Our Body Politic

Reporting on Domestic Extremism, One Family Marked by It and White Evangelical Christianity’s Extremist Links

Episode Notes

Host Farai Chideya shares her experience at the “Justice for J6” rally and talks about how extremists view the media with reporter Chris Jones of the outlet 100 Days in Appalachia. Wes Moore, who’s running for governor in Maryland, says his ancestors facing white supremacists inspires his political career. Rue Mapp of Outdoor Afro helps others realize that “nature never closes.” And in a special roundtable, Anthea Butler and Robert P. Jones, two experts on religion and politics, explore how white evangelical Christianity is linked to extremism in the U.S.


0:45 Farai discusses her experience at the “Justice for J6” rally with fellow extremism reporter Chris Jones

12:42 Wes Moore on his campaign priorities as he runs for Governor of Maryland

23:31 Rue Mapp of Outdoor Afro on ways to take advantage of nature

31:28 Sippin’ the Political Tea: Anthea Butler and Robert P. Jones on the intersection of religion and politics in the U.S.

Episode Transcription

Farai Chideya: Thank you for listening and sharing Our Body Politic. We're so grateful for all the listeners whose input has helped shape the show. We would not be here without you. So as you're listening today, do us a favor, go to Apple Podcast and please leave us a review. It helps more people find us and we read every one. Your feedback matters to us. Thank you so much. This is Our Body Politic. I’m the creator, and host, Farai Chideya.

I’ve covered politics for 30-plus years and interviewed white supremacists and nationalists for the past 25. The reason is simple: they, too, are my fellow Americans. Much of mainstream journalism has ignored them or marginalized them, assuming that their relevance had long passed. It hasn’t. I was at the Capitol on January 6th, interviewing peaceful protesters who’d come for the Stop the Steal rally. Like Jay, a young Black man from Massachusetts, who supported Donald Trump.

Jay Clip:

I don’t listen to the media any more, I used to, and I felt like I was being brainwashed at the end of the day.

Chideya: I left before the storming of the Capitol building. But I did see the energy of the crowd that day building to a fever pitch. I was there again two weeks later on Inauguration Day. No one knew what would happen, but security this time was tight. And luckily nothing violent went down.  So when I went back to the Capitol on Sept 18 for “Justice for J6,” a rally in support of the January 6th insurrectionists, I didn’t expect to see much activity.

Chideya (outside:)

There was a guy who just rolled by us on a scooter with a great Dane or some other sort of large dog in a camouflage backpack saying pro-American, anti Biden. But he is actually one of the few protesters who appear to be here right now…

Chideya: That was a bit of an audio diary of me walking into the crowd. And the person who I was describing turns out to be self-described former Army ranger, Jeremiah Shivers, originally from Colorado:

Jeremiah Shivers:

And those soldier or those, uh, Patriots. You know, some of them you know, deserve to be in there, obviously for what they did. Some of them were also led in by police officers that just waved them in.

Chideya: One investigative reporter from Salon tweeted out that he thought there were 600 reporters and 20 protestors. I would say it was actually probably more like 600 reporters and 50 protestors. You had people from all over the world, including Lindy-Ann, from South Africa:

Lindy-Ann Hopley:

That's why we here. Cause there are people that have been, um, injustly taken into prison.”


Plus Tony Smith, who told me he’s a veteran from Maryland who supports Donald Trump. Tony is Black.

Tony Smith: “America First,” we use that as such a dogmatic racist term, but it's not. It's that we have a government that puts the interest of the American people first. And that is what African Americans have been fighting for before the civil rights, after the civil rights, until today.


The rally last Saturday was planned by a nonprofit called “Look Ahead America,” led by a former Trump campaign staffer. And we’re going to get into the details of that day with my next guest. Chris Jones leads investigative coverage at the award-winning outlet, 100 Days in Appalachia and specializes in domestic extremism. He's also a marine corps veteran, served in Afghanistan, and also as an EMT in Pittsburgh. Chris was covering the rally too and I invited him onto the show to compare notes, Chris, welcome.

Chris Jones: Thank you. Appreciate you having me on.

Chideya: So I knew this wasn't going to be a January 6th, you knew it wasn't going to be a January 6th. Why did you show up anyway?

Jones: I think the fact that this was the first rally in Washington D.C. that was explicitly tied to the sixth and what occurred that day, obviously there's a reason to be there. But another thing for me is after a really major event where you have extremist groups and especially when you have violence, I always try to make a point to sort of follow up with the space, not just the people. So I was watching the law enforcement response as much as the people who showed up, and I was also interested in seeing are there any new faces? Are there any new groups that are trying to be highly visible in this issue?

