Survey Data Indicates a Complicated Relationship between Religion and Racial Attitudes by George Hawley

October 29, 2018

When thinking about the relationship between the alt-right and Christianity, it is worth noting that many theories are plausible. One could make a strong case that the decline of Christianity will benefit the extreme right. It is also possible that the decline of Christianity will have the opposite effect. It is additionally worth considering that there is no substantive connection between the two, or that any such connection is small.

As Professor Damon Berry argued in his outstanding book on the subject, most important leaders of the white nationalist movement have despised Christianity. They have many good reasons for doing so. Although you can make a case that Christianity is inherently intolerant when it comes to religion—and Christian anti-Semitism is well documented—it is very hard to use Christian theology to justify non-religious racial hatred. Christianity has an element of global egalitarianism that is difficult to escape, unless you are willing to distort Christianity to such an extent that it is no longer recognizable. Most important contemporary Christian leaders speak out very strongly against racism.

On the other hand, it would be disingenuous to claim that American Christianity has always been on the side of racial egalitarianism. Well before the culture wars over marriage equality and abortion, the Christian Right was first motivated by the fight against racial desegregation. We should also not forget that in the antebellum South, many people found a biblical justification for racial slavery. Furthermore, public opinion data consistently finds that non-religious whites are more politically progressive than religious whites.

Based on all of this, we could posit several theories with comparable levels of believability. To consider this question, I have spent a lot of time looking at recent survey data and what they show us about the relationship between religion and racial attitudes. My findings below are from the 2016 American National Election Study.

In the scholarly literature, we typically look at three separate components of religion: believing, belonging, and behaving. I and many others have considered how these components relate to racial sentiments. I am particularly interested in survey questions relating to the strength of white racial identity, feelings of white solidarity, and feelings of white grievance, as these are key components of many far-right ideologies.

As I look at how religion influences these attitudes, I see a lot of null results—cases in which religious attributes exhibit no statistically-significant nor substantively-important influence on racial attitudes. For example, I found no connection between feelings of white identity and any religious variable. And in cases where I did see significant results, they are not always in the same direction. High levels of religiosity were related to more tolerant attitudes on some questions, and the reverse on others. For example, white biblical literalists were much more likely than other whites to support reducing immigration; on the other hand, they were also much more likely to support affirmative action for African-Americans.

I found a very similar effect for the importance of religion on the question of whether whites face discrimination today. Compared to those who did not say religion was important to their lives, those who said it was were about 1.6 times as likely to express feelings of racial discrimination.

This is complicated, however, in that we see a different effect for worship attendance. Compared to whites who never attend religious services, those that attended services once a week or more were considerably less likely to say they felt discriminated against on racial grounds—only about 0.7 times as likely.

What is the takeaway from all this? My current view is that the question of religion and racial attitudes, as well as views on policy issues that are entangled with race, is complicated. My own research on this topic is obviously not the final word on this question. There is other empirical work that confirms and challenges some of the findings I just mentioned.

Because I find so many null results, small results, and inconsistent results, I must presently conclude that the state of Christianity is only loosely connected to the state of the racist right. A massive resurgence of Christian identification and practice—which I consider unlikely at the moment—would probably not solve the nation’s racial problems. Nor would the faith’s total collapse. Although I will continue to research this subject, and know others will do the same, at present I do not see Christianity or secularism as a panacea to our many great challenges.

George Hawley is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama.

This post originally appeared on the Berkley Forum, a blog by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University. The post is a response to a recent conference, co-sponsored by Religion and Its Publics and the Berkley Center, entitled Christianity and the Alt-Right: Exploring the Relationship. Full video of the conference, broken into three panels, is available from C-SPAN here: Christianity and the Alt-Right in the pastChristianity and the Alt-Right in the present, and Christianity and the Alt-Right in the future.

Religion and Reactionary White Politics by Damon Berry

October 29, 2018

Race, religion, and politics have long shared a space in American discourse. In the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) took advantage of popular xenophobia to form a white fraternity organized to defend Anglo-Protestant America. In so doing, they developed a gospel of their own to support a unified political and social movement. But in less than 10 years the Klan was suffering from scandals and infighting that cost the organization its previously held national influence. Although the Klan of the 1920s declined in the 1930s, it left its mark in its ability to gather popular support for the racialized immigration restrictions of the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 and in a rhetoric of religious and racial nationalism that long outlived it.

The alt-right has been compared to the KKK, often with less attention to the differences in the way the respective movements regard religion. Both movements now indelibly represent a perennial reactionary racism that speaks of white Americans as the true American species under threat from the alleged prolific breeding and predatory criminality of non-whites. But while the Klan of the 1920s was a national organization with established leadership, the alt-right is more of a milieu—decentralized, complex, and diverse. And while the Klan saw itself as a Protestant organization defending white America, the alt-right is not identified with any single religious perspective. In fact, the issue of religion is often handled carefully among those affiliated with the alt-right as a discourse that resembles that of secularized religious tolerance.

