Five years later, I am still haunted by the unforgettable footage of marchers in Charlottesville, Va., at the Unite the Right rally in August 2017.
I had been in my new position leading BJC (Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty) for just eight months. In that short time, we had already seen so many concerning events, such as the targeting of religious minorities with then-President Donald Trump’s Muslim travel ban, a misguided effort to demolish protections against partisan politicking for houses of worship, and the shooting of a member of Congress at a baseball practice. Then came Unite the Right.
I experienced a full range of emotions that weekend: shock, disgust, grief, disorientation, despair, and resolve, to name a few. I wrote about what I saw happening, but at the time I didn’t have the clarity to squarely label the ideology underpinning the rally. Five years later, I do: It’s called white Christian nationalism.
The tiki-torch-wielding marchers who shouted, “Jews will not replace us!” were an extreme manifestation of white Christian nationalism, a political ideology that implies one must be a Christian to be a “true” American and that the growing presences of non-whites and non-Christians are a threat to “traditional” values. People who espouse this ideology believe “real” Americans are Christians who have a specific policy perspective; they feel the need to “take back” their country from those who they believe threaten it.
White Christian nationalism creates insiders and outsiders; an “us-versus-them” feeling. If you don’t share these views, you are the enemy.
The white nationalists were in Charlottesville to protest the removal of Confederate statues, so it’s important to note that the Confederacy itself was a white Christian nationalist cause. The push to defend Confederate symbols is one, too.
Religious studies professor Anthea Butler has pointed out that the Confederate constitution invoked “the favor and guidance of Almighty God,” a key clause and foundation for later appeals to Christian nationalism. The defeat became a “noble cause,” sanctifying those who died. “Using monuments to support their cause, they created physical monuments that would later be rallying points for modern day conflicts, such as the Charlottesville rally in August 2017,” Butler wrote in a report on Christian nationalism and its connection to January 6, which was co-published by BJC and the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
We’ve repeatedly seen how white Christian nationalism inspires violence: One of the white nationalists at the Unite the Right Rally plowed his car into a group of counter-protesters, killing one woman and injuring dozens of others. In 2015, a white supremacist shot nine people during a Bible study at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. In 2018, a man who later told officers he wanted all Jews to die, killed 11 worshippers at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Earlier this year, a white supremacist killed 10 people at grocery store in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Buffalo. There are many other examples, but the pattern is clear: Individuals fueled by the distorted ideology of white Christian nationalism use violence to eradicate people they see as not like them.
Hateful rhetoric and violence targeting people of differing religious beliefs are serious threats to religious liberty; actions like these demand responses. The measure of our commitment to religious liberty for all is not how horrified we were after Charlottesville, but what we’ve done since to take on white Christian nationalism.
Three years ago, I joined a group of ecumenical leaders in launching the Christians Against Christian Nationalism campaign, seeking to define and call out this threat to our faith and to our country. I’m proud to say that more than 27,000 Christians have joined us in naming this danger and condemning it as a distortion of the gospel.
Christians have a special responsibility to confront Christian nationalism in its many manifestations. Christian nationalism is about a false idol of power, not Christ’s gospel of love. All of us can recognize hateful rhetoric when it specifically targets another religious group, such as the antisemitic chants in Charlottesville. But Christian nationalism is an insidious ideology that affects so many of us in ways we have yet to realize. We must interrogate ourselves, examining how this poisonous ideology of Christian nationalism is infecting our churches and our belief systems.
Christian nationalism often overlaps with and provides cover for white supremacy and racial subjugation. This racism is painfully obvious when a shooter targets non-white worshippers and openly espouses hate rhetoric, but what about when the myth is repeated that America was founded as a so-called “Christian nation”? That false statement implies that the founders wanted the government to advance Christianity, especially in a way that limits the rights of others. The idea of a “Christian nation” also suggests that this country is supposed to be a “promised land” for Christians, a myth that downplays the contributions of non-Christians, as well as Native Americans and Black Americans, to our country’s success.
We can all see obvious co-opting of religion as a political tool, such as when politicians use religious symbols in photo ops. Outrage poured out when former President Trump held up a Bible after violently dispersing Black Lives Matter protesters. But there are more subtle manifestations of Christian nationalism, too. Do we find ourselves trusting politicians who claim our same faith over politicians who do not, despite their track records?
We can reject Christian nationalism and move toward Christianity with intentional actions, admitting where we’ve missed the mark and working to do better. I see hope as that happens more and more, and we can be honest about our shortcomings.
One year after Charlottesville, I joined a community from my church — a mostly white congregation — and a historic Black Baptist church in Washington, D.C., as we gathered for public communion. Our churches began as one congregation in the early 19th century, but we split on the issue of slavery — a shameful history that we share with many other congregations. Our churches have come together in recent years to write a shared history, build relationships, and work for social justice. We held one such gathering on the first anniversary of the Charlottesville rally — one of several events held in the District to counter the message of a planned “Unite the Right 2” event that same day. Those of us calling for unity far outnumbered those who sought to divide.
“Here’s the thing: Trying to outshout white supremacists heals nothing,” said my pastor, Rev. Julie Pennington-Russell.
“We have come on this day to write a new story, a new narrative,” said Rev. Darryl Roberts, senior pastor of Nineteenth Street Baptist Church, “one that says what will make America a great nation is not how many walls we build but how many bridges of understanding and love that we can create that unite all of God’s people.”
We must all write a new story, pushing back against the hateful rhetoric that cloaks itself in Christianity while “othering” people not like us, creating lines of division, and even manifesting in murderous actions. The images of Charlottesville rightly haunt us, and we must work to have tough conversations and bridge gaps to ensure that ideology doesn’t manifest itself in such violent actions again.
Five years after Charlottesville, the attitude that most captures my emotional state is focused. The grief, the pain, and the horror of that day are still present. But right now, I’m not sitting in somber reflection. I’m focused on actions and how we can together uproot and dismantle white Christian nationalism.