Our Body Politic

The Rising Danger Of Extremism In America

Episode Summary

One of the biggest threats facing Americans today…is extremism. What can be done to combat the rising danger of extremist events in the United States? On this episode of Our Body Politic, host Farai Chideya, speaks with Kristofer Goldsmith, founder and CEO of Taskforce Butler, about engaging veterans in the fight against extremism. Then Farai gets a debrief from journalist and Our Body Politic team member Joanne Levine, who attended the Mom’s For Liberty Annual Summit. They’re an organization that has been designated to have “racist” and “extremist ties. We round the show out with our Sippin’ the Political Tea roundtable that includes Robert P. Jones, the president and founder of the Public Religion Research Institute and Anthea Butler, the Geraldine R. Segal Professor in American Social Thought and chair of the department of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, about the connections between religion, race, politics and violence.

Episode Transcription

Farai Chideya [00:00:04] Hi, folks. We are so glad that you're listening to Our Body Politic If you haven't yet, remember to follow this podcast on your podcatcher of choice like Apple or Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you have time, please leave us a review. It helps other listeners find us and we read them for your feedback. Here's what one of you had to say. Thank you so much to everyone involved with the Our Body Politic podcast. I, for one, really need these perspectives. I can't praise the show enough. Such quality productions and important topics. I wish I could like most of these positive reviews. Thank you, Farai Chideya and team for providing much needed perspectives on living in these times. And I want to thank you for writing us so you can reach out to us on Instagram and Twitter @OurBodyPolitic. We are here for you, with you and because of you, so keep letting us know what's on your mind. We'd also love for you to join in financially supporting the show if you are able. You can find out more at ourbodypolitic.com/donate. Thanks for listening. 

Farai Chideya [00:01:15]Welcome to Our Body Politic I'm the creator and host Farai Chideya. The insurrection on January 6 was a large scale example of the extremism plaguing our country. On the show, we'll hear about the effort to curb extremism by veterans. How a group of moms has ties to extremist groups and the reality behind political violence. Recent data from the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and more shows an increase in mass casualty events linked to extremist views and more active clubs sometimes described as white supremacist fight clubs are publicly showing hatred and intentionally targeting marginalized groups. Last month in Jacksonville, Florida, a white man donning swastikas on his assault rifle took the lives of three Black people in the name of racial hate. This month, sentencing continues for those who participated in the January 6 insurrection. They include Henry Enrique Tarrio, the ex-leader of the Proud Boys. He received a 22 year prison sentence for his conviction of seditious conspiracy. In the days following the insurrection, we learned that nearly one in five of the individuals charged with storming the Capitol that day are current or former service members. And according to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, having a military background is the single strongest predictor of, quote, whether a perpetrator committed or planned a mass casualty attack, end quote. Task Force Butler is an organization that is working to change that. Joining me now is the CEO and founder, Kristofer Goldsmith. Kris leads the fight to resist the growing domestic extremist movement, protect veterans and guard our democracy. Welcome to the show, Kris. 

Kristofer Goldsmith [00:02:54] Hey, thanks for having me. 

Farai Chideya [00:02:56] In a world where people are redefining what it means to be America, to be Americans, to have served to be patriots, how do you bring your patriotism into the mix? What is the mission of Task Force Butler and why did you start this? 

Kristofer Goldsmith [00:03:14] So the mission of Task Force Butler, this group of veterans who are literal Nazi hunters is to impose legal, social and economic costs on those who seek to destroy our democracy. In the days following the insurrection, we saw a ton of veterans getting arrested. So Task Force Butler was founded in part kind of as a response to January 6 because we veterans feel a responsibility to continue serving our country and protecting democracy and marginalized populations in ways that, you know, speaking for myself, I didn't get to do while I was in uniform and I didn't get to do while I was in Iraq. But today, we are in very real, tangible ways protecting democracy, standing up for our Constitution, and hopefully rehabilitating the image that Americans have in their minds about veterans after January 6th. So what does that look like? In most cases, that means we are capturing evidence of criminality or wrongdoing, and we are exposing that by providing it to prosecutors from the federal level all the way down to the local level. We are training volunteer veterans around the country who have a sense of what's going on in their own localities, their states, their regions, so they can recognize extremism happening in their community and can judge how much of a threat it is. We also train journalists how to safely and responsibly report on extremism so that journalists can educate local communities about who is responsible for doing harm to their community and how they can be held responsible. It is our goal to unmask these folks, and we do. We've unmasked dozens of members of Patriot Front and provide their identities so they can be held responsible in a court of law for harming other people. 

