A democracy, if we can keep it

I recently explored the Gun Violence Archive, one of many online resources for tracking the location, death toll, weapons used, and other grim details related to the nearly 19,000 gun deaths to date. ‘now in the United States in 2022. Attacks linked to the widely circulated “white replacement theory”, the outlandish and once fringe idea that a sinister conspiracy is at work to replace what Fox’s Tucker Carlson News calls it “American heritage.” The “heritage” invoked by Carlson is, of course, white and Protestant. With roots stretching back to the earliest days of American life, such anxieties that a “way of life” is threatened – by a supposed influx of illegal immigrants, or a plot to register illegitimate voters, or by the machinations of extremists – have religion at their heart. Here, the ongoing project to achieve true multiracial democracy is presented as an assault on God-fearing “tradition.”

Related is the recurring conservative theater around school curricula, an enduring winner that is dusted off every few years by think tanks, political action committees and budding candidates like Virginia’s Glenn Youngkin, who successfully led his governor’s campaign around slogans involving “parents’ rights”. The issue arose out of the American right’s staunch opposition to Critical Race Theory (CRT), a legal theory examining the legacy of structural racism that was first revealed to the public when President Bill Clinton dropped as his candidate for Attorney General one of the best of this theory. known promoters, Lani Guinier. Classes that teach slavery or xenophobia are themselves portrayed as un-American, the implication uncomfortably close to Josiah Strong’s 1885 book Our countrythat linked American civilization to white Protestantism.

Instead of an America committed to improving roads, green energy and safeguarding voting rights, we live in an America seemingly suffocated by conspiracy theory, jingoism, twisting hands on the right quotient of “woke” that Democrats can carry, and ongoing claims about the unprecedented liberal assault on religious freedom that has made such ferocity necessary. Organizations like Turning Point USA fill social media with alarms about “cultural Marxism” or a “radical secular agenda” threatening America’s greatness, talking points eagerly recirculated up and down the world. institutional scale by Republicans who have long mastered panic over politics.

These are the ingredients of what scholars and journalists have in recent years called Christian nationalism. While there is no doubt that far-right Protestants have made considerable inroads in all three branches of the American government and have sought to undermine democratic institutions in tangible ways, the obsessions with the religiosity of these efforts have not not done much to stop these efforts. It’s because Republicans have made this obsession their most successful rallying cry. Whether at a local school board meeting where parents claim their children are being taught to hate God’s chosen nation, or at the annual Conservative Political Action Committee meeting, the very notion that a “lib “could mock conservative Christianity is, and has long been, this movement’s main source of energy.

It is therefore clear that considerable resources and organization have been devoted to clairvoyance of these various claims that white religion is persecuted. Legions of pundits have pointed to the unreality of persecution claims coming from largely comfortable white conservative Christians. Academics have taken a look at these notions amid the tide of “culture wars” books. But I believe that most current approaches to this subject are upside down: the vaunted Christian nationalism of our time is the product of multiple forces, but it is not the key to understanding the roots of the many problems plaguing America, nor the primary vehicle for analysis if we are to restore a frayed democracy. Instead of asking “why are evangelicals like this?” we should ask “what happened in America to allow such frightening changes?” The decades-long echo of the grievances of white conservatives and those who debunk them is, I argue, a distraction from the urgent need to reassess key elements of what it really means to live in a democracy.

To focus only on conservatives protesting against “religious fanaticism,” or even to hope with good reason for the amplification of other religious voices, is to misunderstand the situation: Americans have failed to understand our ambivalent attachments to democracy -same. This failure is exacerbated by America’s abundance of rage and therapeutic rhetoric, which work together to deflect the fear that our lives are meaningless and that America has failed at democracy. Assimilation can enliven a narrative, but it alienates us from deeper sources of political discontent.

Reconsider the circulation of “white replacement theory” and anxiety around CRT. Certainly, a kind of religious right is at work in these fanciful grievances. No sensible observer could deny it. Yet what I find more evident is a decades-long failure of particular institutions and political norms. Infuriating as it is to encounter fellow citizens who seek to censor historical records, we should strive to ground all debates about education in the very idea of ​​what democracy is. To go beyond these managed dramas, it is better to embrace history as a place of discomfort. At this point in American history, the most compelling reason to investigate the past is to make the future better. Conservative religion and conservative readings of history are not privileged, but are, like all other expressions of identity and narrative, merely part of the spectrum of American things that historical investigators must assess. These assessments must be guided not by fidelity to a frozen past but by resistance to self-glorification and the politics of domination.

Likewise, and regardless of the urgent need for gun restrictions (“well-regulated”, anyone?), America clearly needs a rigorous and sustained re-examination of what exactly citizenship and law mean. birthright in our time. Things are indeed changing. While most Americans are comfortable or even content with this fact, it is no coincidence that the rise of extrajudicial activists – which emerged from the shadows in the 1990s, although its roots are well oldest – occurred during the tenure of America’s first non-white. president, and many of his fiercest practitioners helped plan the Capitol insurrection. Conservative pundits and members of groups like the Oath Keepers warned that Christians were going to be hunted after Obama seized the guns, so there was little point in acting as if the rules applied to them.

Never has the experience of white masculinity so publicly emphasized its own victimhood when the mere existence of other humans unwilling to remain silent about their own histories, experiences, and actual oppression was translated into the idiom of white masculinity. ‘offensive. Indeed, in response to the Black Lives Matter marches in response to the execution of George Floyd in May 2020, activists like Charlie Kirk and Trump himself have repeatedly said that a Biden victory would spell the end of suburbs and churches. .

In the smoldering wake of the Trump administration, the national conversation has shown signs of opening up to broader considerations of belonging, entitlement and, indeed, birthright. Yet the opposition is fierce and our public institutions deeply compromised. Our politics are the result of decades of harangues about “tradition” and the “American dream” rather than what citizenship and good society require in substance. This is the result of thinking that the politics of economic materialism can or should be meaningfully distinguished from identity politics. It’s the result of decades of peddlers and anti-Democrats convincing large swaths of the American people that if anyone else is allowed to be part of “we” in “we the people,” our own status will be immediately threatened. And, it must be admitted, the academy has a role to play in this for having become so nervous about the truly socially critical role that academics should play.

In this scary time for American democracy, the best way to starve anti-democratic forces of their energy is to shift the subject away from conservative religion and demand investments in civic education, democratic localism and human rights. The next five to ten years will tell the story of American democracy itself. If Americans let the forces of authoritarianism continue to set the tone and the subject, it will be impossible to do the work necessary to keep it going.

Featured image: 2021 United States Capitol storming via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

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