Within 72 hours last week, law enforcement officers in the U.S. charged three men with acts of domestic terrorism. On Wednesday evening, Gregory A. Bush was arrested for murder in Jeffersontown, a suburb of Louisville, Ky., where he shot and killed two African-Americans in a grocery store parking lot after he was unable to enter an African-American church. On Friday morning, Cesar Sayoc was arrested for carrying out the largest political assassination attempt in U.S. history by mailing pipe bombs to several prominent Democrats and media commentators. Then, on Saturday morning, Robert Bowers walked into the Shabbat services at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pa., and opened fire with an AR-15, killing 11 and injuring several others.
We should all be grateful to the law enforcement officers who acted quickly to apprehend these men. But any serious consideration of their acts of terrorism must consider the political climate in which these attacks happened. Even if they had no accomplices, they are not the only people responsible for this political violence.
Reading the social media posts from Sayoc and Bowers, which have now been widely reported, I had a flash back to earlier this year when I inadvertently got an education on how the right-wing rage machine works. Just before Easter, I published a book on how some forms of Christian faith in America were shaped by religious justifications of slaveholding in the 19th century — patterns that re-emerged most recently in a wave of Christian nationalism that buoyed Donald Trump’s political career. I’ve published books to help Christians reflect on our faith for over 15 years. This book was published by a respected evangelical publisher and received endorsements from fellow Christian authors prior to publication.
On Easter Sunday, before I went to church with my family, I filed the final edits for an article based on my book. NBC News had agreed to publish the article on their website that day to tell the story of the Colfax massacre, a coup d’état that sparked the movement to overthrow Reconstruction in the 1870s. The coup happened on an Easter Sunday, after the instigators' families had come home from church. The political movement it launched is still remembered by the very religious name, “Redemption.” Because I am concerned about the latent violence of Christian nationalism, I thought it important for Christians like myself to reflect on the political violence that has been committed in our Lord’s name — especially on the day when we remember how Jesus overcame violence through the cross.
Before I got home from church, my social media accounts and email inbox had been flooded with hate mail. Many of the messages included threats against me and my family. All of them suggested that I was part of a left-wing conspiracy to attack Christians. Though this didn’t seem in line with responses I had been getting from the book, excerpts of which had run in several church publications, it wasn’t immediately clear to me where all the hostility was coming from.
After Easter lunch with our extended family, I did a Google search and learned that, shortly after my piece on NBC had posted, Fox News had posted an article that accused NBC of attacking Christians on Easter. Noting the time stamps, I quickly realized that about a dozen other “news” sites, most of which I’d never heard of, had reproduced the Fox News piece almost verbatim.
On social media, various pundits had shared links to these stories, often only quoting the headlines. Their followers took things from there. Without any further research, they decided that a Baptist preacher who’d spent all morning in church was on a mission with George Soros and the “liberal” media to destroy Christianity in America. And I’d better watch out, some of them said, because they knew how to handle someone like me.
Within 24 hours this rage machine moved on, redirecting its followers to their normal targets, the most prominent of whom received pipe bombs in manila envelopes last week. But I learned from my experience that right-wing propaganda today works much like it did during the 19th century’s Redemption movement, the era of lynching terror in the Jim Crow South, and the 20th century’s resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.
Now as then, conservative politicians and journalists push a narrative of us-versus-them. Without any need for coordination, propagandists — many of whom are never taken seriously by mainstream media — identify particular examples of “the enemy” and focus followers on them. In the late 19th century, this could quickly lead to mob violence against a target. During the civil rights movement, it created the conditions for political assassinations. Today, through the networks of social media, it directs a flood of hate mail every day toward someone. It’s almost inevitable that, at some point, a real bomb will end up in that stream or a real gunman will attack his closest perceived "enemy."
Whoever makes the bomb or pulls the trigger is culpable, of course. But he does not act alone. The social media trolls are as complicit in this violence as the mobs who gathered to watch the spectacle of lynchings. Fox News and Breitbart are as connected to these attacks as 19th century newspaper editors were when they ran sensational stories about black men ravaging white women to rally the Red Shirts who overthrew Reconstruction governments. Politicians who push stories that sow division today, from the White House to the County Commission, will stand in history alongside the Southern gentlemen of the 1960s who never ordered the death of a single civil rights worker but stoked the rage that ultimately erupted in the murders of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and so many others.
Everyone connected to today’s right-wing rage machine has actively cooperated to bring us to this place. But the most important lesson I learned from my brief experience in the sights of their fury is this: their violence continues because those of us who aren’t its targets today allow it to propagate in plain sight.