We have a real gift today! Damon T. Berry sits down to talk about white supremacy and religion.
Damon T. Berry is an assistant professor of religious studies at St. Lawrence University. His Blood & Faith: White Nationalism in American Christianity (Syracuse University Press, 2017) examines the ways in which some forms of white nationalism are hostile to Christianity. He joins Sixoh6 today to discuss his work, with a focus on Ben Klassen, a man born into a Russian Mennonite family around the turn of the century who came to lead one of the most violent white supremacist movements in the United States.
What drew you to work on the topic of religion and white nationalism? Which did you discover was your passion first?
The events on 9/11 happened early in my undergraduate training. As someone who was interested in religion and violence, this was of course a touchstone moment. What then followed was a deluge of books and articles, popular and scholarly, attempting to explain what had occurred and to describe those associated with religiously motivated acts of terrorism. But what seemed to be taking place was that religious terrorism was being inscribed on the public imagination as always foreign and exclusively Muslim. I wanted to talk about those groups that were imminently domestic. And in the history of America, those groups that have blended religiosity and terroristic violence have been in large number white supremacist or separatist. This was initially how I became interested in religiously violence perpetrated by American white nationalists that was certainly, at that time, overlooked in the public and academic discourses on religion and violence.
This is hard work, intellectually and emotionally. In the process of researching and writing this book, how did you insure that you could keep at it? Were there parts of the research that were particularly challenging? How did you address them?
Yes, indeed, this kind of work is challenging on a number of levels. The emotional toll of looking at what most people would find repulsive is one obvious challenge, but there are other challenges that perhaps are not as well understood. Archival material is really hard to find sometimes. Some libraries do keep some texts, and other special archives may have other materials, but I had to invest a large amount of money in purchasing a number of volumes to ensure access to the material.
Another challenge is a bit more common among young academics in today’s university environment. The reduction of support for graduate students doing humanities research has made more difficult projects requiring intensive time for the accumulation of materials and data. Further, many graduate students can only afford to attend graduate school if they work as graduate teaching associates for the university. This is many times, apart from costly loans, their only means of financial support. Such compensation often times allows the tuition costs to be covered but leaves other fees and living costs to the student/researcher.
That means that a complex research project is a bigger risk than in times when graduate students were better supported—which could push people toward “safe” topics and away from work that might not be as well-received because it challenges our conventional ideas about topics like race and religion.
Yes, the burden of research is greater now than in times past, and in new topics not well understood or researched in the academy, these complications abound.
Which findings in your book most surprised you? What is your favorite story from your time researching?
I knew since about 2006 that my interest in this material was going to inform my graduate work as it had done in the later part of my undergraduate training. So I think I was well acclimated to the kinds of things I would find on websites and in publications, which is of course what I focused on in the book. What surprised me was other people’s reactions. Often I was asked why I would do this work. To me it seemed obvious that this was something we all needed to better understand.
But this is connected to one of my favorite stories, though this story is also linked to a profound tragedy. On April 13, 2014, self-professed Odinist and longtime white nationalist Frazier Glenn Miller [Check out Sixoh6’s previous writing about this act of mass violence here.] shot several individuals at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City in Overland Park, Kansas. Mere days after, this one of my most beloved teachers in graduate school approached me and confessed that he thought what I was doing was bizarre and that he really did not understand why I would bother. He apologized and exclaimed that since that event he saw the need for such research. I think that attitude shift has been experienced by many people since 2016 as well. We all do our work to affect the way people see the world and our topics in particular. But sometimes the world changes the way people see your work.
Many of our readers work hard to address racism within Christianity. What can they learn from reading about anti-Christian movements in white nationalism? Are these two topics related?
At one level, I found that there is a broader story about the political right and religion in America. I found that for white nationalists, even those who are atheists, religion plays an important role in how they are attempting to work together and mainstream their positions on immigration and other issues. This means for me that we should all be interested in understanding white nationalist organizations.
But more than that, my main point for contemporary Americans, be they Christian or not, is that racism is not the problem of the “extremists” or the Alt-Right. It is an American problem. It is our problem. As the Southern Baptist Convention has recently done, I think Christian organizations and individual Christians need to do some serious soul searching and be ready to face themselves and their history. I hope my small contribution to this conversation inspires them to really pay attention to those voices from other targets of racism and other forms of bigotry and ask themselves, what part do I play in this suffering?
Many Mennonites who read Sixoh6 will recognize Klassen as a traditional Mennonite surname, but they don’t know the story of Ben Klassen. Can you tell us a bit about him?
