I can’t look away from the news out of Charlottesville. The fact that there are actual swastika-waving Nazis marching armed through an American city just short-circuits my brain, and I find it hard to focus on anything else. There are gangs of white men in body armour beating black people with sticks. There is an Ohio-born terrorist who killed someone with his car. I am at a loss for words to express exactly how evil this ideology, this rhetoric, and these actions are — it should go without saying, though.
I find the interviews with the white supremacists in this video particularly chilling – there are quotes about “our values are #1 our local white identity, #2 the free market, and #3 killing Jews” and “defending our southern culture, our white culture, our Christian culture”. I’m not southern, but I am white and Christian, and these men do not speak for me, or my culture, and anyone else who shares one of those identities should be willing to stand up and disown this toxic bigotry as well, in the strongest and most unequivocal possible terms.
Why, then, has the response of some white Christian leaders been so muted? President Trump’s first reply was “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides. On many sides”. Now, yes, as near as I can tell, there were anti-fascist counter-protesters present who also came from out of town just as prepared for a brawl as the armed and armoured fascists. I tend to think that sort of violent response is misguided and counter-productive. Many of the counter-protesters were local, though (including Heather Heyer, the young lady who was killed by the terrorist), normal people upset about the hate walking the streets of their city. Regardless, to pretend “kill all the Jews” is somehow equivalent to “Nazi bigotry has no place in our public life” is just wrong, and using language like “many sides” that makes the sides sound equivalent is saying that this bigotry is normal. The white supremacists were shouting “Heil Trump”, and you can see plenty of red “Make America Great Again” hats in the video — they obviously think that Donald Trump is their man, and the fact that he won’t disown them says pretty clearly that he thinks they are his people too.
It’s not just the political leaders who have been oddly equivocal in their response to this outrage. Check out this response by Franklin Graham, respected Evangelical leader and son of Billy Graham:
Notice how he seems more concerned about the white supremacists marching to defend a statue of a man who fought a war for the “right” to own people as property than for the very real physical danger the descendants of those slaves faced from a crowd of Klansmen, Nazis & heavily armed militiamen who had come to their town to march with torches. Notice how he mentions an invented “black racism” before the actual white racism on such blatant display.
Yes, many conservative leaders did specifically condemn the utterly despicable idea that being white somehow makes you intrinsically better than other people. Yes, Trump and Graham (and many other conservative leaders) did condemn hatred and bigotry (albeit in shamefully non-specific terms). The actual, literal, sign-carrying, Hitler-quoting Nazis thankfully remain a small minority, and no one with any significant power is willing to explicitly endorse them at this time. You don’t get a trophy for saying that Nazis are bad, though, it’s practically axiomatic.
What grieves and enrages me, though, is that it took Nazis and Klansmen marching through an American city with torches for religious and political conservatives to step up and say “this is the point where we say it has gone too far” (and some of them still then quibbled with an “… on both sides”). Donald Trump ran on a platform including “let’s build a wall to keep the Mexicans out, because they are rapists and criminals” and “let’s ban Muslims from entering our country”, and white evangelical Christians supported him by a 4:1 ratio. Those policies are why the bigots in Charlottesville are wearing MAGA hats, and while Donald Trump’s other supporters may not support those particular policies, they are by definition okay with them being part of the Trump package deal. Here in Canada, during the last election our sitting Prime Minister proposed a “Barbaric Cultural Practices” tip line, the obvious purpose of which was harassing members of religious minorities (there’s already a tip line for anything actually violent or criminal, it’s called 911). The government of Quebec proposed effectively banning visibly observant Muslims, Sihks, and Jews from the public service, and this was much more controversial than it should have been. The Nazis in Charlottesville did not just appear out of nowhere, they have always been among us, but the fact that they dare to show their faces in public is a scathing indictment of the normalcy and acceptability of their white supremacist ideology in our public discourse.
To any Christians reading this, I would like to propose a thought experiment — if you walked into your church or Bible study with one of the following positions, which would be more controversial: “We should put a transgender-friendly bathroom in our church” or “Our country should only take Christian immigrants from the war zones in the Middle East”. The answer to that says a lot about the values and view of God’s Kingdom held by a Christian community. By my reading, the Bible has an awful lot to say about taking care of foreigners and dispossessed people, and zilch to say about being transgender. In my experience, though, the Evangelical movement is extremely zealous about (perhaps even defined by) policing its left flank, yet surprisingly tolerant of exclusionary, un-Christian ideologies on its right. Publicly suggest that church dogma on gay people might be wrong, and you will swiftly have church leaders denounce you as a heretic and do their best to silence you (see: Eugene Peterson, World Vision, IVCF). Say any number of bigoted things about any number of minorities, and those same leaders will bend over backwards to try and justify, contextualize, and nuance it, if they’re not trying to wrap the bigotry up in a palatable Bible verse wrapper (see: #AllLivesMatter, “not electing a pastor-in-chief”, II Thes. 3:10 in the repeal & replace debate, residential school apologism). This isn’t all Christians, or all churches, but the North American church as a body has a serious problem with being more willing to hear and consider oppressors and bigots than people fighting for a basic level of human decency, civil rights, or in some cases basic security from physical assault. Until we as a church name and excise this cancer in our body, we will keep seeing white supremacists and other bigots marching under a banner of “Christian culture”, and that is flatly unacceptable.