In the History Corner… White Christian nationalism runs deep and long

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It hardly goes unnoticed today that many right-wing spokespersons equate American culture with white Christian values, ideas, and beliefs. They would have the rest outlawed or at least declared as un-American. That is the real essence of white Christian nationalism and where the Make America Great Again (MAGA) crowd would lead this country. 

One hundred and fifty-five years ago this week, the Virginia Assembly passed a law that made it clear that the conversion of enslaved Africans to Christianity would not enable them to secure freedom. From that early date, white people may have proclaimed Africans as fellow Christians but not citizens and equal human beings. It is that moment that boosted the idea of white Christian nationalism. This law was an important testimony of where white people stood on the matter of religion. Early in the unfolding of the Atlantic Slave Trade, Europeans were advised that there was no sin or crime in enslaving Africans because they were “savages,” “heathens,” or Muslims. The capture and enslavement of Africans was in fact considered a positive in the vestiges of the Christian Crusades as well as in the advancement of civilization.

By passing the 1667 law, Virginia indicated that it was not just a matter of religion when it came to people of the African race. It suggested that race was thicker than religion. African Christians were continually barred from white churches at the time that this law was enacted. They either were permitted to have their own churches, with a responsible white person monitoring the service, or they were permitted to occupy a separate section of their master’s church. (Other dissatisfied enslaved Africans stole away and worshiped secretly in nearby wooded or secluded areas.) 

After slavery ended, Jim Crow practices, if not laws, kept Black Christians out of white churches. White Christian nationalism was freely and fully practiced throughout the southern and border states along with the suppression of the Black vote. Aside from the segregated churches, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) was established and called itself a Christian organization. No doubt, many of its members were not just church-gores but ministers as well. Their aim was to promote and protect white rule, power, and privilege which helped give full expression to white Christian nationalism.

The KKK and many southerners were staunchly anti-Catholic because, at various times, the Catholic church was supportive of Black education and more tolerant of Black members, especially where there were no Black missions in the area. The truth of the matter, however, is that there was strong racial prejudice and discrimination among virtually all white Christian groups – Baptists, Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and so on down the line. There were no saints among the groups.

As a result of America claiming itself to be a Christian nation, but assuring that Black Christians were not treated as equals, one is correct to view those in the 1660s as well as those in the 1860s, 1960s, and today as being part and parcel of the ongoing white Christian nationalist movement. For them, race has always been stronger than religion.

If one keeps in mind the Virginia Assembly’s 1667 law, he/she can understand something of white Christian nationalism’s legal birth. If he/she remembers the position of the KKK and other Jim Crow activities at that time, he/she can understand the full manifestation of white Christian nationalism. If one would analyze the suppression of the Black vote today and the strong bias against non-European immigrants, he/she can realize the connection of the full scope of what is being promoted today by white Christian nationalists.

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In the History Corner… White Christian nationalism runs deep and long

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
September 22, 2022