Over the weekend, the streets of Charlottesville filled with white supremacists and members of the alt-right movement bent on preserving a “white culture” and the white identity they feel to be under attack.
Their “Unite the Right” rally quickly devolved into violence as white supremacists clashed with counter-protestors, culminating in an attack by James Alex Fields, Jr., a 20-year-old Nazi sympathizer. Fields drove a car through the crowds, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others.
What happened in Charlottesville, according to some Christians, is the fruit of a “Satanic” ideology that preaches racial segregation and white dominance. These Christians claim that Satan ― and not Christ, as some groups assert ― is behind the movement to preserve and protect “white culture” against the forces of liberalism, globalization and multiculturalism.
Franklin Graham, a preacher known for espousing bigoted views toward immigrants, Muslims and members of the LGBTQ community, was quick to say Satan was behind the events in Charlottesville, though he did not refer to white supremacists specifically. In a Facebook post Sunday evening, Graham defended President Donald Trump’s handling of the violence, saying Satan alone is to blame.
“Really, this boils down to evil in people’s hearts,” the evangelist wrote. “Satan is behind it all. He wants division, he wants unrest, he wants violence and hatred. He’s the enemy of peace and unity.”
In an op-ed for The Washington Post on Monday, prominent evangelical theologian Russell Moore expressed a similar read on what happened in Charlottesville.
“White supremacy is Satanism,” Moore asserted. “Even worse, white supremacy is a devil-worship that often pretends that it is speaking for God.”
The Christian gospel asserts that “all nations” derive from the same divine origins and that Jesus envisioned his own church as a force that would unite the globe, Moore argued.
White supremacy, he said, is fundamentally opposed to these biblical principles. And that should disturb Christians.
Moore described the Charlottesville protesters’ chanting of “blood and soil,” a phrase inspired by Nazi ideology, as “idolatry of the flesh, the human being seeking to deify his own flesh and blood as God.”
“The Scripture defines this attempt at human self-exaltation with a number: 666,” he continued. “White supremacy does not merely attack our society (though it does) and the ideals of our nation (though it does); white supremacy attacks the image of Jesus Christ himself.”
This was, after all, what the Nazis were after too. Adolf Hitler himself was antagonistic toward religion, noted J. Lee Grady, former editor of Christian magazine, Charisma.
“A huge majority of Germans, under the spell of this spiritual deception, supported Nazi policies,” wrote Grady in an article published Wednesday. “It is no surprise that many Christians in the 1940s viewed Hitler as the Antichrist.”
What should trouble Christians most right now, Moore argued, isn’t just the racist underpinnings of the alt-right but the fact that many white supremacists seek to promote a separate, white existence “in the name of Jesus Christ.”
White supremacists and alt-right advocates tend to be united around a deep belief in white difference, if not superiority, and a desire for racial segregation. Most are also aligned in their abhorrence for Judaism. Membership in some of the groups, including Identity Evropa and the National Socialist Movement, is limited to individuals who are white and “non-Semitic.”
Though not categorically united around Christianity, many of the alt-right and white supremacist groups that gathered in Charlottesville weave Christian language into their statements of belief. Some, like the Ku Klux Klan, assert overt Christian allegiance. As one Klan member explained his interpretation of Christian scripture to Ilia Calderón, a reporter who is black and an immigrant, the Bible’s mandate to “love thy neighbor” applies only to “thy people.” In his case, he said, that means white people.
On its official website, the KKK draws a distinction between what it calls “mainstream Christians” and “committed Christians.” The former bow to “liberal theology,” which presents Jesus as “a good man” whose “most important message is that we are to love everybody.” The latter, with whom the KKK identify, hold fast to the belief “that homosexuality is a sin, race mixing is a sin, abortion is a sin and obedience to civil authority above that of Godly authority is idolatry.”
Others groups, including the Nationalistic Front and the Traditionalist Workers Party, speak of unifying “the traditional faiths of the European people.” Under that umbrella fall most denominations of Christianity, as well as agnostics and “folk religionists.”
Some groups speak more generally about “family values” and a shared understanding of the centrality of faith.
In fact, it’s in these broader descriptions of the alt-right vision that influential Christian theologian Tim Keller sees the most pernicious threat of white supremacy.
In an op-ed published on The Gospel Coalition website Tuesday, Keller wrote: “Twentieth-century fascist movements that made absolute values out of ‘Blut und Boden’ (‘Blood and Soil’) ... also claimed to champion traditional family values and moral virtues over against the decadence of relativistic modern culture.”
These ideologies “could and can still appeal to people” within American Christian circles today through online efforts to “radicalize people who are disaffected by moral decline in society.”
“We need to make those in our circles impervious to this toxic teaching,” Keller wrote, or, perhap in other words, protect them from Satan.