” is a particular way of describing the racism and violence that is endemic to American society, drawing special attention to its religious roots. Sociologist Philip Gorski has defined the term as “a story about America” that shapes popular understandings. At root, Gorski asserts, this story suggests: “America has been entrusted with a sacred mission: to spread religion, freedom, and civilization — by force, if necessary.”

This framing came powerfully to my mind in the aftermath of the January 6, 2021 insurrection. In the weeks following that horrible day, I heard a lot of public figures exclaim, "that's not who we are!" But I had recently completed a Ph.D. in American History, and I knew that throughout our nation’s history painters, authors, lyricists, and poets have routinely portrayed the American Revolution as a sacred cause and the War of Independence as a holy war. And in my work as a Christian pastor, I have known people to champion the ideals of white Christian nationalism in every congregation I have served.

As I watched the incessant replays of video captures from January 6, it was clear to me that the organizers of the riot were playing a tried-and-true American tune, blending religious and political notes. "That looks very American,” I thought.

If we want to understand the current political moment, we must confront the truth that our nation was born from a movement that combined radical political extremism with the exercise of racialized violence. The body politic that would become the U.S. was conceived in the predatory settlement of Native lands in North America. It was bathed in the violence of slavery and war during its period of colonial gestation. And it was birthed in a violent insurrection against the authority of the English King—in part for his refusal to bless the American colonists’ determination to continue their practices of slaveholding and westward expansion. As the historian John Shy observed in his 1976 book, A People Numerous and Armed, “no other nation has had its official origin and constitutional preservation so clearly linked to warfare.”

We must also confront the truth that this primal American proclivity for violence and extremism is religiously grounded. Over 50 years ago, the Belgian sociologist Pierre van den Berghe included the U.S. on the roster of nations—along with Rhodesia, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand—that were founded on the ideologies of white settler colonialism. He called these “Herrenvolk” societies, using the German phrase for “master race” (literally, “the Lord’s People”). Of the American founding van den Berghe concluded simply: “The democratic, egalitarian, and libertarian ideals were reconciled with slavery and genocide by restricting the definition of humanity to whites.”

Americans are accustomed to thinking of apartheid South Africa in these stark terms, but more and more, we are beginning to consider our own national history in this same light. A distinctly American brand of Christian religiosity inspired many leading lights of the American Revolution to embrace noble values of which we, as Americans, are proud—values like “law and order” and “patriotism,” for example. But this same religiosity tempted these same people to embrace racialized violence, the perverse side of law and order, and nationalist extremism, the shadow side of patriotism.

The notion that the American founding was rooted deeply in heretical expressions of the Christian faith challenges Americans of good will, no matter where they sit on the ideological spectrum, to reconsider the role of religion in our shared public life.

Liberal, secular, and non-Christian Americans should recognize that religion played a powerful role, for better and for worse, in American origins. To pretend that this is not so is to embrace a version of American history that is as revisionist as the romantic and whitewashed versions that these Americans routinely and rightly denounce.

Conservative and religious Americans, meanwhile, must resist the spiritual temptation of romanticizing America’s past. The passionate Christian religiosity that played an instrumental, sometimes noble, role in early America also steeped our nation’s founders—and continues to steep white Americans today—in prejudices and predispositions unbefitting those who claim to follow Jesus.

And this way of thinking invites all of us to resist the temptation of characterizing white Christian nationalism as a fringe movement in American culture. Polling by president and founder of Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) Robert P. Jones shows that the attitudes associated with white racism thrive along a spectrum and can be found within every Christian denomination. If we are honest with ourselves, all of us who are white, American, and Christian will recognize ourselves on this spectrum.

This is, or ought to be, the big takeaway for Americans as the specter of January 6, 2021 begins to haunt the coming Presidential campaign. Dramatic displays of resentment, radicalism, and racism like those we have witnessed in recent years reflect deep convictions that are neither marginal nor novel to American culture. Rather, they reflect a kind of warped Christian religiosity that is intrinsically American.

The roots of white Christian nationalism can be traced to the very earliest English colonization of North America. This shadow side of our national heritage played a critical role in the founding of the U.S. and has never ceased from shaping our public life. We should not be surprised if its most strident adherents fill our public square with racism and violence yet again. When they do, we should recognize that what inspires them is best understood in religious terms, and we should call it what it is —an American heresy.

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