A memorial in Buffalo, New York, is seen May 17 following a weekend of filming at a Tops supermarket. A white man is accused of killing 10 people and injuring 3. Eleven of the victims were black. (CNS/Reuters/Brendan McDermid)
The recent mass shooting in Buffalo is another chilling reminder that the white supremacist racism and violence that is the basis of our nation’s history must once again be confronted with moral clarity and bold action.
Racism, nativism and xenophobia existed long before Donald Trump came to power, of course, but his election – driven in part by white backlash against the nation’s first black president – helped mainstream white nationalism and energizing hate groups such as the Proud Boys.
Fear of an increasingly diverse nation and the “end of white Christian America,” as public opinion researcher and writer Robert P. Jones put it in his 2016 book of the same name, have created a cultural climate conducive to the resurgence of extremism, QAnon conspiracy theories, an increase in hate crimes and right-wing populism in politics fueled by anti-immigrant rhetoric.
Earlier this week, a Christian nationalist, Doug Mastriano, won the GOP primary for Governor of Pennsylvania. As a state senator, Mastriano spoke out against coronavirus lockdowns by quoting the Bible, and he denied that Joe Biden won the 2020 election. “I truly pray that God will pour out his Spirit upon Washington, DC like we’ve never seen before,” he said at the Trump rally ahead of the Jan. 6, 2021, uprising at the U.S. Capitol.
Last month, Mastriano raised campaign funds at a far-right Christian conference titled “Patriots Rise Up for God and Country” that featured speakers promoting a range of QAnon conspiracies, including the lie that Democratic Party leaders are involved in a secret child sex trafficking ring. .
Bishop Michael W. Fisher of Buffalo, New York, places flowers at a memorial on May 17, 2022, after a mass shooting at a Tops supermarket. The accused shooter is a white man who espoused white supremacist ideas and whose writings indicate he intentionally targets black people. (CNS/Reuters/Brendan McDermid)
The toxic mix of Christian nationalism, racist tropes, conspiracy theories and misinformation is not relegated to the fringes of the internet. Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, who hosts one of the nation’s most-watched cable shows, promotes white supremacy poison that white Americans are “replaced” with dark-skinned immigrants. These lies, fear and racism are served like dinner on TV to millions of Americans every night.
A New York Times article on Carlson revealed that he had promoted variations of the replacement theory to his audience in more than 400 episodes since 2016. In a video posted to Fox New’s YouTube account in September, Carlson said that President Biden was encouraging immigration “to change the racial mix of the country…to reduce the political power of people whose ancestors lived here.
The replacement ideology is now being integrated into several GOP political races. Carlson rallied his viewers in support of Trump-backed JD Vance, the Republican Senate nominee from Ohio who said Democrats “have said they can’t be reelected in 2022 unless they bring a large number of new voters to replace the voters who are already there.” In Arizona, Republican Senate candidate Blake Masters accused Democrats of being pro-immigrant because they want to “change the demographics of our country.”
As Catholics, we can draw on our intellectual, moral, and spiritual tradition to challenge the racist and anti-immigrant ideologies that now dominate the religious and political right. Pope Francis has criticized what he calls “myopic, extremist, resentful and aggressive nationalism”.
A faithful Catholic can never be a Christian nationalist without challenging the Gospel because Catholicism, a global faith, calls us to defend the global common good. We stand in the shadow of the cross, not the flag. But as Catholics, we are also heirs to a tradition that has long perpetuated white supremacy as a religiously sanctioned policy. And even today, too many white Catholics with money and power spend more time attacking the Black Lives Matter movement and mocking what they call “wokeism” on the left than to combat systemic racism.
Timothy Busch of the Napa Institute, an influential network of deep-pocketed conservative Catholics, used his platform at the organization’s summer conference last August to argue that the Black Lives Matter movement “promotes racism, critical race theory and destroys the nuclear family”. Busch added that “this neo-Marxist movement, operating under a discriminatory theory of Black Lives Matter, attacks the American experience, which is based on Judeo-Christian principles. We must pray for this to end or our country will be destroyed.”
I have no doubt that Busch would condemn the Buffalo shooting and consider himself a white supremacist rejecter. But when white Catholics with influence and a following in the church demean racial justice movements and promote nationalism in the name of upholding “Judeo-Christian” principles, their rhetoric contributes to a culture where activists blacks and browns are demonized as threats – ample fodder for the pernicious stereotypes and grotesque machinations of white supremacist extremists.
Salon’s new investigative reporting series on the growing ties between some traditionalist Catholics and white nationalists – an expose that reveals how the militant right-wing church wing is increasingly embroiled in racist movements – is another wake-up call for anyone who thinks we don’t have serious work to do as white Catholics.
Honestly confronting our own internalized racism as individuals and as a church can be an uncomfortable undertaking. But it is essential to the transformation of hearts and social systems that make racism systemic.
“Whatever is faced cannot be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced,” wrote James Baldwin. Maureen O’Connell’s important book, Untying the Knots: Five Generations of American Catholic Anti-Blacksoffers a model for how white Catholics can come to terms with our stories and find a way forward as people who seek racial justice.
“Digging through my racist family’s Catholic family history was difficult because I was continually preparing for what I might find,” O’Connell told me. “But this defensive, reinforced posturing actually consumes emotional energy that in the long run doesn’t get me – doesn’t get white Catholics like me – anywhere. I think the more we work at being honest about our stories, so that we can focus on ourselves, we increase our ability to be more present to the range of emotions that racism elicits. By being more present to all of this within ourselves, we increase our likelihood of being present to others closer to the pain of racism who can cause us to channel our emotional energy more productively.”
The screaming pain and anger of grieving black families in Buffalo must not be their only burden to bear. White Americans, especially those of us guided by a faith that finds its resurrection in the shadow of the cross, must also share this anger and this pain so that from this place of anguish and death we may find a new way of living white supremacy has again proven to be a clear and present danger to a multiracial, multifaith democracy that honors the sacred dignity of all people. It is now our generational task to end it.
Enter your email address to receive free newsletters from NCR.