Farai Chideya [00:05:20] My family is full of veterans. Three of my four uncles are veterans, two are Vietnam veterans. You know, that was part of our family culture. And then one of my cousins had some very tough jobs in Iraq. And, you know, I've had intense moments in my life as a reporter. But it's not the same. People who are veterans in some cases are given the moral agency to kill other human beings, which is something that we don't necessarily, as a nation, respect how much we need to recompense people for taking that moral agency on. Do you think that some of the links between extremism and the military are about a kind of unprocessed link between what your moral agency is? Because what I have found as a reporter and as a human being is that people do follow their own moral imperatives. The Nazis had a moral imperative. That was what compelled them. So how do you deal with the need to understand the moral imperatives of the people who you may completely disagree with and have to try to undermine? 

Kristofer Goldsmith [00:06:33] So part of the reason that the veterans at Task Force Butler are so good at what we do is because we have shared a lot of similar life experiences and we can understand kind of why they act the way that they do. We can anticipate the way that they're going to act in the future. Coming out of a world of veteran advocacy where I'm surrounded by veterans and talking about mental health care and transition back into society after combat. We don't really ever ask ourselves the question, well, what kind of person signs up to do a job that is essentially: kill people? Right? I was a forward observer. My job was to roll with the infantry. And when the infantry got in trouble, blow people up to drop artillery, air strikes and bring an end to human lives. At 18 years old, I couldn't have imagined being more proud and satisfied. But the practical application of these combat skills at war is something that is unimaginable for someone who hasn't been through it. Mm hmm. When these types of people, people like me, leave the military. What drove us to want to be ready to kill on behalf of our country. It is a sense of justice. It is a strong sense of what is right and what is wrong. And if in that time, during your transition, like I went through, I had severe post-traumatic stress disorder. When I was vulnerable, I didn't have anything beyond a high school education. You know, I read the Constitution, but you don't understand the Constitution when you're 18 and you swear your life to it. Right. I had people who came to me who were more experienced and these people would interpret the Constitution for me. Explain it to me. So 2008 or so when I was in my first year out of the military. That was when the Oath Keepers was started. That's when Stuart Rhodes, you know, an Army veteran. He wears the patch over his eye because he shot himself. Most people look at him and think, that's a war hero. He's not. And he's got a Yale Law degree. Someone like that says, Hey, I'm starting this organization called the Oath Keepers. We're going to keep our oath to the Constitution. We're going to defend civil rights. Your right to the First Amendment. To the Second Amendment. That is familiar language. 

Farai Chideya [00:09:03] Yeah. 

Kristofer Goldsmith [00:09:04] And when this guy with the Yale Law degree is telling me how to interpret the Constitution, I don't have the life experience to know to push back. 

Farai Chideya [00:09:15] You know, it strikes me that Black Americans and many other people of color in America have come up with systems to try to deal with the extralegal mechanisms of violence as social control. You know, like the whole Green Book was designed to lead people through routes where they could travel a country safely that wasn't really safe. I wonder if white Americans realize that they also are impacted by this restriction and narrowing of the social construct. Many white Americans, in my experience, just talking to friends as well as to people as a reporter, say I don't think that's really a problem for me. How do you make sense of how people of different races view the threat of extremism? 

Kristofer Goldsmith [00:10:04] Personally, before Task Force Butler, before it existed, I had been infiltrating militias and neo-Nazi organizations as kind of a hobby. When my buddy was describing this organization, Patriot Front, as a neo-Nazi organization, I thought he was being hyperbolic. Wasn't until I was inside that I got to realize, like, Oh, they actually do truly worship Hitler. Like they are immersing themselves in fascist propaganda deliberately, and they refer to it as propaganda. From being inside of that organization and others. I understand what they are doing when they go out and in their Best Buy uniforms and they march around the Capitol. They are creating viral content that is meant to inspire white supremacists across the country. This idea of stochastic terrorism, of identifying a target and using your public influence to inspire violence against it, you know, it's not just the neo-Nazis doing it with their marches through the streets. It's also figures like Ron DeSantis and figures like Donald Trump who threaten and demean public servants and direct their followers at them, knowing full well at this point that the language that they use inspires people to try to attempt murder. People often use the word polarized or polarization. Right. But that is inaccurate. We're not talking about sides. We're not talking about left and right really. The vast majority of Americans, I don't think, see the threat of fascism as a threat to them because they have an immense amount of privilege. And frankly, they don't care about anyone who is affected. But the military is actually the most diverse organization. It takes people from Long Island, New York, where I grew up in a pretty white suburbia, very privileged with, you know, people who grew up in trailer parks in Tennessee. And they make us roommates, right? We veterans who've served through that experience get the opportunity to meet people from other states that the vast majority of Americans never actually get the opportunity to. Most people, you know, are born and die in the same state. I wish that there were more opportunities for Americans to get to know each other so that there would be more empathy for one another. You know, short of that, I have to remain focused on what I can do and what Task Force Butler can do. We go after the worst of the worst. We aren't looking to change hearts and minds of neo-Nazis. We are looking to take them off the field in a legal way to make it so that those who are closest to doing harm or who are actually doing physical harm… we are removing them before police would on their own. That's the best that we can do. 