Chideya: And so how would you describe what your approach was to going in? I mean, for me, when I go into spaces, I'm aware that I'm embodied. I am embodied as a Black woman of a certain size and a certain age, and I just walk in with a sense of respect for what it means to ask people questions. They don't owe me anything. They don't owe me answers, but they talk to me because they want to talk. How would you describe how you walk into a space and what you seek to do?

Jones: For me, being very conscious of my identity, right? I'm a six foot tall white guy with a beard coming from West Virginia, I wear a Norfolk Southern hat, right? So for me, I think a lot of it is being as low, as innocuous, and as low profile as possible. I don't want you to be thinking... I don't want you to be looking at me and getting a bunch of clues about where you think I fit into this, right? I want to be, ideally, nothing, but at best, a question mark. And the event we went to, the ratio is maybe five, 10 to one, in terms of press to participants. And in that kind of an event, I'm just as interested in the press themselves as I am the people that they're there to cover. Because an issue like this, as you well know, I mean, we are as much part of the point, for lack of a better term, for why these groups come out as anybody else. One thing that the one of the main speakers at the event we went to, he said, "Be nice to the press. They're our friends today," right? And that today, to me, really drove home and the reminder that you and I come cover groups that will play nice with us, as long as they think that we're helpful for their ends.

Chideya: Yeah, absolutely. So I want to hear a little bit about what you did learn.

Jones: Yeah. So that day was a big listening day for me. I actually honestly spent most of my time listening to other interviews as they were happening. And then specifically listening to the conversations that participants were having amongst one another, that kind of a thing. I had an interesting conversation with one individual who was not an aggressive participant, but clearly decided to show up because he thought that the speaker had a point. And he said, "Oh, we're really glad you guys are out here to get our message out."

Chideya: Yes.

Jones: Right?

Chideya: Exactly.

Jones: And hearing that this movement and this idea, and these people who have a very specific response to J6, it really just drove home that they see the way media portrays them as positive or allows them to reach a broader platform.

Chideya: So I spoke with one gentleman who first used the word soldiers to describe the January 6th protestors and then sort of corrected himself and said patriots. He himself described himself as a former army ranger. As a veteran yourself, what do we need to know about the intersections of military and veteran identity, and insurrection, et cetera?

Jones: Definitely. I think the most important thing to understand is that veterans are not a monolith, right? We're a pretty multifaceted segment of society. And we're also a very powerful one, right? There's a lot of societal trust in a veteran. And because of that, people who are politically minded know that if we can show off veterans the most, if we can use them as a tool the most, we can convince a lot of people that we're the good guys. It's also worth noting too, right? This is not new. White nationalists and white supremacists have always wrapped themselves up in the trappings of the American military. Carrying American service weapons, wearing American uniforms. So if somebody's talking to you about veterans and they're not really primarily placing the veterans themselves, if they're not saying, "Well, we're really mostly focused on how this impacts veterans and how we can help veterans," I personally am going to be suspect of that.

Chideya: So Chris, has there been a change in the kind of language that people use, in these communities that are organizing these events?

Jones: Definitely. And I think we've seen this shift really across far right, both explicitly violent extremist groups, as well as more institutionalized "mainstream conservative political groups". One thing you and I heard was on the stage, the speaker at this J6 rally, he kept trying to position the J6 people who are still under arrest as... Approaching them as a civil rights issue. He used a lot of civil rights language. He used a lot of I have some somebody on this stage who's not a conservative, this is a civil rights issue for them. There's a real explicit attempt to position themselves as part of not just a mainstream discourse, but as part of a liberal or I'd even say progressive language, and way to express one's selves. You also see this, like I said, in explicit far right violent groups where you... I track a lot of these different organizations and you see them changing their names from militia to mutual aid group, because they watched how important and how accepted mutual aid organizations and the mutual aid approach to volunteering and community sustainment. They saw how effective that was in 2020 during COVID, right?

Chideya: Yeah.

Jones: And so that's one of the things I'm really watching closely, and this is something that has clear historical roots.

Chideya: Yeah. I mean, there's definitely lots of parallels to the CCC, that essentially were the nicey nice, will bring you brownies version of the KKK.

Jones: Right.

Chideya: Yeah. I mean, I have been just scanning as we've been talking through some of the coverage of the Justice for J6 and I see something that, frankly, I find disturbing, which is basically people like, "Oh, look, it's over. This thing was tiny. We've turned a corner." What do you think?

