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White Christian Nationalism, Hate and Extremism: An Interview with Dr. Joseph Wiinikka-Lydon (Church & Society)

Dr. Wiinikka-Lydon, Senior Research Analyst with the Intelligence Project of The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), discusses the findings of the SPLC 2022 Report on Hate & Extremism released in June 2023.

September 19, 2023

Documenting actions and movements of hate and anti-government groups in the United States, the SPLC 2022 report was produced to inform the public and policymakers, support impacted communities and protect democracy. It also provides policy recommendations on the topic.

As United Methodists, “we deplore acts of hate or violence against groups or persons based on race, color, national origin, ethnicity, age, gender, disability, status, economic condition, sexual orientation, gender identity, or religious affiliation” Social Principles ¶ 162.

In August, 2023 Church and Society (C&S) conducted a Q&A Interview with Dr. Joseph Wiinikka-Lydon (JWL) to learn more about the report and its findings.

Dr. Wiinikka-Lydon was instrumental in the content and research related to the SPLC 2022 report.

Here are the key findings of the SPLC 2022 report:

  • In 2022, SPLC listed 1,225 hate and antigovernment extremist groups in the United States.
  • Over the past three years, the number of active Oath Keepers chapters has declined to nine active groups in 2022 from 79 active chapters in 2020.
  • Even with recent federal convictions of members of the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys for the Jan. 6th insurrection stifling overall militia activity, the continued growth of Proud Boys membership, reaching 78 chapters in 2022, signals that the violent threat from hard-right extremist groups persists.

C&S: In the 2022 report, SPLC notes that extremism has come to “Main Street.” What does that mean?

JWL: By saying that hate and antigovernment extremism has come to Main Street, we mean that extremism is going mainstream. Many people are used to thinking of extremism as something on the fringe only thriving in the corners of the internet or far-flung areas of the country. But that is not the case. Divisive and anti-democratic ideas and movements are tearing at our social fabric. The view that United States is only for certain people or that we only have room for certain theologies and churches and ways of life – are less and less abhorrent to more and more people.

C&S: Can you give a working definition of white Christian nationalism? What is behind the definition?

JWL: White Christian nationalism, as an identity and a vision of the United States, is informed both by white supremacy and Christian supremacy over culture and politics. It subscribes to American Exceptionalism, where the United States is understood to have a special, God-given mission to save the world. The resulting vision of the country is one that is exclusive, less caring, and even cruel, and which has the backing of the divine, at least for its adherents.

Many people have only recently noticed the use of Christian symbols and narratives in current politics that support anti-democratic policies that exclude many of our neighbors from meaningful participation in the public sphere. The insurrection of January 6th, where the presence of Christian symbols and memes amongst those packed around the Capitol, is an important example, one that spurred many in the country to wonder what was the role of Christianity in the violence and the violation of that day?

Importantly, there is no separation of church and state in this view, as many adherents of white Christian Nationalism believe that the founders largely based the Constitution and Declaration of Independence on the Bible. Of course, this is quite controversial to say of the Constitution, which does not even mention God.

This is why Christian nationalists say it’s a calling to honor these founding documents – a call many of us would otherwise gladly answer. But, because they believe these are theological documents not just political, they do not expand participation in public life, as many of us believe. Instead they launder their exclusivist and cruel, ant-democratic vision of society through the language of patriotism.

Note: For more information about the United Methodist position on basic freedoms and human rights, political responsibility, and the separation of church and state, visit “The Political Community,” Social Principles ¶164.

C&S: Where did this ideology come from?

JWL: The idea that one’s society should conform to one’s theology is an old one in Christianity. The notion of Christian supremacy over the United States is, also sadly, as old or older than the country. This idea of the United States having a special prophetic mission goes back at least to the Massachusetts Bay Colony and Plymouth Colony.

Usually, however, when speaking of the anti-democracy and anti-government movements from SPLC research, we often look first at the Christian patriot movement that started in the 1970s and 1980s that then informed the militias of the 1990s (think Waco and the bombing of the Oklahoma Federal Building). This is not the origin, but it is an important point in the history of U.S. extremism where white Christian nationalism informed what have become the militia movement and the anti-government movement as a whole, the fruits of which we are seeing today.

C&S: Is there any evidence of white Christian Nationalism organizing in Churches?

JWL: Whether or not church attendance is a predictor of white Christian nationalism is still debated, but it seems much more prevalent in white evangelical and independent charismatic groups. Specifically, it is most prevalent in white Protestant communities, especially born-again Christians. As the Brookings Institute and PRRI have argued, “Identifying as white evangelical or born-again is positively correlated with holding Christian nationalist views across racial and ethnic lines.” It’s like bringing the culture war into the sanctuary. But, for many adherents and participants who are not church goers, their non-church groups and activities, including their political activities, are their religious practice and ‘church.’

C&S: What can Christians and people of faith do in response to this ideology and its effects?

JWL: There are things SPLC can do as a civil rights organization that researches these movements, but speaking out against such rhetoric also requires a theological rebuttal, which requires communities of faith.

Churches and people of faith need to look at these ideologies and movements not as fellow spiritual travelers, but as political movements intent on taking control of the levers of power at all levels to create the country in their image. People are already suffering and even dying because of the dog whistles, rhetoric, and policies that are coming out of the white Christian nationalist movement. No one, however, is in a position to push back using the language of Christianity better than Christians themselves.

I would suggest local churches come together and work with each other to make it known that white Christian nationalism is not a Christ-like theological movement. Get knowledgeable. Start reading about these groups and movements. Religious Dispatches is a good start. Create a small group in your church that focuses on these issues and through educating yourselve, become light to the rest of your congregation.

Make local allies, connect with larger, national organizations in your denomination, and try to get your communities to take a stand. Make your values clear as a community and make it clear that democracy is at stake.

C&S: What additional resources would you recommend for those of us who want to do more to fight extremism and hate?

JWL: There are national organizations like SPLC, the Anti-Defamation League, Americans United for the Separation for Church and State, Sojourners, and others that can provide information and resources. The Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty has been on the forefront of this work. They have a report that looks into white Christian nationalism and the January 6 insurrection. The Kairos Center has resources as well. They sponsored a report to engage this very question that is very helpful for thinking through how you and your community can respond.

Peace always hinged on leaders and neighbors who have the local knowledge and connections to bring people together and to push back against hate and bigotry. National organizations can only help through support. Find organizations that are working locally, support them and get involved.