Farai Chideya [00:13:08] So what do you consider a victory? You know, when you think about all the work you've done, all the investigations that you and your team and your allies have done, what's an example of a victory. 

Kristofer Goldsmith [00:13:19] Prior to starting Task Force Butler Institute? I worked for a major veterans service organization, and after trying to get Congress multiple administrations in the White House and really the American public to do what is what was necessary to help veterans in all sorts of ways. I recognize that I need to look at these problems, these social problems, as very long term. I shouldn't expect a resolution, maybe not in my lifetime. From that personal experience, Task Force Butler looks at the problem of violent extremism in terms of what victories do we need today, what small victories do we need to achieve a more just and equitable and safe America? And that can be a conviction of five members of Patriot Front in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, where our Project Blacklisted helped prosecutors and law enforcement understand that there was a conspiracy to riot against the LGBTQ community. Those convictions may be for five days, with two of those five days commuted for time served. But getting any sort of consequence for this violent hatred is so unusual that a conviction for a conspiracy to riot and a five day sentencing, that is a victory. That is a win. If we can normalize that, just some consequences for violent extremism, we can work our way towards ensuring that violent extremists are sentenced appropriately, that their treatment in the justice system reflects the severity of the threat that they pose to other Americans. 

Farai Chideya [00:15:16] And as we wrap up with you, you know, our show is almost three years old and we really think of it as a space where we talk about co-creating a future that we want to live in. What are the stakes here and what does that concept of co-creating a world that we can live in mean to you, given the work of Task Force Butler? 

Kristofer Goldsmith [00:15:36] The stakes in addressing extremism today in every way possible are whether or not our democracy survives. Listening to myself say that ten years ago I would have been like, Oh, that's hyperbolic. I don't believe it is today. We have seen the normalization of violent rhetoric become so extreme. Just a little while ago, Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida and a leading candidate for the Republican nomination for president, talked about on day one of his presidency, slitting the throats of public servants, many of whom are like him, veterans. When leaders talk like that, violence follows. And in the United States, we have a problem with white supremacist groups. That has always been here. And it's growing today. It is antithetical to a true democracy, to our republic's survival. And it's up to folks with privilege like veterans, like white people, to get engaged in the fight, even if it doesn't feel like it affects you right now. They won't stop with the LGBTQ community. They won't stop with the Black or brown community. Fascists never stop and people don't have a choice. They can either fight using legal means to save our democracy, or they can let our country fade away and just be a little note in history. 

Farai Chideya [00:17:13] We spoke with Kris Goldsmith before the racially motivated shooting in Jacksonville, Florida, in August. Kris reached back out to us with these thoughts. 

Kristofer Goldsmith [00:17:21] People who study violent movements have been frustrated for a long time about the use of lone wolves. If a member of ISIS or someone inspired by ISIS straps a bomb onto their chest, we don't say that he was a lone wolf. He was either inspired by or a member of these organizations. And that is the situation with the shooter in Florida. The ADL has just sent out an alert throughout Florida that two neo-Nazi gangs are planning a march under the swastika. Recruitment of gang members… that in and of itself is a felony. Right. But I expect in what Ron DeSantis calls the free state of Florida, they will allow these neo-Nazis to break the law and to terrorize communities in the name of so called free speech. 

Farai Chideya [00:18:08] Our thanks to Kris Goldsmith, CEO of Task Force Butler. Next up, kingmakers move over. There's a rising tide of conservative political power being harnessed by women. Moms for Liberty, as the group calls itself, are political queens hoping to pave the road to the Oval Office. 

Tiffany Justice [00:18:27] Unconditional love means as we work to save our children, we will also save this country. Our children are worth it, and we will see them thrive in a culture of liberty. 

