Over the last five decades, the Southern Poverty Law Center has researched, documented and tracked far-right extremist groups that espouse white supremacy, antisemitism, anti-LGBTQ+ hate and other often-intersecting ideologies.
During that time, there have been ebbs and flows in the number of groups spouting virulent philosophies and hate. Old trends repeat, new faces appear, but the underlying harm remains the same.
The just-released, annual Year in Hate and Extremism report from the SPLC’s Intelligence Project, in addition to updating the activities of known hate and anti-government groups, highlights several organizations of another kind: those working to counter the rise of white Christian nationalism. The ideology – intertwining strong antigovernment leanings with antisemitism, white supremacy, American exceptionalism, and a disdain of gun control legislation – found new life in the American “Christian patriot” movement and associated militia groups in the 1990s and is now surging again.
The report is a culmination of the previous year’s research and analysis, designed in a way to both document the evolving threats of violent extremism as well as make recommendations to resist those forces and empower communities to fight back through education and organizing at a grassroots level.
“Research is important in that it can serve members of the community as they work to be resilient, to resist and to respond when necessary to the hate and antigovernment extremist groups that we are providing research on,” said Rachel Carroll Rivas, deputy director of research, reporting and analysis for the SPLC’s Intelligence Project. “The other piece of that is that our research at SPLC for 50 years really has always been a result of the input of the communities that are directly impacted.”
A long, bloody trail
The roots of white Christian nationalism are long, and the seeds of the ideology have been embedded on American soil for more than a century.
“We have been working on issues of religious freedom for all and separation of church and state for 87 years,” said Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit whose focus is defending religious freedom for all people. “I would say for the last few decades, part of our consistent work has been debunking the myth of the United States as a quote-unquote ‘Christian’ nation. This idea that the country was founded by Christians to privilege Christianity and that Judeo-Christian values should be legislated into law and policy and that Christians should enjoy privilege in our society – these ideas strike at the very heart of the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom for all and the way that our country is ordered to maintain the institutional separation of church and state.”
Tyler said the growth of white Christian nationalism, especially as it surfaced in the shooting at “Mother Emanuel” AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015; the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017; and the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in 2018, provided the impetus for the group’s direct effort.
“That’s what led to the launch of Christians Against Christian Nationalism [CACN] in July 2019,” Tyler said. “I think it’s the work that we had been doing in a concerted effort for 18 months before the insurrection that led us to instantly recognize Christian nationalism as it appeared on January 6 and to develop even more resources to help people understand how Christian nationalism helped to bolster and intensify the attack on democracy that we saw at the Capitol that day.”
The CACN effort uses education inside the church community to help defuse and nullify the growth of nationalist tendencies and arm community members against the disinformation that can lead to radicalization.
“Those events, taken together, really convinced us that we needed to be spending more energy on calling out Christian nationalism and helping other Christians, in particular, to learn to recognize it and to have tools to dismantle it,” Tyler said. “We need to do so not only from, again, a constitutional perspective but also a religious perspective, to explain how Christian nationalism is at odds with Christianity and to give them some tools that are in religious language to help them to deal with Christian nationalism both in their own religious communities and in their surrounding neighborhoods.”
Tyler also pointed to the fact that Christian nationalism uses Christianity as cover for an extremist ideology, one steeped in white supremacy.
“One thing to note is that Christian nationalism has been pervasive,” she said. “It’s a deeply seated ideology, so this didn’t happen overnight. I think we’ve seen for centuries how Christian nationalism has really distorted Christianity. Because it uses the language and the symbols of Christianity, to a casual observer it can be difficult to tell the difference between the two. As we saw at the Capitol, people were wearing crosses, displaying Bible verses. There was a prayer said in the Senate chamber. So they use this veneer of Christianity to mask racism and white supremacy in ways that are deeply troubling to everyone, but particularly to Christians who see this religion of peace and equality being distorted and used in this way.”