Jones: I think, to quote, actually, one of insurrectionist, and he said this to me on the steps of the Capitol as it was starting to wind down, he said, "This is the first chapter," right? January 6th, like you said, is constantly being referred to as the end of something, and very much, it was the beginning of a new phase. Things that are happening politically, things that are happening at the state and local level in terms of legislative agendas, they're very connected to what we saw on January 6th. I think a lot of people forget that the point of ending the peaceful democratic transfer of power in the executive branch of the U.S. government was not just to say we won, it was to advance specific legislative agendas. And those agendas are being advanced. We can look at what's going on in Texas right now, with this abortion legislation, right? We have a midterm election coming up, the attempts to delegitimize election security and validity are very active. For me, I'm grateful that I'm not having guns pointed at me or worrying about tear gas grenades going off, but there's a lot to pay attention to right now. And ideally, if we do our jobs right, we hopefully get ahead of the next time there's just blatant violence in American streets.

Chideya: Well, Chris, thank you so much for joining us.

Jones: Oh, thank you. I really appreciate the chance. Come on.

Chideya: That was Chris Jones, Report for America Fellow at 100 Days in Appalachia. You can find his work on domestic extremism at 100daysinappalachia.com. My next guest is a fellow Baltimorean looking to make his mark on the state of Maryland. Wes Moore has held a lot of roles in his 42 years. CEO of an anti-poverty foundation, founder of a higher education company, author of two best selling books, TV and radio host, U.S. Army officer. Now, he's running to be the next governor of Maryland. He joined me to talk about a range of topics. How his family faced extremism in the U.S. over generations and how his wide ranging background informs his run for office. Welcome, Wes.

Wes Moore: Hello. It is great to be with you, Farai.

Chideya: Baltimore. It's my hometown and I love it, and sometimes I just get really sad and frustrated. I mean, as someone with a intergenerational history in Baltimore, I got to listen to my great-grandmother and my great aunts and uncles, and my grandparents, and my aunts and uncles talk about the relentless racial profiling, discrimination on the job, all of the things that happen to so many Black Americans, but they happen with deep intensity in Baltimore. And you have Baltimore as part of your platform, a Baltimore renaissance strategy. Where do you want to go, if you get the chance to help shape the future of that city?

Moore: I am a very proud Baltimorean. This is the place where I came of age. This is the place where I'm living and where my wife and I are raising our kids. And you're right, because the history of Baltimore is uneven. We still, to this day, have a racial wealth gap in the state of Maryland, that's eight to one, in the city of Baltimore. That is over 13 to one. And the way I think about it and the reason that we have to come up with a very potent and a very real Baltimore region renaissance strategy when it comes to the state of Maryland, is because you cannot have a thriving state of Maryland if you have a pained city of Baltimore. And I don't just say that because I'm a Baltimorean. I say that because I know math. And if we can't think holistically about this, about how can we come up with an education system and a school system where Farai, just two days ago, kids in Baltimore had to be let out at noon because they did not have air conditioning. This is 2021.

Chideya: Oh, my mother was a Baltimore City public school teacher for 16 years. And for two years, she didn't have heat. She bought heaters. And we saw that again recently. It's completely, to me, disrespectful of the spirit of children, let alone their bodies.

Moore: Exactly.

Chideya: One of the things that strikes me is that Baltimore is so rich in land, and it's also rich in beautiful old buildings, the racial dynamics have definitely slowed the growth. And so one of my aunts who is white said a couple of things, many things that have stuck with me, but a couple of them. One was, these are her words, "I didn't understand race until I had a Black son. So she married into my family. The other one though was, she said, "Baltimore will never be great until it deals with racism." Does that resonate with you?

Moore: It doesn't just resonate with me, I would extend it past Baltimore, it's the state, it's our country. I think about it in context of my journey. Johns Hopkins University, which is my Alma mater, and I actually became the first Black Rhodes scholar in the history of Johns Hopkins University. And I remember when I first attended Johns Hopkins, how we were always taught about the history of Johns Hopkins and how he was a great abolitionist, and that type of thing. And just recently, it came out that while certain aspects of that legacy are real, he was also a slave owner. And that part was never told to us. They left that part out. And I think about it in context of my own journey, where it actually represented this really devious completion of the places where I've been trained, the places where I've been educated, whether you're talking about the fact that it was at Johns Hopkins University, that I became a Rhodes scholar, and I also understand the history of Cecil Rhodes.

Chideya: Yeah.

Moore: And the fact he is a virulent racist. And the amount of lives, the amount of Black bodies that were taken due to him and his actions. That I was trained on military bases, places like Fort Benning and Fort Bragg. Fort Bragg was named after Braxton Bragg, who is a confederate general. And so I think it is something that the city of Baltimore, it's something that all of us, really have to wrestle with this idea and with this fact that forms of truth and reconciliation are important for us to be able to move forward and heal collectively, that history does matter.

