In the wake of the massacre in Buffalo, we have all, naturally, tried to understand what could have caused someone to commit such a horrific act of violence. This young white man linked his motivations to fears about demographic and cultural changes in the U.S., dynamics that he believed were resulting in the replacement of “the white race.”
The shooting has spurred a national discussion about the mainstreaming of these concerns, often summarized under the term “replacement theory.” Most of the attention has been given to the demographic component of this theory, while the cultural aspects have been overlooked.
But the fear of cultural replacement has an unambiguous lineage that gives it specific content. At the center of the “great replacement” logic, there is—and has always been—a desperate desire to preserve some version of western European Christendom. Far too many contemporary analysts, and even the Department of Justice, have not seen clearly that the prize being protected is not just the racial composition of the country but the dominance of a racial and religious identity. If we fail to grasp the power of this ethno-religious appeal, we will misconstrue the nature of, and underestimate the power of, the threat before us.
In a 180-page racist screed, the Buffalo shooter wrote that he was particularly inspired by the man behind the 2019 massacre at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, which claimed 51 lives. The Christchurch shooter also left a manifesto entitled “The Great Replacement,” which talked at length about “the Muslim invasion of Europe.” So, the incident that most inspired the Buffalo shooter was a man of European descent murdering Muslims praying in mosques located in a city pointedly named “Christchurch.”
The Christchurch shooter in turn took particular inspiration from the ideology of a terrorist who killed nearly 100 people at a youth camp on Utøya island in Norway in 2011. The Utøya shooter also published a manifesto, which contains clear white Christian nationalist appeals throughout. He asked God to help him succeed in his mission to expel all Muslims from Europe, and he decried the way multiculturalism was deconstructing European culture and “European Christendom.” Toward the end of the document, he proclaimed, “Onward Christian soldiers! Celebrate us, the martyrs of the conservative revolution, for we will soon dine in the Kingdom of Heaven.”
In the U.S., this drive to preserve white Christian dominance undergirded the worldview of the Ku Klux Klan when it reemerged in the early part of the 20th century. We rightly remember the terrorism aimed at Black Americans, but the KKK was also explicitly anti-Jewish and anti-Catholic; it existed to protect the dominance of a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant America.
In 1960, in my home state of Mississippi, Governor Ross Barnett regularly blended his Christian identity with talk about the threat of “white genocide.” Off the campaign trail, Barnett also served as head of the large men’s Sunday school program at the most influential church in the state, First Baptist Church. After his successful segregationist campaign, FBC blessed him with a consecration service and a gift of a pulpit Bible in recognition of his protection of their white and Christian supremacist worldview.
Why are we seeing the rise in white supremacist violence over the last decade? In short, in the U.S. context, the election, and re-election, of our first Black President coincided with the sea change of no longer being a majority white Christian nation (as I noted in my book The End of White Christian America, white Christians went from 54% to 47% in that period, down to 44% today). These twin shocks to centuries of white Christian dominance set the stage for Donald Trump.
Trump’s “Make American Great Again” formula—the stoking of anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and anti-Black sentiment while making nativist appeals to the Christian right—contains all the tropes of the old replacement theory. The nostalgic appeal of “again” harkens back to a 1950s America, when white Christian churches were full and white Christians comprised a supermajority of the U.S. population; a period when we added “under God” to the pledge of allegiance and “In God We Trust” to our currency.
These fears about the “great replacement” are not fringe among conservative subgroups today, according to recent data from PRRI. While only 29% of Americans agree, for example, that “Immigrants are invading our country and replacing our cultural and ethnic background,” that number rises to dangerous levels among a range of groups comprising the conservative base in U.S. politics: 67% among those who say they most trust Fox News; 65% among QAnon believers; 60% among Republicans; 50% among white evangelical Protestants, and 43% among white American without a college degree.
Moreover, among white Americans, there is high (two-thirds) overlap between beliefs in Christian nationalism and replacement theory. And both views are associated with higher support for political violence among whites:
* White Americans who agree that “God intended America to be a promised land for European Christians” are four times as likely as those who disagree with that statement to believe that “true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country” (43% vs. 10%).
* White Americans who believe that “Immigrants are invading our country and replacing our cultural and ethnic background” are nearly six times as likely as those who disagree with that statement to believe that “true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country” (45% vs. 8%).
The Department of Homeland Security has declared that white supremacists “remain the most persistent and lethal threat in the homeland.” President Joe Biden, importantly, became the first U.S. President to use the words “white supremacy” in his inaugural address; and in the wake of the massacre in Buffalo last weekend, he called white supremacy a “poison…running through our body politic.” But while each identified white supremacy and dangerous “ideologies,” there is no acknowledgment of the documented ways right-wing Christianity has nourished these views.
There is a troubling religious double standard in the U.S.—one which threatens our safety and our democracy. If these same kinds of appeals and violent actions were being made and committed by Muslims, for example, most white Americans would be demanding actions to eradicate a domestic threat from “radical Islamic terrorism,” a term we heard relentlessly during the Trump era. But because Christianity is the dominant religion in this country, its role in supporting domestic terrorism has been literally unspeakable.
The clear historical record, and contemporary attitudinal data, merit an urgent discussion of white Christian nationalism as a serious and growing threat to our democracy. if we are to understand the danger in which we find ourselves today, we will have to be able to use the words white Christian nationalism and domestic terrorism in the same sentence.