Beginning in the late 1960s, the most significant articulators of a new form of white racist activism that came to be called white nationalism have critiqued Christianity as fundamentally anti-white and therefore existentially dangerous to the white race. The fact that Christianity has its roots in Judaism was of course a source of contention, but more importantly, Christianity was seen by them as an alien religious ideology that had poisoned the racial consciousness of Europeans.

Intense debates ensued over the following decades between advocates of new racial religions, and even those who advocated for no religion at all, and racial activists who still held to racist and anti-Semitic forms of Christianity. In time these divisions over religion came to be seen by a new generation of white nationalists as endangering the larger project of securing the existence of their people and a future for white children. By 2010, some white nationalists were arguing that such schisms were counterproductive in pursuing the political goal of establishing an all-white homeland in North America. In addition to this concern, some worried that outright opposition to Christianity would alienate white conservative Christians who might be convinced to join white nationalists in common cause. But if white nationalists were to “red pill” those conservatives they had to present themselves as at least welcoming to those Christians.

More recently, conversations about accommodating racially conscious Christians have continued within the white identity sectors of the alt-right. For example, in a 2017 webisode of Radio 3Fourteen, Lana Lokteff, one of the leading women in the alt-right who identifies as pagan, interviewed Adam and Mary Grey, the hosts of a what they describe as a “pro-white, Christian podcast of the alt-right” titled Good Morning White America. Ms. Lokteff stated at the beginning of the episode that their conversation was making a “middle ground” between racially conscious pagans and pro-white Christians. At the conclusion of the episode she went on to say that debates about the esoteric are “futile at this time,” and that “it’s best to avoid arguing with anyone on our side about their spirituality.” Rather, she argued, the Alt-Right should “seek a happy medium.”

Two points emerge here. First, religion is not secondary to the ongoing development of the alt-right and white nationalism more broadly, but rather an important element in its political strategies. Understanding how various sectors of the alt-right are negotiating this topic is crucial. Second, regarding the longer trend, white Americans have been embroiled in the drama of race, religion, and reactionary politics in many ways throughout American history. Much of the academic work on this topic will need to be historical to make sense of the alt-right—the alt-right is likely history already. But what we need to consider is what form of white nationalism lies ahead of it and what role religion will play in its development and public presentation.

Damon Berry is an assistant professor of religious studies at St. Lawrence University

This post originally appeared on the Berkley Forum, a blog by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University. The post is a response to a recent conference, co-sponsored by Religion and Its Publics and the Berkley Center, entitled Christianity and the Alt-Right: Exploring the Relationship. Full video of the conference, broken into three panels, is available from C-SPAN here: Christianity and the Alt-Right in the pastChristianity and the Alt-Right in the present, and Christianity and the Alt-Right in the future.

Christianity and the Alt-Right Conference: Video and Analysis

October 22nd, 2018 – Religion and Its Publics co-sponsored an interdisciplinary conference to investigate the rise of the Alt-Right and its complex relationship with religion. Held at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University, and broadcast live on C-SPAN, it featured three panels to explore the historical roots of the movement, the current state of affairs, and future trends. A recap of the event can be found here.

Full video of the conference, broken into three panels, is available here: Christianity and the Alt-Right in the pastChristianity and the Alt-Right in the present, and Christianity and the Alt-Right in the future.

The Orthodox Crisis: How Long will the Hostilities between Moscow and Constantinople Last? By Sergey F. Dezhnyuk

October 19, 2018

Lenin once quipped that Russia without Ukraine is a body without a head. Zbigniew Brzezinski echoed the same theme by insisting that Russia ceases to be an empire without Ukraine. Although recent developments in the world of the Orthodox Church cannot be reduced to mere geopolitics, they do reflect the overall applicability of this theory.

On October 15th, the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) announced that it is severing Eucharistic Communion with the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople (EP), the “primus inter pares”  – or first among equals – of the Orthodox Church, after the latter granted Ukraine’s Church independence from Russia. According to the ROC synod, the EP’s decision represents an “encroachment of the Patriarchate of Constantinople upon the canonical territory of the Russian Orthodox Church,” and was objected to on these grounds. The ROC also objected to the EP’s decision for more technical theological reasons, claiming that it allows “schismatics” to take communion. (More on this in a moment.)

The Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, is generally viewed as the leading authority for the world’s 300 million Orthodox believers. But the Russian Church is its most numerous, powerful and wealthy global member. The implications of the EP’s action are profound. But reports of a schism in the Orthodox Church are premature.

Four days before the ROC’s October 15th announcement, the Ecumenical Patriarchate, based in Istanbul, revoked its decision, made in 1686, to give Moscow some rights over Ukrainian ecclesial territory. This move severely weakens Moscow’s hold on the Ukrainian Church. The EP also satisfied petitions from Patriarch Filaret of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate (UOC-KP) and Metropolitan Makarii of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC) to restore them to full communion with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Members of the UOC-KP and the UAOC, now able to take communion in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, are the “schismatics” that the ROC synod refers to.