Chideya: I mean, your family history includes your great-grandfather and your young grandfather fleeing the south, to go to Jamaica because they were being hounded by the Klan. And your grandfather later returned to the U.S. That's an extraordinary story. What does it do to you to hold that story? What does it inspire in you?

Moore: It's one of the most empowering stories that I lean on every single day, Farai. I mean, my great-grandfather was a minister and a very vocal minister. A minister who said that our job is not just to teach the word of God, but it's to make sure that people are actually living it, here on earth. And he got vocal to the point that you're right, I mean, literally the Ku Klux Klan ran my family out of this country. And my great-grandfather and my family said, "We'll never go back there. We'll never go back to this country," with the exception of my grandfather. And so when he came back to the United States, he came back, he went to school at Lincoln University, an HBCU in Pennsylvania.

Moore: He became the first Black minister in the history of the Dutch Reformed Church and he followed in his father's footsteps. And what was amazing, Farai, is that when he became the first Black minister in the history of, literally, a church that was the official church of Apartheid South Africa. It wasn't like it was met roundly with applause. The same threats that his father got, he was now getting, and he stayed. And so I lean on his story, I lean on his journey. I lean on the fact that my father who died right before my fourth birthday, he insisted on giving me the middle name of Watende. And I didn't know until later on that... And my mother didn't realize, the name Watende means revenge will not be sought.

Chideya: Wow.

Moore: And I think those serve as just core motivations in my life about how I think about what is my job here and what do I want to do with my time here.

Chideya: Yeah. In America's newsrooms, we've had a really hard time naming extremism for what it is. I've covered extremists for 25 years, including entities like the Klan. I remember being 25 years old and reading about different Klan groups and deciding which one was least likely to kill me when I interviewed them. Because I didn't want to go to those guys in Ocean City, because they had murdered a Black man who was riding in a car with a white woman. I was just going to go to the guys in Frederick who didn't kill anyone. And I bring that up because, we, in the news industry have not always paid attention to the rise of extremism. And the story about your great-grandfather and grandfather having to leave this country, of course, evokes for me January 6th and the insurrection. I mean, what do you think that your ancestors would make of us being a hundred plus years in the future and still dealing with this?

Moore: I remember speaking with my mom that day and having this feeling of just absolute rage. The thing that was also just very disheartening to me was the lack of surprise that I think my mom or I felt. And I think part of it comes down to this idea of we as a nation, for issues that we are not prioritizing, we have a history of being able to think that pacification of it is enough. And as we used to say in the military, it's like it's taken hold. It's not just taken hold because if you do, if you lose vigilance, if you lose a sense of understanding that all these things are temporary, if you allow them to be so, then we end up getting caught up in situations that we're scratching our heads and wondering how we got here, what we got here because as we allowed it. And there's work that we have to do to make sure that these type of issues that we are fighting for and will continue to fight for, can actually get done with a sense of permanence.

Chideya: Of course, there have been military veterans active in the extremist movements, including the January 6th insurgency. And as someone with the number of veterans in my family, it's so much on my mind right now. How should America think of veterans and welcome back veterans?

Moore: Yeah. What people need to remember from veterans is first, it's important for there to be the space for veterans, to be able to tell their stories. Sometimes people will say, "Well, thank you for your service," but never actually asking the second question about what exactly was your service? You genuinely want to talk about the experiences that we had because we are proud of them and we're proud of the people that we serve with. The second piece is I actually think it's also really important for society to think about veterans, not necessarily as challenges that need to be solved or what we can do to help them. But it's to be honest to think about what veterans can do to help us. When you think about the entrepreneurial spirit of veterans, if there was one guarantee that we had when we were deployed, oftentimes, it was that today was not going to look like yesterday, and tomorrow was not going to look like today. That, to me, sounds like a pretty entrepreneurial spirit. We've got people who are coming back with not just remarkable experiences, but remarkable skillsets that I think it's going to be important for our society to be able leverage, in order for us to get to the place that we all want to get to.

Chideya: Well, Wes, thank you for such a wide ranging conversation.

Moore: Thank you so much for everything.

Chideya: That was Wes Moore. He's a Democrat running to be the next governor of Maryland. Now, for some joy. My next guest is the founder and CEO of Outdoor Afro, a nonprofit based in Oakland and D.C. that gets people of color out in nature. Rue Mapp launched it as a blog over 10 years ago. And last year, Oprah herself featured the organization in her 2020 Vision Tour and joined them for a hike in Oakland. Welcome, Rue.

Rue Mapp: So glad to be here, Farai. Thank you so much for having me.