Farai Chideya [00:18:38] Moms for Liberty began with three women, including Tiffany Justice, who you just heard from this year's summit. They started in 2021 during COVID-19, where they fought against mask and vaccine mandates. Now, two years later, reporting indicates the group claims 285 chapters in 45 states with other unsubstantiated reporting, putting their total at 300 chapters in 46 states. Moms for Liberty has been instrumental in some of the fiercest political battles in Florida, including book bans, anti gender affirming care policies, and what curricula can no longer be taught in schools. The group rarely apologizes for what it believes, even when trampling on the rights of minorities. This summer, a local chapter of Moms for Liberty published a quote by Adolf Hitler in a newsletter. This was after the Southern Poverty Law Center labeled M for L, an extremist group. While the group felt pressure to apologize, it was certainly treated as an inside joke at their annual gathering. 

Vivek  Ramaswamy [00:19:37] My favorite hate group in history that I am proud to join today. Count me in. It's a hate group founded on the love of our children. 

Farai Chideya [00:19:51] That is GOP candidate Vivek Ramaswamy addressing the standing room only crowd in the City of Brotherly Love to make his pitch for why he should be president. Journalist Joanne Levine, who works for our body politic, attended the group's second annual conference earlier this summer to learn more.

Farai Chideya [00:20:12] So we are talking after you went to the Moms for Liberty Convention, which was a big deal with all caps, Presidential candidates came and it was apparently quite a thing to view. And you did view it and listened to it. So how did you choose to go? 

Joanne Levine [00:20:31] I decided that I should go as myself. I am a mom. I am concerned about my kids education. But frankly, in this case, I decided to go as myself and to really listen. I also knew that going as a reporter, I would be kept at arm's length, and I felt that to really understand what was going on and to speak to people, I needed to go as an individual. I've never done anything like that before. I told people I was from D.C.. I told them that I was concerned about my kids education, especially during the pandemic. I wrote a piece that was published in The Washington Post. I even went on to Fox News to, you know, go on and state my claim, but I did not tell them I was press. 

Farai Chideya [00:21:23] So set a scene for me. 

Joanne Levine [00:21:25] Sure. It was early in the morning. So I walked in, it was in the Marriott Hotel in Philadelphia, in downtown Philadelphia, this big hotel, very grand buildings around it. And you walked in, you went up the escalator and there were clutches of different women standing around. They were white, mostly blond, very well-dressed. There were definitely quite a few accessories that were noticeable, like glitter, red, white and blue stiletto heels, American flag purses. 

Farai Chideya [00:22:05] Now, Moms for Liberty was named an extremist group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, SPLC. Did they talk about that during the conference? 

Joanne Levine [00:22:15] They sure did. They actually talked about it almost as a badge of pride in an ironic sense. There were tweets about it. Almost every person who got up on stage mentioned it, including potential presidential candidate, Asa Hutchinson, who addressed the crowd the day I was there. And he gave a very long speech about his background in TV and law enforcement as someone who negotiated with white extremists successfully. And he said, I know an extremist group when I see one, and this is not one. 

Farai Chideya [00:22:53] I mean, it strikes me that so much of politics today and I'm thinking specifically of former President Trump, but also of many other people, is a defiantly oppositional politics. It's saying that what ever we thought of X, Y or Z norms, like being named an extremist group is bad. You can embrace that and you can take the power away from whoever is saying that. So talk to me about power and this conference. What kind of power do you think was exhibited during this conference? 

Joanne Levine [00:23:24] I was really taken aback by the end of the day that I spent there by how well organized and clearly well-funded this group is. They came on the scene less than three years ago. They were a group of moms, not to belittle in any way, shape or form who had an idea. And they have grown from that to a political force. And that was just prevalent. And you could feel it. And, you know, in politics, power is money. Power is votes. And this really could be considered the conference could be considered the unofficial kickoff of the GOP primary campaign. Five, six GOP candidates, including Trump, DeSantis, Asa Hutchinson, Vivek Ramaswamy, Nikki Haley. They all came and kissed the ring. That's power. 

Farai Chideya [00:24:24] So we talked a little bit about the power of the vote. And I understand that some of the funders were there, including someone named Morton Blackwell of the Leadership Institute. 