The history of the three major Orthodox churches in Ukraine is complex. Filaret had once been a leading candidate for the position of the Patriarch of the ROC. He lost. As the Metropolitan of Kiev, in 1992, Filaret orchestrated a split within Ukrainian Orthodoxy and established the UOC KP, which now claims to be the largest – by number of faithful – Orthodox Church in the county. For that, Filaret was anathematized by the Russian Church. But that anathema no longer stands after the EP’s October 11th pronouncement.

The story of UAOC is even more complicated. Its existence reflects the long-held desire of a vast number of Ukrainian Orthodox for their own independent (“autocephalous”) Church, which is why they resisted joining the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, whose full name is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) is composed of those who decided to remain within the ROC in 1992, and although technically autonomous, the UOC (MP) was largely subordinated to the ROC, especially under its current head, Metropolitan Onufriy. This is why the UAOC kept its distance from the OUC (MP).  Now that the UOC (MP) is independent, the separation between it and the UAOC makes less sense, and because of the EP’s recent pronouncement, they are now in full communion with one another.

So, the Russian annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Eastern Ukraine in 2014 intensified the process of seeking autocephaly, but it did not initiate it.

The political dimensions and geopolitical implications of these developments are now in the open. Ukrainian president Poroshenko has long advocated for a united Ukrainian Orthodox Church as a means to counter Russian aggression, which was often openly supported by the ROC and by some hierarchs of UOC (MP).

After the Ecumenical Patriarchate granted the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, the UOC (MP), independence from Moscow, the Kremlin immediately vowed to “protect Orthodox believers in Ukraine.” President Vladimir Putin quickly called a Security Council meeting on October 12th with an agenda dedicated solely to issues of Ukrainian Orthodoxy. After all, Ukraine is an integral part of Moscow’s – both ecclesial and political – neo-imperial ideology of “Russkij Mir\Russian World.”

What are the ramifications of these developments?  Contrary to some recent headlines, there is neither “split” nor “schism” between Moscow and Constantinople along the lines of the one between Christian East and West in 1054. First, the ROC did not anathematize the EP; there is no charge of “heresy.” Second, the EP did not reciprocate the ROC’s decision to sever Eucharistic Communion. The ROC clergy and faithful are still welcome in the EP parishes.

The history of the Eastern Orthodox Church is full of similar acts that were healed in time. The ROC itself was out of communion with Constantinople for a century following the events of the Council of Florence.

In Ukraine, existing Orthodox Churches will have to dismantle their administrative structures to establish a new one. It is expected that most Ukrainian Orthodox churches will join a new pan-Ukrainian Orthodox Council. Those who do not join the new unified body and choose to stay faithful to the ROC will be able retain their church property, contrary to Russian propaganda designed to scare people into thinking otherwise. When the structures of the unified Ukrainian Orthodox Church are established, which could and probably will occur by the end of 2018, Patriarch Bartholomew will grant this body the Tomos, a founding document for any autocephalous church.

When the dust settles, this move will re-arrange the global balance within the conglomerate of 15 autocephalous Orthodox Churches. Instead of the current bipolarity (Moscow-Constantinople), a new order will emerge. The ROC will probably still be the largest member, closely followed by the unified Ukrainian Orthodox Church. The Romanian Orthodox Church would then be the third largest, and this status might have powerful ramifications for the ROC’s current modus operandi in the West, the Romanians themselves, and the EP.

There is some indication that in time the Belarusian Orthodox Church (BOC), which currently holds the status of Exarchate under the ROC, would also seek autocephaly. If that occurs, the unified Ukrainian Orthodox Church will become the largest Orthodox body.

With the realization of its long dream to become one, united, canonically recognized Ukrainian Orthodox Church, there come dangers. There is still open armed conflict between Ukraine and Russia. Bullets fly every day and soldiers from both sides are buried in Ukrainian and Russian soil. In the context of elevated national loyalty, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church could become the de facto State Church. This could closely mirror the role the ROC plays in Russia, where Patriarch Kirill is a close ally of President Putin.

Besides the political implications of this, there is strong evidence that ethnophyletism would reemerge in Ukrainian Orthodoxy, which was proclaimed to be a heresy by the Orthodox Church in 1872.

Regardless of what happens, something is beyond dispute: Russia could conquer Ukraine by neither bullets nor “hybrid war.” Its use of the Russian Church to keep Ukrainian Orthodoxy in check has failed. Russia, now without Ukraine, is no longer an empire.

Sergey F Dezhnyuk is a Ukrainian-American theologian and vice-president of Independent American Center of Political Monitoring. He teaches philosophy and religion at Tulsa Community College.