Chideya: A lot of people have used the pandemic as a chance to enjoy the outdoors, even if they didn't really do it before. I was really excited to see, for example, a lot of teenagers, like middle school and high school age kids, walking in groups through the woods because it was the place where they could interact relatively safely. What do you think the whole pandemic has done for the outdoors and our connection, and for Outdoor Afro and its outreach?

Mapp: Yeah. I mean, that's a really great framing. And as you were talking about the teenagers, I just thought about what was going on in my neighborhood. And it was the same thing. It was kids on bicycles, on roller skates, adults on roller skates. It was almost like it was 1982 again. And it helped me to understand just how far we had gotten away from our everyday connection to the outdoors. We were literally trying to sell nature for a while, but the pandemic was actually this beautiful moment that intersected perfectly with all the work that we'd been doing over the years, where we actually felt ready to welcome people and guide people to their nature. Public areas were available in ways that restaurants weren't, places of worship weren't, shopping wasn't. And I looked out one morning, during all this shutting down, and saw my pit bull scratching on her back. And I saw a blue scrub jay in the yard. And I realized that nature never closes.

Chideya: I have to say that I have really benefited from Outdoor Afro. I grew up in a culture of loving nature. My grandmother helped to desegregate the Girl Scouts in Maryland. I went to Girl Scout camp, to Girl Scouts, and to summer stay away Girl Scout camp, and also did family camping.

Mapp: Love it.

Chideya: So I was already a fan, but I didn't always have a community, especially living in New York City, which I did for most of my adult life. When did you found Outdoor Afro? Why did you found Outdoor Afro and what is it now for you?

Mapp: Well, just like you, I was a Girl Scout and I had a nature loving family. Mom and dad from the south, Texas, Louisiana. And they came during the Great Migration that brought many of our folks to cities like Oakland and Los Angeles, and New York, beyond. And they brought with them this love of nature and connection to nature. And they were so committed to it that they had a house set up about a hundred miles north of Oakland, beyond the Napa Valley, and adjacent to Clearlake, which was a destination for working class folks to go up and fish, and hunt. And so we had this ranch that my dad crafted. We had people come over from all over our community, from church, from the hood. I mean, relatives that span the whole spectrum of Black community were invited. And my dad had this wonderful saying. And it was, if you came and you had a good time, he would say, "You have a standing invitation."

Mapp: And so I grew up with the steadiness of hospitality and this abundance of nature and outdoor recreation, but I noticed that as I pursued more outdoor activities and in groups of people, I didn't find people who looked like me. I was often the only one in those groups, especially when I went out beyond the city. And it was really this moment where a mentor asked me the question, I think everybody should ask or answer at some point in their lives. By this time, I'm divorced with three children. It's looking kind of uncertain for me. And she's like, "Hey, if time and money were not an issue, what would you be doing?" And I literally opened my mouth and my life fell out. I said, "Oh, I'd probably start a website to reconnect Black people to the outdoors." And literally, two weeks later, I whimsically started a blog from my kitchen table called Outdoor Afro.

Chideya: What year? Plus or minus, remind me.

Mapp: 2009. And it was in that first wave of social media that we were able to build audience who then asked me, "Hey, this is great that you're sharing a new narrative and that you're helping to shift the visual representation of who gets outdoors. But we want to find ways to get outside with other people who look like us." And that's when the Outdoor Afro leadership team was born. And I'm proud to say that that team started off as about 12 people. And then in this last year, we have a class of over a hundred men and women who represent 33 cities across the United States, and their participation network is over 50,000 people, and they are out getting it. People are hiking, biking, camping.

Chideya: Yeah.

Mapp: Nature journaling. I mean, getting their nature swagger back.

Chideya: I have to give props to Katina who is one of the New York leaders, and I've been on some great hikes with her, and-

Mapp: She is amazing.

Chideya: I've gone to meet up, to sign up, for the listings of what's what, I'm sure it's different in different cities, but I just feel differently in my body. I feel alive, powerful, less worried about my deficits than I am about my assets.

Mapp: Yeah.

Chideya: I enjoy hiking, kayaking. For me, being outdoors is so much about just feeling present.

Mapp: Yes.

Chideya: At a time where there's no cell phone pings, there's no this, there's no that. And do you still feel that sense of freedom after all these years of doing this as part of your work?

Mapp: When it comes to me, I recognize that I need nature's medicine too. And it's important for me to not only practice what I preach, but to really locate myself in the experience that I'm asking people to take part in who join Outdoor Afro. It's so much about hospitality and welcoming. And it's important that I also share back what these experiences mean for me, with my staff and also with our community. So I do quite a bit of posting about my own journey. And you can find that on Rue Mapp on Instagram, where I go into a little bit more detail about the things that I'm facing, that just helps me to support our leaders and also have empathy for the ways that people say yes to nature and yes to Outdoor Afro.

