Carmen Celestini is a lecturer at the University of Waterloo in religious studies and a post-doctoral fellow with the School of Religion at Queen's University in Ontario, Canada.

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Where Did the ‘Great Replacement’ Theory Come From?

by Carmen Celestini 07-10-2023
The roots of the “super conspiracy” that influenced Trump’s presidency and stoked the paranoia of his followers.
An illustration of a large old book in Gothic print with four stars superimposed over the pages. Each displays photos with blue tinting of immigrant families climbing over or sitting on border fences, as well as parents carrying their children.

Illustration by Mark Harris

RELIGION PROMOTES WHAT is good in humanity —  mercy, wisdom, charity, justice, compassion. These are fundamental to most religious traditions. But religious institutions and movements consist of humans capable of both good and evil, truth and lies, peaceableness and violence. Most Americans have positive feelings about the role religion plays in American life, according to recent surveys. But more than 75 percent are against religious organizations endorsing political candidates or getting involved in partisan politics.

Religious zeal and political power can be an explosive combination — which is why the First Amendment promotes the separation of these powers. Yet the heart and faith of voters impact their choices in the polling booth — and the emotions and imaginations of voters can be swayed by media, social groups, and targeted manipulation to impact an individual’s vote.

One form of manipulation is through conspiracy theories — and conspiracy theories that manipulate religious and social imaginations are particularly potent. They are not new — recall the early U.S. grassroots movements, such as the Anti-Masonic Party and the Know-Nothings, who fought against perceived threats to Protestant Christian values, as well as the John Birch Society’s modern links to the Christian Identity Organization.

As conspiracy theories, disinformation, and populism become more mainstream, one less-understood conspiracy is having an outsized impact on immigration laws: The “great replacement theory” promotes the idea that nonwhite people are brought into the United States and other Western countries to “replace” white voters as part of a godless, liberal political agenda.

The 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, reminded many Americans that the horrors of organized hate were not something in the past. The refrain by white nationalists of “You will not replace us!” recalled virulent antisemitism and anti-immigrant rhetoric of earlier eras. The media repeated the slogan as it tried to make sense of how domestic terrorism, spurred on by online rhetoric regarding the removal of Civil War statues, could have culminated in such social violence and the murder of Heather Heyer by neo-Nazi James Fields Jr. It was a traumatic moment among many in America.