Joanne Levine [00:24:34] So Morton Blackwell received Moms for Liberty Annual award, the Liberty Sword. This is given to someone who has gone above and beyond to support the cause that Moms for Liberty is pursuing. They literally gave him a sword on stage. He is definitely a senior gentleman. He is known in conservative circles. He invoked the name of Barry Goldwater, who is, for some, the grandfather or the father of the current conservative movement, to lots of applause. He has created something called the Leadership Institute, which I don't even know how you classify it. It gives trainings and it subsidizes these trainings. I went to one of the breakout sessions, which was on fundraising. It was a session that was sponsored by the Leadership Institute. It was led by the political director for the failed GOP Senate candidate, Mehmet Oz. What was striking about this is that when you went into this breakout session, there was an extra round of security. They added my badge a second time. But one of the things that the woman who is leading it mentioned is she said, look, we have these fundraising seminars all over the country and they are sponsored by the Leadership Institute. So you only have to pay $25. 

Farai Chideya [00:26:05] We recently ran an interview with Tina Wynn of the news outlet Park, and she talked about how she grew up as a journalist being nurtured through a very financially secure funding pipeline that was designed to train conservative journalists. And she did operate as an explicitly conservative journalist for a time until she was asked to do things that she felt were un journalistic, like just get dirt on these Democratic candidates. And so she left that kind of cohort and went out as an independent journalist. But one of the things that we talked about was that she believed that there's a lot more money in the right and far right pipeline than there is in the center and the left. You know that people don't make the same kinds of investments. So did this seem like a movement that was. Just. Including Morton Blackwell more generally resourced financially? 

Joanne Levine [00:26:59] This conference felt like a political convention on a slightly smaller scale. It had the music, it had the films, it had the cheers. It also had the press all the time, which is separate. Make no mistake, this is well-funded and well-organized. 

Farai Chideya [00:27:19] Yeah. And so let's talk about some of the other themes that came up. There was a lot on children and also on sexuality and bodies, including transgender identity. Tell me a little bit about how themes about children, sexuality, LGBT issues and transgender issues came up. 

Joanne Levine [00:27:41] So I went to breakout session. This is an example of had I been press, I wouldn't have been allowed in. It was led by two white men, which is interesting to me. They're not talking to moms of transgender children. They're not talking to the transgender children. And the language that they cloak everything in is we need to protect our children. And yet the language that is used about transgender kids and the. Doctors and the community that supports transgender is nothing less than violent. It's words like chopping and surgical amputation. It's really graphic and quite disturbing. The language is what struck me in there, because it's very violent. They were able to take videos from Boston Children's Hospital showing the transgender clinic. And they would tease certain parts of it and then mock it. It was really like entering a different universe. There was supposedly about 600 people registered. 99% were white. I would say 10% of the audience were men. There is a noticeable symbolism. There was prayer sprinkled throughout. The religious overtones were quite heavy. 

Farai Chideya [00:29:07] And were they all Christian prayers? I mean, there's a lot of different forms of Christianity, but in in many different environments, you'll find prayer where there will be different prayer leaders of different faiths. Was that something that happened here? 

Joanne Levine [00:29:22] I've been in different services that might not be my own denomination, where people have put people that might not be of that faith at ease. This was not that. So walking into the room, it was one of the things that I noticed and it was quite striking. So it's an all white room. And one of the co-founders says, let's stand up and let's pray. Let's pray for all the people who have been serving us. And it was in praise. But all those servers lined the stage and they were all Black. 

Farai Chideya [00:30:01] What does Liberty mean to you and how do you think it was different for the people who came and attended as fans of the work of Moms for Liberty? 

Joanne Levine [00:30:10] I consider myself a Mom for Liberty, right? I want liberty, which means to me, freedom, opportunity, all those things that are in the Constitution. I mean, the irony is that it is the interpretation, because if you take the words add value. Of course I care about my kids. Of course I care about their education. Do I agree with everything the government does when it comes to education? Absolutely not. But this is such a sharp right turn. And quite frankly, and this is an opinion as Joanne, not as a journalist, it's convoluted. I mean, they have co-opted Lady Liberty. It's that Lady Liberty with the crown. But the interpretation is entirely different. 

Farai Chideya [00:31:00] Thank you so much for going, Joanne. 

Joanne Levine [00:31:02] Well, thank you. 

Farai Chideya [00:31:04] Our thanks to Joanne Levine. We reached out to Moms for Liberty for a statement regarding this report and didn't hear from them before publication. We'll update you once they respond.


Farai Chideya [00:31:26] This is Our Body Politic I'm Farai Chideya. We love bringing you our roundtable, Sippin’ the Political Tea. And this time we're talking about the intersection of race, religion, white supremacy and politics with a special focus on the 2024 presidential race. Joining me is Robert P. Jones, the president and founder of PRRI, which stands for Public Religion Research Institute and author of the new book The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy and the Path to a Shared American Future. Welcome back to Our Body Politic, Robert. 

