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It is time for the Christian church to respond to Christianist violence in America

better Laettner than never

Hello it's Better Laettner Than Never where I say a few things that I think we should discuss. To start, I believe in the Second Amendment right to bear arms, but I don't believe that it is an unlimited right. Just as we have a right to free speech, yet there are still limitations on certain forms of speech, there should be more restrictions on gun ownership, preferably a full ban on assault-style weapons. This time it's serious. It’s time to say it now.

The mass shooting at El Paso was only a month ago now. The shooter’s manifesto cited inspiration from the Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand and mentioned white genocide conspiracy theory. For reference, the Atlantic’s article, “What Conservative Pastors Didn’t Say After El Paso aptly summarizes these issues following the EL Paso shooting. These events prompt the question: what is the Christian church’s responsibility in combating white supremacy in America? How does the Church respond to these acts of white supremacist violence?

Dr. Gerald Wilson is one of Duke’s best known and widely admired Professors. Many students take his course, “American Dreams, American Realities,” which focuses on the mythological structures that have underpinned American society in the past and continue to the present day. During the first session of his class, I was struck by how strongly these sentiments seemed to cover exactly the topics I often question about American culture. Central on my mind was the history of Protestantism in the United States, the effects of which still persist today. As someone raised as a Christian, but who has also struggled with that faith, I have questioned many of the responses and political stances that Christians take in our country, a number of which seem highly contrary to the main tenets of Christianity. Seeing as Dean Wilson is also a Presbyterian minister, I wanted to talk to him about some of these issues. 

We met in Perkins café one afternoon to talk. His course covers five grand american myths: the success myth which originates from Puritanism and us geographically centered in the northeast; The frontier myth which originates from the idea of manifest destiny and is centered in the midwest; the agrarian myth which is geographically centered in the south; the foreign devil myth which operates by defining who “we” are by defining who “we are not”; and finally the city on a hill myth which has roots in Christianity, capitalism, and democracy. 

I asked him which of these myths he thinks influences the white supremacist movement that we have seen in the last decade, as well as those white supremacist movements of the past. He responded that probably many of these myths, including the frontier myth, the foreign devil myth and the city on a hill myth play into it. He referenced Richard Slotkin’s book Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600–1860, in which Slotkin argues that the attitudes and traditions which shape American culture unfolded from the socio-psychological struggles of European settlers to claim land and drive out Native Americans, often by violent acts. Wilson also pointed out that KKK literature includes this idea of regeneration through violence in an effort to get back to “a pure society." The dangers of these violent ideologies persist and have strongly re-emerged in our highly media-centered world and staunchly-partisan world.

Clearly many Americans see gun violence as a problem. In fact, the majority of Americans support new measures on gun control now. But if the current administration won't do anything to reduce access to these weapons, how else can we make change? Specifically as it relates to gun violence in connection to white supremacy, which is ideologically linked to Christianity,  where is the response from the Christian majority and the Christian church? Why is there lack of response? 

It is probably because Christians do not want to identify with these violent acts, that they do not ackonowledge the danger of white supremacist ideology.  The sentiment following 9/11 seemed to define Islam as a dangerous religion, when in fact, any religion can be skewed by power-grabbing individuals to suit their prerogatives. Lets not forget that European Christians Crusades. Today, I don't see politically-aligned Christians saying the same thing about the violence of Christian white supremacists. 

One of the first people to use the term “Christianist” was author and editor Andrew Sullivan. Sullivan defines the term in his 2006 article in TIME Magazine: “Christianism is an ideology, politics, an ism. The distinction between Christian and Christianist echoes the distinction we make between Muslim and Islamist…It is the belief that religion dictates politics and that politics should dictate the laws for everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike.”

I asked Dean Wilson if he believed that the church has a strong incentive to respond to the threat of white supremacy. He responded, “absolutely”, but wondered to what extent the Church does respond. He said, “The church has a responsibility to deal with these issues, yet for many of the evangelical churches there is this idea that the church has an impact on the individual, but should not get into social issues.” I know it is a difficult thing to discuss, but I truly believe that we need to see a strong, definitive response from the Church against this violence. 

I know Christians whose faith have been shaken in the wake of the violence often associated with right-wing Christianity in America that we see today. I know people who now question the relation between their faith and that of their Christian counterparts who exercise this type of violence. I am a person who was shaken by the lack of discussion and clarity on this subject - and the ignorance of the suffering of others and the lack of empathy expressed in these highly-nationalist views. 

It is high time that Christians take a strong response on violent Christianism and white supremacy in America. A strong response would emphatically state why these violent ideals do not align with the faith. A strong response would seek out those members of the church who are vulnerable to targeted recruitment and finding a community to help them. A strong response would involve taking part in this discussion and supporting mental health awareness. And a strong response would include new gun control measures. Church leaders and members alike should more deeply reflect on their responsibility to mitigate this increasing epidemic of white supremacist terrorism. 

Sophie Laettner is a Trinity senior. Her column "Better Laettner Than Never" runs on alternate Fridays. 

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