by Tom Cordaro
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace
In some ways it feels as if the election of President Joe Biden was a lifetime ago. After counting all the votes, the beginning of the end of our national nightmare seemed at hand. It has been a long time since we had a president that at least would give lip-service to the idea that he will be president of all the people — not just his followers.
But by the end of November, any relief we may have experienced, was tempered by this one undeniable fact: President Trump got over 11 million more votes in this election then he got during his first campaign. This means that after four years of hate speech, lying, catastrophic incompetence and the open promotion of white nationalism, millions more U.S. citizens wanted to give him another four years in office.
Even after his seditious actions to try to overturn the 2020 election results and his incitement to insurrection against the legislative branch of government resulted in an attack on the U.S. Capitol, the political party once known as the GOP is still solidly beholden to Donald Trump. Trump is gone but Trumpism (a form of white nationalism cloaked in a Christian veneer) is still alive and well. The sobering truth is that tens of millions of our fellow citizens would rather live in a white nationalist dictatorship than live in a multi-racial democracy.
The FBI recently warned that the deadly insurrection at the Capitol may not be an isolated episode and the Department of Homeland Security publicly stated for the first time that the United States faces a growing threat from “violent domestic extremists” emboldened by the January 6th attack. Numerous studies, opinion columns, and polling have tried to explain why this is happening and what we might do to contain the threat.
In his New York Times article, “The Resentment That Never Sleeps”, Thomas B. Edsall points to the importance of perceived threats to one’s social status as a major factor contributing to this crisis. As much as wealth and income, perceived status within our social hierarchies is a powerful motivating force of individual and group behavior.
As Edsall points out, “Diminished status has become a source of rage on both the left and right, sharpened by divisions over economic insecurity, geography and, ultimately, values.” Drawing on the work of Peter Hall, a professor of government at Harvard, Edsall points out that those on the left come from the top and bottom of the social hierarchy. Those at or near the bottom gravitate towards the left because of the programs that offer the most economic, social and political redress. People at the top of the social hierarchy often embrace the left out of solidarity with the disenfranchised and the shared commitment to dismantle systems of social, economic and political hierarchies. (Of course, many at the top talk the talk but do not walk the walk.)
In contrast, the people most often drawn to the appeals of right-wing populist politicians, such as Trump, tend to be those who sit several rungs up the socioeconomic ladder from the bottom in terms of their income, race, gender, sexual orientation or occupation. Edsall points out that it is these people who are most susceptible to what Barbara Ehrenreich called a “fear of falling” — namely, anxiety, in the face of an economic or cultural shock, that they might fall further down the social ladder, a phenomenon often described as “last place aversion.”
This fear of falling is what drives many on the far right to embrace ideas like the “great replacement” theory, which warns of a coming white genocide through immigration and changing racial demographics. Mass shootings from New Zealand to San Diego to El Paso, Texas have been motivated by this rhetoric. It has also been amplified by right-wing commentators like Fox News’ Tucker Carlson who warned that the Democratic Party was “trying to replace the current electorate” in the U.S. with “new people, more obedient voters from the Third World.”
What is especially troubling is the role of Christian Churches in this far-right politics of resentment. Robert P. Jones, founder and CEO of PRRI (Public Religion Research Institute) and the author of White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity, points out that public opinion polls show that the relationship between holding racist views and white Christian identity is actually stronger among more frequent church attenders than among less frequent church attenders. This is true not just among white evangelical Protestants in the South, but also among white mainline Protestants in the Midwest and white Catholics in the Northeast. Moreover, these statistical models refute the assertion that attending church makes white Christians less racist.
The fear of losing social status and the privileges and entitlements associated with it point to a deeper unspoken fear that seldom gets examined. This unspoken fear can be brought to light by this question: Why are so many white people afraid of becoming a minority in our demographically changing nation?
Could it be because they are afraid that once they are in the minority, people of color will treat them in the same way they treated people of color when they were in control of all the levers of power? Are white nationalists afraid of payback for 500 years of oppression? Is this why they would go to any lengths (including re-establishing a national system of apartheid or replacing our democracy with a white nationalist dictatorship) to stop this from happening?
As Fr. Bryan Massingale, Pax Christi USA’s 2021 Teacher of Peace, stated, “Whether we want to admit it or not, we all know how race functions in America; it functions in a way that benefits white people and burdens people of color, and especially Black people. That systemic advantage, that awareness that most white Americans have, even if they don’t want to admit it, means that they would never want to be Black in America.”
Speaking openly about this unspoken fear of retribution is the first step in overcoming it. We Christians have the language and spiritual resources for making this work possible. It includes the principles of honest reckoning with the past; repentance and restitution for sins of commission and omission; and reconciliation and healing to wholeness.
Unfortunately, too many churches are more concerned with propagating fear-based systems of rewards and punishments; of serving as gate-keepers to the kingdom; of amplifying and enforcing systems of social hierarchies; and protecting the status quo.
But if the life, teaching, passion, death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ shows us anything, it is how the process of dying to self (ego) leads to new life; how the seed must fall and die in order to bear fruit; how the process of dying and rising is the pattern of discipleship. This is what Jesus meant by metanoia!
To save our democratic republic and the soul of our church, we need to recommit ourselves to these truths and invite all people—without exception—on a path that leads away from fear, not into its grasp; that is defined by inclusion, not by exclusion; and that it is ready to embrace the way of redemptive suffering.