Robert P. Jones [00:32:01] Thank you. Glad to be back. 

Farai Chideya [00:32:03] Also joining us is Anthea Butler, the Geraldine Siegel, professor in American Social Thought and chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Great to have you back, Anthea. 

Anthea Butler [00:32:14] Thanks so much for having me. 

Farai Chideya [00:32:16] We have a lot of ground to cover today. And I want to start off by picking up on a few topics we discussed back in 2021 when we had our first roundtable together. Robby, on our last roundtable, you said that Christians working in racial and social justice were in the minority. Is that changing one way or the other or pretty much the same? 

Robert P. Jones [00:32:35] Well, I think it's changing in some circles. You know, I can certainly speak to the interests that I've seen. I've been invited, for example, into over 100 congregations over the last couple of years who explicitly want to have a conversation about white supremacy. Now, that's something that prior to the last few years, I might have been invited in. But having a conversation where the words white supremacy are actually in the advertised title. Now we're also seeing a doubling down. I think these two things are related that among some congregations there is this doubling down, this criticism of so-called critical race theory, this try to whitewash his… literally whitewash history. I mean, these are things also happening at the same time. 

Farai Chideya [00:33:15] And Anthea, turning to you, you also are obviously incredibly astute about religion, politics and society. And the last time we spoke, we talked about how Christian scripture has been used to justify and condemn issues like slavery, war and patriarchy depends on who's holding the Bible. You said our country has been at a precipice. What do you think is happening in America right now? 

Robert P. Jones [00:33:39] Farai, To be honest with you, I think I would call this now the dumb phase of America. And the reason I say that is because I totally agree with Robert. Some people are more open, but others are doubling down. But the problem is, is that the information part is really bad. So what I mean by that is, is that this sort of disinformation campaign that evangelicals and others are engaged in to tell you that slavery was really beneficial or to take away books out of schools and to make sure that kids don't learn anything is about a program of fascism, to be honest. And I don't know how else to put it. But the precipice that I talked about a few years ago, we're now sliding down the cliff. And I don't know what stops us at this point. 

Farai Chideya [00:34:25] Well, Robby, turning back to you, this all leads me back to your latest book. It's called The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy and the Path to a Shared American Future. Is there a path to a shared American future? And if so, where might that path start? 

Robert P. Jones [00:34:39] Well, I think my honest answer is we'll see whether there is this path forward. I do think the country, you know, is at a hinge point. And part of what's happened is, you know, there's been all these demographic shifts in the country. So things that were central like white Christian churches are declining, being shut down. They're combining congregations. And it's across the board, particularly in white Christian circles. The country is the beginning of Barack Obama's presidency was 54% white and Christian. That number today is 42% white and Christian. Right. So that's a pretty steep drop over a fairly short amount of time. White evangelicals, that group that's so loud. And so in the Trump camp, you know, more than eight in ten for Trump, both elections, that group is also shrinking. Interestingly enough, they've gone from nearly a quarter of the population at the turn of the 21st century to now under 14%. 13.6% of the population now is white evangelicals. Now, compare that to those who claim no religious affiliation. That number is 25%. So we are seeing those changes, demographic changes, moving away from churches. And I think it's those big tectonic shifts that have really pushed us back to these fundamental questions. Right. In the past, I think many white Christians could pay lip service to the idea that the country was a multireligious, multiracial democracy, knowing that there were enough kind of white Christians who had a lock on power. That's no longer true. And so I think this question of, you know, are we this old vision that many white Christians have had a divinely ordained promised land for people who are Christian and of European descent? That's one vision of America. It's a fundamentally anti-democratic one. Or are we a pluralistic democracy where everybody, regardless of race or religion, stands on equal footing as citizens? I think that fundamental question is one that's really being put to us and why these debates aren't so much about policy, but they're about these bigger questions of who are we as Americans? Who is this country for? Who's in and who's out? Who's a real citizen? Who's a real American? Like those kinds of questions are what we're really wrestling with. 

Farai Chideya [00:36:42] You know, I was fascinated by some of the findings in some of your recent polling research showing that people who self-identify as Christian nationalists are also more likely to say that it might be necessary to use violence as a tool of patriotism. But the roots of religion, politics and violence in enforcing a social order go back far. How does violence and the use of violence to enforce a social order intersect with these questions of religion? 

