In the aftermath of the events in Charlottesville, I told my colleagues, surprised at the fact that some Christians couldn’t bring themselves to unequivocally condemn neo-Nazis, the Klan and the “Alt-Right,” that this failure took place “before Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Fox News, et.al., had time to consolidate their talking points and message. By Friday, these folks will have people convinced that the events in Charlottesville were the fault of Black Lives Matter, the National Council of La Raza, and Barrack Obama with NPR and the New York Times coordinating events behind the scenes.”
I was wrong. It only took until Monday, Tuesday at the latest. As you probably know, the president, after reluctantly condemning the racism and—let’s not forget—antisemitism (more about which, anon) on display in Charlottesville, told the world what he really thinks: “I think there’s blame on both sides. And I have no doubt about it.”
He went on to say that many of the people attending the “Unite the Right” (more about which any time now) were “were protesting the taking down of what to them is a very, very important statue,” who were, in his telling, set upon by a group “charging in without a permit [who were] were very, very violent.”
Now, as that notorious liberal Marco Rubio pointed out on Twitter, “The organizers of events which inspired & led to [the Charlottesville terrorist attack were] 100% to blame for a number of reasons,” which he then listed.
Of course, I’m not surprised at the president’s comments. To put it charitably, his record when it comes to matters of race indicates—the sound you hear is my spine snapping in two as I bend over backwards to be fair—a certain tone-deafness and indifference to how his comments are perceived by people of color.
He (in)famously began his campaign by declaring “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. . . . They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” (Emphasis mine.)
He reportedly complained about having black accountants at his casinos, saying “I hate it. The only kind of people I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes every day. Those are the kind of people I want counting my money. Nobody else. . . . Besides that, I’ve got to tell you something else. I think that the guy is lazy. And it’s probably not his fault because laziness is a trait in blacks. It really is; I believe that. It’s not anything they can control.”
Yet I’m not especially troubled by his remarks, as absurd and, at times, abhorrent, as they were. What bothers me is the willingness of so many Christians to be distracted, manipulated, and ultimately seduced into downplaying the events in Charlottesville.
Let me be clear, there are exceptions. Tim Keller, writing at the Gospel Coalition, John Stonestreet here at BreakPoint, and Russell Moore in the Washington Post, were unequivocal in their condemnation of what happened in Charlottesville.
Unfortunately, as we have learned in the past years, there is a real gap between what Christian leaders believe and say and what people in the pews believe and do. When Moore writes, “White supremacy angers Jesus of Nazareth. The question is: Does it anger his church?” My response is “not really.”
How do I know this? Because of the manifest willingness to accept and repeat, without any scrutiny, the talking points used to minimize what happened in Charlottesville.
For instance, the events in Charlottesville had next-to-nothing to do with the proposal to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee. The proposal was a pretext. What drew the Nazis, Klan, and other white nationalists to Charlottesville was the possible removal of a statue—it was a “coming out” party for white nationalism.
As the organizer, Jason Kessler, said, the principal goal of the “Unite the Right” rally was “to destigmatize Pro-White advocacy.” In his words, the possible removal of the statue was “symbolic of a lot of other issues that deal with the tearing down of white people’s history and our demographic replacement.”
This is why, in this poster for the rally, the reference to the statue is easy to miss (I missed it) but you can’t possibly miss the slogan “You Will Not Replace Us,” the same slogan directed at Jews in Charlottesville. (I told you I’d get here.) If your concern is about rewriting history, you don’t go around talking about “white advocacy” and “our demographic replacement.” And you certainly don’t need to go around chanting Nazi slogans.
Another distraction is the employment of what is known as “whataboutism.” A favorite propaganda tool of the Soviet Union, “whataboutism” responded to any criticism of the USSR with a “what about . . .” The thing that made it effective was that the faults, problems, and inconsistencies cited by the Soviets and their apologists were real. What it made it pernicious was the implied moral equivalence.
Thus, it was hypocritical for the United States to preach about freedom and abroad while denying it to its African-American citizens abroad. But it would be absurd, if not obscene, to say that the U.S. was the other Evil Empire.
Twenty-five years after the fall of the USSR, a very different set of Russia apologists have embraced “whataboutism,” not only on behalf of the Soviet Union’s successor state, but also on behalf of the kind of people who torment David French, when they aren’t telling people that being a neo-Nazi will make girls “want to have sex with you.”
I’m referring, of course, to Antifa, the new white meat. Now, as Peter Beinart wrote in the September issue of the Atlantic, there’s much to criticize about the movement. As he says, “In the name of protecting the vulnerable [from what it deems to be racism or other kinds of bigotry], antifascists have granted themselves the authority to decide which Americans may publicly assemble and which may not.”
They “may consider themselves fierce opponents of the authoritarianism growing on the American right. In truth, however, they are its unlikeliest allies,” because they are complicit in the subversion of “liberal-democratic norms,” such as free speech, and they “allow white supremacists to depict themselves as victims being denied the right to freely assemble.”
But, as the same Peter Beinart subsequently wrote, “Saying [Antifa and groups like it are] a problem is vastly different than implying, as Trump did, that it’s a problem equal to white supremacism. Using the phrase ‘alt-left’ suggests a moral equivalence that simply doesn’t exist.
“For starters, while Antifa perpetrates violence, it doesn’t perpetrate it on anything like the scale that white nationalists do. It’s no coincidence that it was a Nazi sympathizer—and not an antifa activist—who committed murder in Charlottesville. According to the Anti-Defamation League, right-wing extremists committed 74 percent of the 372 politically motivated murders recorded in the United States between 2007 and 2016. Left-wing extremists committed less than 2 percent.”
That shouldn’t come as a surprise: “Antifa activists do not celebrate regimes that committed genocide and enforced slavery. They’re mostly anarchists. Anarchism may not be a particularly practical ideology. But it’s not an ideology that depicts the members of a particular race or religion as subhuman.”
Even if you don’t agree with Beinart on this last point, there’s yet another reason why we should condemn the “Unite the Right” crowd, white nationalism, and white identarian politics full stop without resorting to “whataboutism” or “tu quoque”: moral credibility.
If you can’t say that the messages and symbols on display in Charlottesville are abhorrent without also mentioning the misdeeds of “the Left,” whatever that means, then your “condemnation” rings hollow. It’s not unreasonable to doubt whether you really condemn, or even care very much, about people walking around Charlottesville chanting Nazi slogans like “Jews will not replace us” and “blood and soil.”
This is especially ironic giving how willing, ready, and able many of us were to invoke the specter of 1930s Germany between January 20, 2009 and January 20, 2017. We were (and are) willing to compare Christians who disagree with us on issues such as same-sex marriage and LGBT issues more generally to the German Christians of the Third Reich.
Yet, when confronted with actual Nazis, and others who subscribe to the idea of das Herrenvolk, we equivocate. When we come face-to-face with a movement that dresses up paganism with appeals to a neutered Christianity as did the German Christians, we say, “What about Antifa?”
If straight-up condemnation is too much to ask, never mind expect, then at least do us the favor of dispensing with the Martin Niemöller. He was well-acquainted with the violence perpetrated by both the left and right, and, his most famous quote tells us, he never let the failings of the former excuse the monstrosities of the latter. Would that there were true of all of us.
Image courtesy of jcarillet at iStock by Getty Images. Illustration designed by Heidi Allums.
Roberto Rivera is senior fellow at the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview. For nearly 20 years he has been chief writer for the BreakPoint Radio commentary program. His “Internally Displaced Person” is a mostly regular column at BreakPoint.org. His writings have appeared in Touchstone, First Things, and Sojourners. He lives with his son in Alexandria, Virginia.