Finding strength together
This kind of extremism leads to bias-related violence as well as political attacks on groups seen as “the other.”
In the SPLC’s report, the prevalence of antisemitism is highlighted as a mobilizing force in 2022. Online data analysis by the SPLC showed that throughout the 2022 election cycle and peaking on election week, the Hungarian-American Jewish businessman and philanthropist George Soros’ name was used as a standard and persistent antisemitic trope and as a stand-in for more explicitly bigoted statements.
The growth of antisemitic activity in recent years has set off alarm bells well beyond the Jewish community. Last month, President Joe Biden announced the nation’s first national strategy to combat antisemitism, citing FBI statistics that show Jewish people are targeted in 63% of the reported religiously motivated hate crimes, even though they comprise only 2.4% of the U.S. population.
Members of diverse faith and community organizations have formed powerful coalitions to engage in “good trouble,” finding strength and power in diversity and shared experience.
“I know in our Jewish tradition it is mandated that one should not be alone, and I think that is a great lesson for all of us when we feel isolated,” said Rebecca Stapel-Wax, executive director of SOJOURN (Southern Jewish Resource Network for Gender and Sexual Diversity), which is based in Atlanta. “You know that they carry that inoculation against extremism with them. I think one of the best ways that people feel armed is by being informed, being educated. Being at the state capitol and knowing the process or contacting your senator in order to talk with them, feeling like you have the steps in order to make the contact with whatever it is that you’re doing.”
In Georgia, where Stapel-Wax works, the statehouse is not the most inviting place for members of the LGBTQ+ community these days. Like its neighbor to the south, Florida, and other Southern states with predominantly Republican legislatures, the culture war assault on diversity and democracy is in full swing. A bill blocking some kinds of gender-affirming care for minors, including most gender-affirming surgeries and hormone replacement therapies, recently passed into law although it still allows doctors to prescribe puberty blockers. Another bill, modeled on Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law banning discussion of sexual identity in the classroom, passed the Senate but stalled in the House.
“I was just at the Capitol yesterday, and there was a vigil before it went into session,” Stapel-Wax said in March, during the debate on the two bills. “It was an amazing display of community and faith groups. We’re collecting ourselves together so that we could feel like we aren’t alone.”
Like Tyler, Stapel-Wax said she has seen a definite change in the attacks on the LGBTQ+ community. But she also said the support from diverse parts of the community has been uplifting.
“I’ve been doing this work for 18 years, and I have seen momentous progress,” she said. “However, in the last several years, it’s become very different. We have a friend in Tennessee who said that the drag artists there got standing ovations, and so I think that there’s certainly pockets celebrating, supporting and advocating even as these people [extremists] infiltrate boards and panels trying to eliminate any mention of LGBTQ existence. The crowds and the audience of these assemblies are filled with supporters. So it’s not just, ‘Oh, well, we’re gonna go and do this, and everybody agrees with us.’ They’re facing heavy, heavy opposition at every step of the way, and having to really tie themselves in knots, logically and philosophically, to make it make any sense.”
Carroll Rivas said that supporting those efforts, as well as those by similar groups across the country, is at the core of the Year in Hate report and the research the Intelligence Project conducts.
“Researchers have to get out of the ivory tower and onto Main Street for it to have any relevance,” she said. “The hope is that by being at SPLC we have our pulse on the ground in the South and our research in the Intelligence Project has a view that is both longitudinal, 50 years back, and wide-reaching across the country so communities know what is impacting them. They understand who are the players that are targeting and seeking to harm their communities. They see the political implications and then they often know the ways that they are resisting that work and the ways that they are coming together to be resilient in the face of what continues to harm them.”
Photo at top: “I think one of the best ways that people feel armed is by being informed, being educated,” says Rebecca Stapel-Wax, executive director of the Southern Jewish Resource Network for Gender and Sexual Diversity. (Credit: Audra Melton)