I recently explored the Gun Violence Archive, one of many online resources for tracking the location, death toll, weapons used, and other grim details related to the nearly 19,000 gun deaths so far in the United States in 2022. Most troublesome are the attacks related to the widely-circulated “white replacement theory,” the outlandish and once-fringe idea that a sinister plot is at work to replace what Fox News’ Tucker Carlson calls “legacy Americans.” The “legacy” Carlson invokes is, of course, white and Protestant. With roots that go back to the earliest days of American life, such anxieties that a “way of life” is at risk—from a supposed influx of illegal immigrants, or a plot to register illegitimate voters, or from the machinations of extremists—have religion at their heart. Here the ongoing project to achieve a genuine multiracial democracy is framed as an assault on God-fearing “tradition.”
Related is the recurrent conservative theater around school curricula, an enduring winner that is dusted off every few years by think tanks, political action committees, and aspiring candidates like Virginia’s Glenn Youngkin, who successfully ran his gubernatorial campaign around slogans involving “parents’ rights.” The issue had arisen from the American right’s fierce opposition to Critical Race Theory (CRT), a legal theory examining the legacy of structural racism that first came to public light when President Bill Clinton abandoned as his nominee for Attorney General one of that theory’s best-known proponents, Lani Guinier. Classes that teach about slavery or xenophobia are themselves framed as being anti-American, the implication uncomfortably close to Josiah Strong’s 1885 book Our Country, which linked American civilization to white Protestantism.
Instead of an America committed to improved roads, green energy, and safeguarding voting rights, we live in an America seemingly choked with conspiracy theory, jingoism, hand-wringing about the right quotient of “woke” that Democrats can carry, and ongoing claims about the unprecedented liberal assault on religious liberty that has made such ferocity necessary. Organizations like Turning Point USA fill social media with alarm about “cultural Marxism” or a “radical secular agenda” threatening America’s greatness, talking points eagerly recirculated up and down the institutional ladder by Republicans who have long mastered selling panic over policy.
These are the makings of what scholars and journalists have in recent years come to call Christian Nationalism. While there is no doubt that far-right Protestants have made considerable inroads into all three branches of American government and have worked to undermine democratic institutions in tangible ways, obsessions about the religiousness of these efforts have done little to halt these efforts. This is because Republicans have made this obsession their most successful rallying cry. Whether at a local school board meeting where parents assert their children are being taught to hate God’s chosen nation, or at the Conservative Political Action Committee annual meeting, the very notion that a “lib” might be deriding conservative Christianity is, and has long been, the chief source of this movement’s energy.
Clearly, then, considerable resources and organization have gone into trumpeting these varied claims that white religion is persecuted. Legions of pundits have pointed out the unreality of persecution claims coming from largely comfortable white conservative Christians. Scholars have glanced on such notions amidst the tide of books about the “culture wars.” But I believe that most current approaches to this subject have it backwards: the much-ballyhooed Christian nationalism of our time is the product of multiple forces, but it is not the linchpin for understanding the roots of the many problems bedeviling America, nor should it be the main vector of analysis if we want to restore a frayed democracy. Instead of asking “why are evangelicals this way?”, we should ask “what has happened in America to enable such fearful changes?” The decades-long echo of white conservative grievance and those who debunk it is, I contend, a distraction from the urgent need to reassess key elements of what it actually means to live in a democracy.
To focus only on conservatives who protest against “religious bigotry,” or even to hope with good reason for the amplification of other religious voices, is to misconstrue the condition: Americans have not come to grips with our ambivalent attachments to democracy itself. This failure is exacerbated by America’s abundance of rage and therapeutic discourse alike, which work together to deflect the fear that our lives lack significance and that America has failed at democracy. Embattlement may liven up a narrative, but it directs us away from deeper sources of political discontent.
Reconsider the circulation of the “white replacement theory” and anxiety around CRT. Certainly, a kind of religious entitlement is at work in these fantastical grievances. No sane observer could deny that. Yet what I find more evident is a decades-long failure of particular institutions and political norms. As infuriating as it is to encounter fellow citizens who seek to censor the historical record, we should strive to ground all debates about education in the very idea of what democracy is. To get past these managed dramas, we might better embrace history as a place of discomfort. At this juncture in American history, the most compelling reason to investigate the past is to make the future better. Conservative religion and conservative readings of history are not privileged, but are, like all other expressions of identity and narrative, simply part of the range of American things for historical inquirers to evaluate. These evaluations should be guided not by fidelity to an ossified past but by resistance to self-aggrandizement and to the politics of domination.
Similarly, and separately from the urgent need for firearms restrictions (“well-regulated,” anyone?), America is clearly in need of a rigorous, sustained reexamination of just what citizenship and birthright mean in our time. Things are indeed changing. While most Americans are comfortable with or even happy about that fact, it is no coincidence that the rise of extrajudicial militants—which emerged from the shadows in the 1990s, though its roots are far older—occurred during the tenure of America’s first non-white president, and many of its fiercest practitioners helped plan the Capitol insurrection. Conservative pundits and members of groups like the Oath Keepers warned that Christians were going to be hunted down after Obama seized the guns, so there was little use acting as if the rules applied to them.
Never was the experience of white masculinity so publicly insistent on its own victimization when the mere existence of other humans who would not be silent about their own histories, experiences, and actual oppression was translated into the idiom of attack. Indeed, in response to Black Lives Matter marches in response to the execution of George Floyd in May 2020, activists like Charlie Kirk and Trump himself intoned consistently that a Biden victory would entail the end of the suburbs and churches.
In the smoldering wake of the Trump administration, the national conversation has shown signs of opening up into larger considerations of belonging, entitlement, and, indeed, birthright. Yet the opposition is fierce and our public institutions deeply compromised. Our politics is the result of decades of haranguing about “tradition” and “the American dream” rather than what citizenship and the good society substantively require. It is the result of thinking that the politics of economic materialism can or should be meaningfully distinguished from identity politics. It is the result of decades of hucksters and anti-democrats convincing large swaths of the American people that if someone else is allowed to count as part of the “we” in “we the people,” our own status will immediately become threatened. And, it must be admitted, the academy has a role to play in this for having become so nervous about the genuinely social critical role scholars should play.
At this fearful time in American democracy, the best way to starve anti-democratic forces of their energy is to change the subject away from conservative religion and demand investment in civic education, democratic localism, and human rights. The next five to ten years will tell the tale on American democracy itself. If Americans let the forces of authoritarianism continue to set the tone and the subject, it will be impossible to do the work necessary to keep it.
Featured image: 2021 storming of the United States Capitol via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)