Missing from the Conversation on Christian Nationalism? WhitenessHistorians in the News
tags: far right, Christianity, White Supremacy, Christian Nationalism, January 6
Peter Laarman is a United Church of Christ minister who served as senior minister of New York's Judson Memorial Church and then as executive director of LA's Progressive Christians Uniting before retiring in 2014. He remains deeply involved in national and regional social justice projects touching on race, class, and religion.
A new report released Wednesday by a trio of groups, both Christian and secular, on the role played by white Christian nationalists in the January 6 storming of the Capitol will open some eyes, and that’s all to the good. But as the report’s authors make clear, the Christian nationalist embrace of unhinged notions about threats to personal liberty, including alleged anti-Christian persecution, has been hiding in plain sight for a good long time.
I want to bring another lens to the discussion by pointing out that the white Christian nationalism we spotlight now represents the militant organized expression of ideas about white freedom that have been thoroughly baked into the common culture for centuries—and that are much more widely distributed within the white population than may be evident from the numbers of currently identified white Christian nationalists, shocking as those numbers might be.
Christian nationalism and settled ideas about white freedom have always danced together, of course. The formula “free, white, and 21” never needed the word “Christian”—it was implicit among those who used it.
And here’s the point: deeply rooted notions about white freedom harden the fist of Christian nationalism by adding an extra degree of impunity, suggesting that American Christians—white ones, that is—need never apologize for asserting power and using violence to do so. It works the other way, too: draping a Christian mantle over white power further legitimates it; it further nationalizes white impunity for millions who buy into Christian Nation ideology. Even proud insurrectionists might be reluctant to toss around phrases like “white is right” in these cautious times. But when they wrap the same sentiment in Christian Nation rhetoric, they get to feel righteous as hell.
I’m very happy to see that we are just now getting renewed scholarly focus on the toxic dimensions of an always-problematic American freedom. For example, American Studies professor Elizabeth Anker does a good job on “ugly freedoms” in a recent opinion piece citing January 6 and the militant anti-maskers, in which she helpfully references Tyler Stovall’s important work on the historical link between freedom and whiteness.
Unfortunately, Anker fails to take sufficient notice of Stovall’s primary thesis, which addresses what is often considered the “paradox” at the heart of the founding of this great republic. His thesis maintains that the subjugation of people of color from the Enlightenment forward is no anomaly or paradox within the overall march of freedom but is entirely congruent with the idea that freedom and whiteness belong together: that white people have a special claim, a special entitlement, to the enjoyment of individual freedom.
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