Some of what we know about Bernhard “Ben” Klassen is from his own autobiography. But we can be fairly certain that he was born into a Mennonite family in the village of Rudnerweide in southern Ukraine on February 20, 1918. In his infancy, his family witnessed the Bolshevik Revolution and experienced the unrest that resulted. In 1924, his family fled Russia for Mexico, where they stayed only until 1925, when they moved to Canada. Klassen later enrolled in the University of Saskatchewan in 1935, where he developed an acute interest in comparative religion and history. As events in Europe began to catch his attention, Klassen, who was fluent in German, read Mein Kampf and was inspired. In his autobiography, he states that the events of 1938 and his reading of it had a profound effect on his “Weltanschauung” and his “philosophical outlook on life as a whole.” In many ways the pacifism of Mennonite doctrine was his main objection to it and all forms of Christianity. This was of course contrasted with Klassen’s fascination with Hitler’s ideology in Klassen’s own religion that he called Creativity.
Klassen cites his opposition to his family’s pacifism in the face of persecution in Russia as a source of his white supremacy. This doesn’t fit our traditional Mennonite stories of persecution making people grow in their faith, and Mennonites have historically been suspicious of nationalism—perhaps even more so than racism, unfortunately. Do you know how Klassen was received by his Mennonite community as his views changed to become more supremacist in nature?
Apart from what I mentioned above, the longer story of his development out of Mennonite practice is related to his confessed frustration with Christianity and conservative politics in their seeming weakness in what he perceived to be their shared participation in changing mores regarding race in the 60s. I did not look at how Mennonites reacted to Klassen, but it is clear to me that he rejected their teachings in full and without reservation by the 1970s, especially concerning pacifism.
Above, one of Klassen’s contributions to the development of an atheist white supremacy was The White Man’s Bible. Note that the images on the cover expressly indicate his rejection of both Judaism and Christianity. The only religion, he argued, should be race.
Klassen’s extended family rejected the Creativity movement and many remain in the Mennonite faith. Are broken relationships common for people in white nationalist movements?
Very often they can be. This is probably best asked of someone who studies these family dynamics, but I would say that I think the broken relationships can be accounted for more by the rejection of the family’s civil mores or Christian teachings, or as the result of violence committed by the individual, more than the racism itself. Moreover, it may be that many family members are not aware of their loved one’s white nationalism until something dramatic occurs. James Alex Fields, the man who rammed his car into protesters at Charlottesville during the Unite The Right Rally killing Heather Heyer and injuring others, came from a troubled family situation. But more to my point, his mother told the press that she had tried “stay out of” to her son’s “political views.”
From your book, I learned that many white nationalists who are critical of Christianity share Klassen’s view that the non-violence of Christianity is a failure to protect one’s own race. Yet most Christians don’t embrace non-violence, and for much of its history, Christianity has been used to defend slavery, colonization, segregation, and other forms of racial oppression. Do these white nationalists have an idealistic view of Christianity? Are they railing against Christianity as many Mennonites think it should be practiced (nonviolent, anti-racist, inclusive, anti-imperialist) or against Christianity as it is practiced? If Christianity as it’s practiced has often supported white supremacy, why criticize it? Or, to think about it differently, is white nationalism actually threatened by Christianity?
Nothing of what I described should be taken as a vindication of Christianity’s past or present. There are still many white nationalists who embrace Christianity in some sense, or even overtly. That is relative more to Michael Barkun’s book, Religion and The Racist Right (1996). My own work was meant to address those religious perspectives that were necessarily excluded from his study. And still among some in the New Right movement, as I describe in the later chapters, do look toward a more militaristic Christianity. What they reject is the ‘liberalized’ Christianity. Others, like Klassen, read this lack of militarism onto all Christianity. And others still, like many younger folks involved in the Alt-Right, simply want to avoid the contentious issue of religious pluralism in the movement and keep to what they regard as purely political questions. My point is that there were a number of views operating in the movement since the 1970s when it came into full bloom, and much of the ideological construction is about the place of religion. And as in all ideological constructions, the nuances of history—its contingencies and complexities, especially regarding violence in Christianity—is lost in the effort to redefine racist activism after the relative successes of the civil rights movement, which was imbued with the Christian tropes used by Dr. King and others.
Where can readers learn more about your scholarship?
I am a very new scholar. This is my first book, but I have written for The Journal of Hate Studies and Security Journal as a graduate student. I will be contributing a co-authored project on hate groups in Ohio for Ohio State University Press that may be of interest. That will likely be available in late 2019 or 2020.
Tell Dr. Berry “thanks” for his work by buying Blood & Faith or borrowing it from your library. And if your library doesn’t yet own it, suggest that they get a copy!