Robert P. Jones [00:37:14] You know, one of the things I do in the new book, you know, it's called The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy. One of the things I do in that book is try to trace it back. How far back does it go? And particularly for the context of the Americas. And I trace it back actually to the year 1493. So not 1492, which is the year that we all learn this little rhyme. The year that Columbus sailed the ocean blue, but 1493 the next year, because what happens in that year he goes back to Spain and basically gets reequiped to come back to the Americas with many more ships, many more men. But he gets the blessing of the church for this violent campaign of conquest and enslavement. When you go back and you read these official church doctrines issued by the Pope, these official Vatican documents say things like You have the blessing of the church to go and conquer all non-Christian people so that you find land that has non-Christian people. That's the defining characteristic. And then it even has these words in the document. And to submit them to perpetual slavery, like that's written in Black and white in the document of what the church is giving permission to do. So it's a ethno-religious movement, right? It's kind of European descent. Christian people have the right, the official blessing of the church to commit all kinds of violence in the name of the gospel and in the name of the Christian princes of Europe. 

Farai Chideya [00:38:34] Let's talk a bit about abortion. What role do you think abortion will play in the 2024 election with white evangelicals, but also with other groups of people of various faiths? 

Anthea Butler [00:39:11] I think for white evangelicals, they're afraid of it now. The thing that you want it that you finally got is the thing that might keep your people out of office. And when I mean your people is the Republicans, because basically they got what they wanted. But now it's not enough just to vote on that. This is why you see all these other things happening about trans people, gay people taking books out of libraries and everything else. It's deflect, deflect, deflect, deflect, deflect. It's to get away from what has happened with abortion, because abortion is going to be a driver for the Democrats. But for Democrats, that's not the only driver anymore. You need to think about something else besides Roe being taken away. When people talk to me about abortion and say, was this going to be a factor in 2024, how was it a factor in 2012? Everybody forgets what happened in Texas and all these things and the chipping away of abortion rights. And I think one of the things that needs to be pay attention to in 2024 is two things. One is how are people voting in the backlash in states like Kansas and others that are saying no to these rules, that we still want clinics, we still want everything to happen? And then how are evangelicals and Republicans trying to court religious conservatives going to deal with this? One more thing. We haven't talked about Catholics very much in this, and I think we need to talk about Catholics because this is an important block that is also, you know, sort of pro-life, but also is in flux because lots of Catholics are upset about what has happened with Roe. I don't know how this is going to play out for 2024 and Catholic voters, but I suspect that those who are conservative may feel like evangelicals, that they want to shy away from all that and point to other kinds of issues of sexuality than focusing in on this. The biggest thing that voters who Republicans need to watch out for is the rise of women who are having serious issues because of not having access to abortion. So I think that this constant stream of bad information and bad stories about what has happened because of the loss of abortion access only hurts the Republican Party and hurts evangelicals in the public milieu. 

Farai Chideya [00:41:18] So let's get to the one candidate who is not Christian in the presidential race, Vivek Ramaswamy. He's Indian-American and Hindu. You know, he's actually doing quite well in the polls among the others, meaning everyone other than Donald Trump, who is leading steadily. But Anthea, do you think that his being Hindu is affecting his viability in any way, or is it just that he it's anyone but Trump is so unlikely that it doesn't really matter at this point? 

Anthea Butler [00:41:51] I think it's both. I mean, for Vivek, I. Think. That it's just like Nikki Haley. Nikki Haley has spent a lot of time downplaying. Her Indian this. Rate and trying to whiten herself, so to speak. And he hasn't quite done that. But I don't think Americans know enough about Hinduism to feel comfortable with him. I'll just be honest. Right. What they are comfortable with are the things that he says. And if this was, you know, India, he'd be great with Modi, right? I'm sorry, but Trump is not even going to pick him for a VP running mate. It's just not going to happen. More likely than not, he's going to try to either take a woman or he's going to take Tim Scott. He's going to take somebody he can, you know, mow over, basically. And I don't see Ramaswamy. as being that person. Yeah. 

Farai Chideya [00:42:35] Robby, any thoughts on on you know, I mean, Ramaswamy does have a number of fans. Does his religion make any difference? Would it make more of a difference if he were a frontrunner? I presume so. 

