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Lecturer discusses connection between white nationalism, Christianity

| Monday, March 8, 2021

In the parade of flags and banners waving at the Capitol on Jan. 6, Dr. Damon Berry noticed with great interest that both evangelical and anti-Christian symbols were proudly on display, side by side.

Berry, a professor of religious studies at St. Lawrence University, joined associate director of the Klau Center for Civil and Human Rights Dory Mitros Durham for a lecture on religion and white nationalism on Friday, part of the “Building an Anti-Racist Vocabulary” series. Berry has spent years researching the struggle for identity in the alt-right.

“I’d certainly always imagined it as a single entity, and of course religiously dominated by a certain kind of Calvinist Protestant Christianity,” he said. “I found very early on in my research that’s definitely not true.”

In tracing the history of the movement, Berry has discovered the major impact of secular forces.

“My claim was this: Christianity was viewed by some of the most important shapers of American white nationalism to be either deficient in securing the future of the white race, or even actively opposed to that goal,” he said.

Berry has written two books, the second of which comes out this year, that cover the history of this relationship. He spoke first about the long history of anti-Christian white nationalism beginning in the 1950s with an academic and author named Revilo P. Oliver. According to Berry, Oliver’s opposition to Christianity would mold later waves of white nationalists.

“He argues later in his life that all of Christianity was basically a Jewish plot, designed to weaken the racial instincts of Europeans,” Berry said.

As the conservative movement in America matured, Oliver found himself pushed out and left disillusioned. Two other white nationalists — William Pierce, author of “The Turner Diaries,” and Florida legislator Ben Klassen — had similar experiences. Berry said that all three of these men, outspoken about the detrimental impact of Christianity on white nationalism, criticized the new conservative movement.

“These three major figures, who helped establish what American white nationalism is, all had similar opinions both of the conservative movement … and Christianity,” he said.

Berry gave more examples of this phenomenon, including groups that drew on Norse and German myths, across the 20th century.

“We have this pattern developing, where in every sort of iteration, you have very important prominent activists and ideologues being opposed to Christianity,” he said. “It’s a problem and creates a problem for the political goal of establishing a white homeland.”

In recent years, the struggle of the white nationalist has been to reconcile these groups with their deeply religious counterparts. Berry believes that this can explain the widespread support for Donald Trump in 2016, someone who “shared their views on immigration and diversity” behind whom all could rally.

“What they found in Trump was a candidate that can popularize their ideals, without necessarily having to confess their ideology,” Berry said.

This shift is his second point of research for his new book, entitled “Christianity and the Alt-Right: Exploring the Relationship.”

After his presentations, Berry took questions from Durham, including questions about rhetoric and defining terms. Berry clarified his repeated use of “white nationalism,” which seeks to establish a white homeland, instead of “white supremacy,” which is not a movement but a function of everyday life.

“White supremacy, for the most part, doesn’t speak its name. It‘s just the institutional and conditioned norm by which society has been constructed in the context of colonialism, especially in the United States,” he said.

When Durham asked how Catholics should think about and grapple with these questions, Berry pointed to the ideas of a superior European identity shared by white nationalists. He said that Catholics can look honestly at how their perception of their church has been “shaped by a colonialist past, a Eurocentric ideology and undisclosed white supremacist ideology.”

“I think maybe what Catholics can ask themselves, though I’m not a Catholic and wouldn’t presume to tell Catholics what their experience is, is how much of that imagination has formed when we imagined Catholicism to be,” he said.

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