Explaining the Fiery Hate of White Supremacists

Hi Joel,

I know, I know–I talk a lot about religion and hate. But what are you supposed to do in this day and age?


Nazis held a rally in rural Georgia this past Sunday. About 24 members of one of the US’s largest hate groups, the Nationalist Socialist Movement, set a swastika and an othal rune ablaze. The swastika, of course, is a symbol of Nazi Germany, and the rune, too, was adopted by some WWII-era Nazis in an effort to revise Nordic religion in support of white supremacy, a move that contemporary white nationalists are making, too, as Damon T. Berry explains in Blood & Faith: White Nationalism in American Christianity. 

Members of the National Socialist Movement, one of the largest neo-Nazi groups in the US, hold a swastika burning after a rally on April 21, 2018 in Draketown, Georgia. Community members had opposed the rally in Newnan and came out to embrace racial unity in the small Georgia town. Fearing a repeat of the violence that broke out after Charlottesville, hundreds of police officers were stationed in the town during the rally in an attempt to keep the anti racist protesters and neo-Nazi groups separated

Above, losers invoke the Klan, Nazi Germany, and racist paganism at a small rally for white supremacists in Georgia this weekend.

Photo by Spencer Platt. 


Speaking of racists setting things on fire, Review of Religious Research has a newish (November 2017) article out about church arsons. Available for free online, “When Faith, Race, and Hate Collide: Religious Ecology, Local Hate Cultures, and Church Burnings” by John P. Bartkowski, Frank M. Howell, Lynn M. Hempel, and Jeremy R. Porter is about church arsons in the US South. Some readers might know that there was a spate of African American church burnings in the 1990s, which is the time period under study. The researchers ask 1) if communities with more congregations are at greater risk, 2) how faith-based and secular civic engagement affect such acts, and 3) how the local hate culture (including a history of lynching and interracial homicide rates, as well as the presence of organizations that combat hate) influences these events.


Screen Shot 2018-04-26 at 5.47.45 PMAbove, a map of church arsons in the mid-1990s. Almost 150 churches were burned. At the period of highest activity, a church was burned every five days. 

The research is complex and addresses a number of variables, but I want to pull out just a few findings of interest:

  • Where African Americans had higher unemployment rates compared to whites, church burnings were more likely.
  • In communities where more African Americans were elected to public office, church burnings were more likely.
  • Where African American congregations are more common, church burnings are less likely.
  • Where churches participate in faith-based and secular civic engagement, church burnings are more likely.
  • Where civil rights organizations are present, church burnings are more likely.
  • A history of lynching in the area corresponds to an increased likelihood of church burnings.
  • Black-on-white, but not white-on-black, homicides corresponds to an increase of church burnings in an area.

As the authors note:

In short, the coalescence of historical and contemporary violence perpetrated by whites against blacks is significantly linked to the number of black churches burned in the South during the 1990s.

The authors don’t go this direction, but, looking at their results, I can’t help but see evidence for a broader claim that some of us have been yelling about since the rise of Trump: that white anger toward people of color is not about economic anxiety but about fear of the loss of white power. To summarize the findings: it’s not black economic advancement that provokes white rage but the exertion of power by African Americans–their election to public office, the use of their churches to impact a community, their defense of their civil rights.


PS. Readers who want a regular update on scholarship on hate should sign up for the International Network for Hate Studies’ free newsletter. 

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