Robert P. Jones [00:42:48] I think it would to an extent, but a big asterisk here, because I think the other thing that I mean, my mind goes to is that Trump's Christian credentials aren't exactly sterling. And there were all of his, you know, apologists went through all of these mental gymnastics to try to describe how and in what way he could be considered Christian. He was a baby Christian. He was a new convert despite his clear biblical illiteracy. That didn't matter. Now he is kind of toeing the Christian nationalist line. I think that got him a long way. And even this kind of stuff, you know, even if he's not Christian, he's an instrument being used by God. I mean, I suppose that kind of logic could, should Vivek turn out to be the frontrunner. I could imagine those sort of mental gymnastics starting to move again. You know, what we saw with Trump and this goes to power politics with white evangelicals is that his favorability was actually not that great prior to his getting the nomination. Once he got the nomination, we saw a 20 point jump in his favorability among white evangelicals. It went up during his presidency. He didn't matter what controversy was going on. Our last measures have that back down about 60%. But that's basically where he was in 2016. I guess what I'm saying is that I think many white evangelicals, when it comes to partisan politics, it's the partisanship that leads and the religious justifications follow. 

Farai Chideya [00:44:07] So wrapping up here, let's leave it with what you will be. Looking at Anthea when it comes to the intersections of race, religion, politics and power, what are you going to be reading, looking for, trying to understand during the 2024 cycle? 

Anthea Butler [00:44:25] I'm not sure I'm looking for what I'm trying to understand. I'm looking for what people are going to do. And what I mean by that is we're at a point in which actions are going to speak louder than anything else. I'm looking for the candidates who are going to start to feel desperate, first of all, who are going to align themselves with certain kinds of figures. That's the first thing. The second thing I'm watching is all of these kinds of groups coming together, like the cartoon character Voltron or like the Transformers. Right? But I'm very interested in watching people like General Flynn and others who have been doing the reawakening tours, these different tours that are happening that always happen around presidential election time. People should be watching very carefully. The second thing I'm looking for, honestly, and I hate to say this out loud, is violence. I think that political violence, like religiously related, is going to happen in 2024. And I hope that we don't lose anybody. And I hope that the FBI and other organizations are looking at this. But the chance for this is very high, especially because of all the cases that Trump has. And if they feel as though Trump is going to go to jail or whatever happens in Georgia, New York or Florida or wherever else he gets indicted at, this is going to be a huge problem because he's the front runner. And I don't see any of these other candidates being able to overtake him in any way, shape or form. 

Farai Chideya [00:45:47] Yeah, I would have to agree. And of course, it's something we discuss on the show that the chances of political violence are have been high, you know, for a number of factors and may accelerate because of the various indictments. And so, Robby, wrapping up with you and wrapping up our segment here. You're going to be touring with your book, The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy and the Path to a Shared American Future. As you tour. What are you seeking to learn or what are you seeking to understand? 

Robert P. Jones [00:46:18] I'm hoping to kind of bring this conversation to places that most need it. I mean, a lot of my book tour is in the South, so Mississippi, Georgia, also going to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where I write about in the book. I'm agreeing here with Anthea. I think we have already seen, you know, we have this long tradition of the peaceful transfer of power that was the awe of the world and a kind of crown and the jewel of American democracy that Trump already broke. And we had violence already at the outbreak of the last election. I think Anthea is exactly right here. This is a real danger. And if you think about the logic of it and to the extent that the Republican Party and the MAGA base of the Republican Party in particular is being organized around this idea of white Christian nationalism, it is a theology and a political ideology of racial and religious ownership and entitlement. The logic goes well, if we can't achieve our ends by democratic means, if it's a divine mandate, we can use non-democratic means, including violence. And I think that's a real danger that we see that mindset being activated and primed already. I think I'm also watching for the racial dynamics here, Right. We've got an African-American judge, African-American prosecutors, and Trump is absolutely already calling them racist, indicating that he's being persecuted because of his race. But I think underneath all that is this idea, right, that a white man should not be being prosecuted by someone who's not white and male. I think the good news and let's take a look, we're hopeful. Hopeful. The good news, I think, is that the country does actually reject this idea that the country is intended to be a white Christian country by a margin of 2 to 1. It's just that the problem is that a majority of Republicans and white evangelicals believe that and they have taken over one of our two political parties. So I think that's the danger. And those are the kind of dynamics I'm going to be watching for. 

Farai Chideya [00:48:10] That was Robert P. Jones, president and founder of PRRI and author of the book The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy and the Path to a Shared American Future. And Anthea Butler, chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

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I'm host and executive producer Farai Chideya. Nina Spensley and Shanta Covington are also executive producers. Emily J. Daly is our senior producer. Bridget McAllister is our booking producer. Monica Morales Garcia is our fact-checker and producer. Natyna Bean and Emily Ho are our associate producers. Nicole Pasulka is our fact checker. This episode was produced by Emily Ho, Morgan Givens, Joanne Levine and Andrea Asuaje. Our show was engineered by our technical director, Mike Garth, with engineering help from Carter Martin

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