Why the most ardent racial nationalists are becoming increasingly secular.
A specter is haunting America—the specter of white Christian nationalism. If you are looking for signs, it’s not hard to find them.
Inside the White House, presidential strategist Steve Bannon invokes a 1973 French novel called “The Camp of the Saints,” in which France is overwhelmed by its own compassion when authorities prove unable to resist a flotilla of rusting ships carrying a million destitute Indians. Another novelist, Joyce Carol Oates, tweets her shock that in many parts of our country Christianity has become “virtually synonymous” with white nationalism. Which is pretty much the same take as the American press, at once baffled and frightened by the 80% of the white evangelical vote won by Donald Trump.
One small problem with reading too much into any of this: The overwhelming reality of 21st-century Christianity is that it is nonwhite—and growing more so.
A century ago it would have been easy to conflate whiteness and Christianity. Europe and North America together then accounted for 4 out of 5 of the world’s Christians. Today Christians on these two continents are outnumbered by their coreligionists in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
By 2050, reckons the Pew Research Center, 1 of every 3 Christians will be African. These are easily available facts, but the ignorance is striking. For example, how many journalists who think of “evangelical” as “white” appreciate that the tradition of America’s black churches is also largely evangelical?
Philip Jenkins, a Baylor University professor and author of “The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity,” describes what he says is a tectonic shift southward this way: “The church started in Asia and Africa, and now it’s coming home.”
Recognize this and the divisions look very different. Start with “The Camp of the Saints.” Though the title comes from Revelation, the most striking thing about this novel is how little a role Christianity plays in it. The focus is more on race, as indicated by a cover note on an early English translation: “A chilling novel about the end of the white world.”
The story features a progressive Latin American pope, a French culture too enfeebled to defend itself, and hordes of impoverished migrants demanding benefits. In the aftermath of the unhappy experiences in Europe kicked off when Angela Merkel opened Germany’s door to nearly a million Syrian refugees, it’s easy to understand why the book resonates.
But here’s the kicker. Manifestly Europe has entered a post-Christian era. But its Christianity was not killed by outsiders coming in. This was death by suicide. If Europe’s Islamic population threatens anything, it is the cramped and arid secularism that long ago replaced Christianity as the Continent’s reigning creed and is so plainly ill-equipped to meet today’s challenge.
Meanwhile, Christianity continues to grow in the global South, upending many a pet assumption in the process. Within the Anglican communion, for example, it’s hard not to notice that challenges to the progressive theology favored by the church’s white Englishmen and Englishwomen often come from the church’s nonwhite contingents in Africa and Asia. These new Christians are also emigrating and evangelizing, which helps explain all those Nigerian churches in Houston.
More to the point, while whiteness may once have been a fact of European Christian civilization, Christianity is subversive of the idea that a young girl shivering with AIDS in Africa is any way inferior in dignity or worth to a white American. Which may be why those most obsessed with white identity get that Christianity is a problem for them.
Take Richard Spencer, the man credited with coining the term “alt-right.” Recently Mr. Spencer tweeted out an article from his website cautioning followers “not to fall prey to the pro-life temptation.” The white-identity movement, the article suggests, ought to recognize that those most likely to avail themselves of abortion are “the least intelligent and responsible members of society: women who are disproportionately Black, Hispanic and poor.”
The rightist movements in Europe make similar distinctions. In France Marine Le Pen, the National Front leader running for president, has flipped on her party’s earlier rejection of abortion. Like so many others in Europe, her objection to her nation’s growing Muslim population isn’t leading her back to Christianity. To the contrary, it’s leading her to a secular French absolutism that is more welcoming of public Christian symbols—but only so long as they are reduced to the merely cultural.
In an Atlantic piece about what happens when conservatives stop going to church, Peter Beinart makes a similar point. “The alt-right is ultraconservatism for a more secular age,” Mr. Beinart writes. “Its leaders like Christendom, an old-fashioned word for the West. But they’re suspicious of Christianity itself, because it crosses boundaries of blood and soil.”
Indeed. How ironic that the champions of white nationalism are finding their most formidable obstacle to be global Christianity—and especially its increasingly nonwhite demographic.
A Princeton PhD, was a US diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. For the Open World Leadership Center, he speaks with
its delegates from Europe/Eurasia on the topic, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" (http://johnbrownnotesandessays.blogspot.com/2017/03/notes-and-references-for-discussion-e.html). Affiliated with Georgetown University (http://explore.georgetown.edu/people/jhb7/) for over ten years, he still shares ideas with students about public diplomacy.
The papers of his deceased father -- poet and diplomat John L. Brown -- are stored at Georgetown University Special Collections at the Lauinger Library. They are manuscript materials valuable to scholars interested in post-WWII U.S.-European cultural relations.
This blog is dedicated to him, Dr. John L. Brown, a remarkable linguist/humanist who wrote in the Foreign Service Journal (1964) -- years before "soft power" was ever coined -- that "The CAO [Cultural Affairs Officer] soon comes to realize that his job is really a form of love-making and that making love is never really successful unless both partners are participating."