Chideya: And that's Mapp with two Ps. Rue, R-U-E, Mapp with two Ps. Thank you so much, Rue.

Mapp: Thank you so much for having me, Farai.

Chideya: That was Rue Mapp, CEO of Outdoor Afro, find your local group at outdoorafro.com. Each week on the show, we bring you a round table called Sippin' the Political Tea. This week on the round table, I'm joined by Robert P. Jones, CEO and founder of the Public Religion Research Institute or PRRI. He's also the author of White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. Welcome to Our Body Politic, Robbie

Robert P. Jones: Thanks. I'm happy to be here.

Chideya: And I'm joined by Dr. Anthea Butler, chair and professor of Religious Studies and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She's the author of White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America. Welcome to Our Body Politic, Anthea.

Anthea Butler: Great to be here.

Chideya: Both of you have been on the show separately and we wanted to bring you together because there's what happens, the narrative, and then there's how we think about what happens, our ideas and our emotions, and our culture, and our religion, that shapes what happens, the meta narrative. And so we're going to jump in with the news about Dylann Roof.

News Clip: Federal appeals court upheld a murder conviction and death penalty sentence for Dylann Roof. In 2015, Roof killed nine people at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.

Chideya: It's been six years since that tragic day and I'm curious to ask both of you, what have we learned since that mass killing at Mother Emanuel? And I happen to go there on a reporting trip around the first anniversary of those killings and the grace with which the faith community there has born the brunt of white supremacist violence is really... It's heart rending. What kind of precedent does the court's decision set for other cases like this? Let me start with you, Anthea.

Butler: I think the court made the decision it needed to make. You asked the question at the beginning, what have we learned? We've learned that there's no bottom. And what I mean by that is you would think that an event of a young white man killing nine Black people in a church, after attending a Bible study, would have shaken the nation, would have shaken white American Christians especially, and turned people away from racism. That has not been the case. It's actually gotten worse.

Chideya: Robbie, what about you?

Jones: I think that's totally right, the sentiments that Anthea was putting forward there. The thing that I'm struck with, and I wrote about this in White Too Long about Dylann Roof, and the reason why I wrote about him in the book is because he's not just a white extremist, I would say he's a white Christian terrorist, right? And it's worth remembering that Dylann Roof, his own... He was Christian. He was Lutheran. And his faith was not incidental too, but it was constitutive of his white supremacist worldview. And that's really important. And the reason we know this is because he had a journal with him in prison. After he had been arrested, I was waiting trial and he was writing, the press covered a little bit. It got entered into evidence because he was writing this creed, this racist creed in the journal.

Jones: But what did not get a lot of attention is that throughout the journal, there were more than a dozen crosses that he doodled in the margins. And the one that just stopped my heart was a full page image of a resurrected white Jesus emerging from the tomb, that looked like kind of stained glass image. It was very sophisticated. It wasn't crude. It showed a clear knowledge of Christian iconography. For example, if you look at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Richmond, which is often dubbed the Cathedral of the Confederacy, which an Episcopal church, there's a very similar image of a white Jesus and stained glass right behind the pulpit.

Chideya: Anthea, as I did some reporting at Emanuel AME, I read more about the history of the faith community there, about Black Americans who would not put up with racism and whose church, the original church, was burnt down as part of racial terror in America. And then they rebuilt. And then decades later, they have this mass killing. How do we understand a broad faith, like Christianity, when it can hold both Black liberation and white supremacy in different branches of the faith?

Butler: I think we can understand it this way. I'm going to talk like a professor now just for a minute. There's hermeneutics, the way that people read scripture, the way that people understand it is not in a vacuum. It's not this kind of where people say, "Well, this is true Christianity," or pure Christianity. There's lots of Christianities, right? Plural. And the way that people interpret their particular brand of Christianity is important. So why you can have African Americans who have looked at Christianity as liberative force, so a force to get us out of slavery, to fight against Jim Crow, and segregation, to fight against terrorism and police violence through Black Lives Matter. You have white people who believe that Christianity supported slavery, supported the religion of the Lost Cause, supported white patriarchy and white supremacy, supported us going into war, supported us doing all kinds of things in the name of God and nation. So I think in America, we hold a lot of different Christianities together. Now, the question is which Christianity is going to win? That is the big question. And right now, we're at this kind of precipice where I would say I'm not sure. I think that it could be a very punitive kind of white supremacist Christianity that seems to be rearing its head in so many areas right now. And that the liberative forms of Christianity, whether we think about that through African American Christianity or the ways that you think about it, and Latino or Asian theologies, or even white Christianity, and I say it like this to make a difference, white liberal Christians who are good Protestants and Catholics, and others, who believe in social justice and all this. Which one is going to win? That is the question.

