Two weeks ago I wrote an op-ed entitled “It is time for the Christian church to respond to Christianist violence in America,” linking white supremacy to its roots in Christian theology. In writing this piece, I sought to start a discussion on the relationship between Christianism and the responsibility of Christians as delicately and respectfully as I could. One of my fellow columnists, Reiss Becker, disagreed with my characterization.
Andrew Sullivan defines the term Christianist 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.”
While Becker asserts that “Real Christians, real people of various sects, colors, and backgrounds, are implicated and suffer reputational consequences when subjected to careless generalizations that affiliate their faith with evil,” he neglects to note that I did not generalize carelessly. This is exactly why we should employ the term Christianist, in order to distinguish this violence from faithful Christians.
The purpose of my article was to point out that Christianist violence in America exists, but that it is not adequately named as such. My statement, “white supremacy, which is ideologically linked to Christianity...” is not slander. I am not saying that Christianity is white supremacist, but rather that white supremacy has roots in Christian ideology.
In her book, The Sin of White Supremacy Christianity, Racism, & Religious Diversity in America, Jeannine Hill Fletcher writes, “the theology of Christian supremacy gave birth to the ideology of White supremacy, and White supremacy grew from a dangerous ideology to an accepted position inherited by Whites.” This relationship between Christian theology and whiteness is highly implicated in the current stance among white evangelical voters that they need to reclaim the country—in effect, to Make America Great Again for white people.
I am in no way asserting that Christians are violent, or that their religion inherently breeds violence. It would be equally incorrect to assert that Islam is a violent religion. Islam is not violent. There are violent individuals who use the tenets of the religion to pursue their violent agenda. The same goes for Christianity. Think the Crusades. Think the KKK. Think White supremacy today.
In his article, Christian Violence in America, Mark Juergensmeyer analyzes current trends in Christianist violence in America: “In the United States, attacks on abortion clinics, the killing of abortion clinic staff, and the destructive acts of members of Christian militia movements are chilling examples of assaults on the legitimacy of modern social and political institutions, based on the theological frameworks of reconstruction theology and Christian Identity thinking.”
American Christianism is a white-supremacist identity-politics movement, not a religious one. But the core of this identity is linked to Christian ideals, which necessitates a strong Christian response.
As Becker calls me to better clarity in my writing, I would also call him to a better understanding of it. When he says, “Arguing there is an ideological link between Christianity and white supremacy ignores the existence of Black, Latino, and Asian Christians—is their faith connected to white supremacy as well?” Obviously, if the believer is not white, then they are probably not implicated in white supremacy. Black, Latino, and Asian Christians’ individual faith is not connected to white supremacy, but these believers are nevertheless impacted by white supremacy and other belief systems which reinforce a racial hierarchy. Christianity was used as a tool for colonization, and in many instances it was colonialism that introduced Christianity to these groups. Non-white Christians aren't implicated in white supremacist violence, and so far have not been implicated in Christianist violence because Christianism has been predominanlty touted by white believers.
Directly calling out Christianist violence, among other cultural perversions present in our nation and world, will allow us to respond more directly to these issues. We need greater understanding of the underlying factors, one of which I am saying is some Christians’ refusal to recognize the “problem children” among them. The idea that Christians should be absolved of any guilt or complicity in this type of violence, while Muslims are regularly blamed for Islamist extremism, is blatant hypocrisy which denotes strong bias and lack of awareness in this current climate. The Public Religion Research Institute provides compelling research on Americans’ Double Standard on Religious Violence by religious affiliation, showing that “No religious group expresses a larger double standard than white evangelical Protestants. White evangelical Protestants are the most likely (87 percent) to disown Christian terrorists who claim to be acting in Christianity’s name. However, they are among the least likely (44 percent) to say the same about terrorists who identify as Muslim.”
Of course I recognize that there is not one universal Church institution which can respond to this issue, but that is not what I am asking for. I am asking that many parts respond. Wherever Christianists are implicated, believers of all sects have the opportunity to respond.
I would not agree with the sentiment in Becker’s article that religious groups should only be held morally responsible for the actions of their own believers, especially as it pertains to Christianity because I don't believe that selective moral concern is a tenet of the faith. Christian ideals have clearly been used by some to advance a Christianist or white supremacis agenda, and I want to understand why this violence is happening. What in the religion has allowed it? What in the culture has allowed it? It is not slander to call for introspection into Christian ideals—as well as how they are being misconstrued and abusively implemented by fundamentalists.
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There is some evidence that Christian leaders recognize the importance of confronting white supremacist violence. In 2017, the National Catholic Reporter recounted that more than 400 Christian ethicists and other theologians have signed “A Statement from Christian Ethicists Without Borders on White Supremacy and Racism." The statement rejects "racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and neo-Nazi ideology as a sin against God that divides the human family created in God's image.” Thankfully, I have found this response, but in all my internet searches on what Christians are doing to address Christianist terrorism, the results come few and far in between. There should be many more reponses, and that includes on the local church level.
The mission for Christians in America today may well be to reconnect with the identity-politics Christians—to fight white supremacy and Christianism at its roots—to reclaim the hearts of Christianists in our nation.
Sophie Laettner is a Trinity senior. Her column, "better Laettner than never," runs on alternate Fridays.