Chideya: Robbie, do you think that there is an embrace of a liberation within Christianity for white Americans that includes some form of racial justice? I mean, obviously there are in many different churches. Friends of mine belong to a variety of congregations that embrace that. But how strong is that within American Christianity and is it being nurtured?

Jones: I think that those who are working more in the liberatory equality frameworks are in the minority, unfortunately. In white Christianity today, I'll give you an example. For my book, I had a... In contemporary public opinion data, I developed some measures in the book to kind of measure kind of racist attitudes, particularly around structural inequality and racism. And I measured that on a scale of zero to 10, with 10 holding the most racist attitudes and zero holding the least racist attitudes. And people may not be surprised to find out that white Evangelical Protestants, that group that's more heavily situated in the south, the biggest denomination, there are Southern Baptist who were literally founded to defend slavery within Christian circles in 1845, that that group scored eight out of 10. But what I think I was a little surprised about, that even among the more kind of liberal end of the white Protestant world, among what we often call mainline Protestants, that group scored seven out of 10 on this scale. And white Catholics who have their own history of facing discrimination in this country, like the anti-Catholic sentiment, even that group scored seven out of 10. So in terms of white Christians, this has become the dominant view. And if historically, if you kind of look back at it, if you really understand the history of this country, it's not that surprising. Just that group I mentioned, Southern Baptist, which by the way's a group I grew up in, in Mississippi. That group grew to be the largest expression of Christianity in this country bar none, by the middle of the 20th century.

Chideya: Yeah. I can't help, but think about religious pluralism. We're in a moment in time in the United States, where there are more people as a percentage of the population who identify as Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist. The Jewish population appears to be holding steady demographically, in terms of numbers. And there are more people who don't identify with religion, whether they're spiritual but not religious, or atheist, or agnostic. But for me, the question is, is America more pluralistic? And how important is pluralism as a social value or is this increasing diversity also more caught up in conflict than reconciliation? I'm going to start with you, Anthea.

Butler: I mean, I think there is plurals in there. I think the problem is that we have a lot of squeaky wheels that get the grease, in other words. So what I mean by that is that those who are more conservative nature, tend to hold the media's way. And while we have plenty of other religions in this country, and you can see through different surveys, whether that's been PRRI and others, that are basically showing a diversity of religious thought. And even people who are like, "I don't want to have any religion. I'm a none. I'm not ascribing to any of these denominational kinds of constructs." I think what we can see is that religion is polarized. And part of the reason why it's polarized in this country is because we're politically polarized.

Jones: Yeah. I'm also struck by this too, that Republicans are more than 2/3 white and Christian, right? So a very homogeneous party in terms of race and religion. Democrats are only a little bit more than 1/3 white and Christian, right? So that means that that conservative white Christian voice gets more attention because it is aligned with one political party so it has a kind of partisan megaphone.

Chideya: I'd like to turn to the topic of abortion. Of course, there's the recent Supreme Court ruling. I spent time covering Evangelical Americans, white Evangelical Americans, in the south during the 2016 election cycle. And one thing that struck me is that no matter what other factors there were, that the issue of abortion and how it tied to religion was the fundamental decider on how people voted, specifically a family that I profiled that really didn't like Donald Trump at all, but thought that he could land the plane on ending abortion. So Robbie, how should we understand what parts of people's identity motivate their political behavior?

Jones: Yeah, it's complicated on abortion. On the one hand, if you ask people to rank issues on national surveys, conservative white Christians... But particularly white Evangelical Christians, will rank it fairly high on their list of priorities. But when we dive down and we ask kind of more complicated questions and we ask, for example, is it really a litmus test issue for you? That is, would you not support a candidate who didn't share your views on abortion? It actually looks a lot more complicated even among white Evangelicals. And we're talking about less than four and 10 that say it's a deal breaker. If you really listen to Donald Trump's rhetoric and what he spent the amount of time on in 2016, it was basically an anti-immigrant campaign. And in 2020, it was essentially an anti-Black campaign. Didn't talk a lot about abortion. It came through toward about Supreme Court justices, but it wasn't at the top of his talking points. If you did a word cloud or something, it was much more about race and immigration, and protecting white Christian... A vision of white Christian America and preserving this 1950s version of white Christian America. And abortion, I think became for many, a more respectable way of talking about their support for Donald Trump. But on surveys, yeah, where people are able to answer anonymously, it's a much more complex vision and that analytically, the things that were really driving him, I think, driving support for Trump was more about this general sense that the country is changing. It's becoming more Black and brown, less white, less Christian. That seems like a threat to me. Donald Trump has said he's going to stand in the way of those changes and that's why I'm supporting him.

Chideya: That's really fascinating because there's been a lot of discussion about how economic anxiety became a code word for what turned out to be active white nationalism and white supremacy in voter choice. Anthea, following on what Robbie said, how do you make sense of the constituency supporting restricting or ending abortion?

Butler: I make sense of it historically, because I think that's an important piece of it. I talk about this in my book, White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America. One of the things I think is really important is to realize that abortion wasn't the thing in the first place. The thing in the first place was basically race and how are we going to keep our segregation schools, and how we're going to keep this. And abortion arises in the 1970s with Roe versus Wade as a good wedge voter issue. So you have people like Paul Weyrich and others who use this effectively to start to bring together people. And I think we cannot discount the years since the '70s of preaching about this, of stories and movies, and all of this kind of thing that has happened with Evangelical Christians culturally, to get them to be against abortion, right? And to see that as A, the number one voting issue of everything so that you can have what Robbie says, a man who talks about white supremacy out in open, who denigrates immigrants, who does all this stuff. But the fact that he can say I've changed my mind about abortion and that I'm going to appoint judges, and to do all this, it brought everybody together. And I hate to say this, but I think this is what people need to hear right now, Donald Trump delivered on that promise. He delivered. And so I think that this is something that Democrats of faith have to really think about, is that Donald Trump gave them what they wanted over 200 judges around the country and three Supreme Court judges. That's important. And that is important to realize that the structure is there so that when all these things start to happen, when we see how this is collapsing on the state level like Texas and other places, this has been a battle that has been long fought. And Republicans Evangelicals have been hand in hand in the trenches on this one.

Jones: So I think what Dr. Butler said here about the historical context is vitally important. Though just one little tidbit I would add, white Evangelical Protestants that make up only 15% of the country, are the only religious group that says abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. Four in 10 Americans agree with that. It really is this group that's shrinking, that really has a lock hold on an entire state. And if there's copycat cases that looks like the laws, that looks like there may be now, maybe holds sway over a significant sector of the country.

Chideya: I want to ask, what's making you feel, if not joyful, at least comfortable with this very fraught moment in history? Sometimes I think me being a journalist is the way that I process the stress. It's like I have a role, I can broadcast, I can do something. So when we think about religion and society, and politics, what's giving you joy or at least giving you some comfort?

Jones: Well, I think maybe similarly. I mean, I think as a researcher, it's therapeutic to kind of help hold the mirror up. I mean, I think that's what good public opinion research really does and good writing does is it kind of holds a mirror up to the country, hopefully, to get us to be our better selves.

Butler: I think what gives me comfort is that the younger generation, although there are plenty of people who have some of these conservative religious ideas who are younger, they really just don't care about this because the world that they've been given is one that's really troubled. There's financial issues, there's a pandemic, and their faith has had to be something completely different than their grandparents or their parents. And I think that's what's going to be the change is that they hold the key to, hopefully, thinking through some of this in a very different way that they want to break down some of the structural issues about what we have in religion in the United States.

Chideya: Well, we will leave it there. Anthea and Robbie, thank you so much for joining us.

Butler: Thank you so much.

Jones: Thank you.

Chideya: That was Robert P. Jones, CEO and founder of the Public Religion Research Institute and author of White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. And Dr. Anthea Butler, who is chair and professor of Religious Studies and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and author of White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America.

Chideya: Thanks for listening to Our Body Politic. We're on the air each week and everywhere you listen to podcast. Our Body Politic is produced by LWC. I'm the creator and host, Farai Chideya. Juleyka Lantigua is executive producer. Jen Chien is executive editor. Our senior producer producers are Paulina Velasco and Sarah McClure. Cedric Wilson is lead producer and mixed this episode. Our political Booker is Bridget McAllister. Emily Daly is assistant producer. Original music by associate sound designer, Kojin Tashiro. Production assistant for Mark Betancourt and Natyna Bean.

Chideya: This program is produced with support from Craig Newmark Philanthropies, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, the Harnisch Foundation, Compton Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, Katie Mcgrath & JJ Abrams Family Foundation, the BMe Community, and from generous contributions from listeners like you.


Chideya, Farai, host. “Reporting on Domestic Extremism, One Family Marked by It and White Evangelical Christianity’s Extremist Links.” Our Body Politic, Diaspora Farms LLC. September 24, 2021. https://our-body-politic.simplecast.com/