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Nov. 7, 2022, 11:25 a.m.
Reporting & Production

The term “White Christian nationalism” is on the rise. Here’s what journalists should know about using it

“A keyword-focused ‘close enough, good enough’ approach to white Christian nationalism risks misdiagnosing problems, muddling solutions, and alienating potentially reachable readers.”

White Christian nationalism is on the rise — at least, the term “white Christian nationalism” is.

Sometimes, no other term suffices. White Christian nationalism is the fundamentalist belief, grounded in Biblical principles, that the Bible should be represented in government. Not all fundamentalist beliefs are so explicitly political; the term “white Christian nationalism” helps foreground these aims.

Use of the term becomes a problem, however, when it’s used to describe people and events that are only symbolically Christian or have weak to nonexistent connections to Biblical principles — think Donald Trump bouncing a Bible outside of St. John’s Church.

In those cases, use of “white Christian nationalism” might seem close enough, and given editorial pressures that incentivize use of trending keywords, that might seem good enough in news stories and headlines. This has been especially true during the 2022 midterm cycle, which has featured candidates like Doug Mastriano, who is so easy to peg to the white Christian nationalist label, and Marjorie Taylor Green, who has actively embraced it.

But a keyword-focused “close enough, good enough” approach to white Christian nationalism risks misdiagnosing problems, muddling solutions, and alienating potentially reachable readers.

Hashtag trolling

How the term “trolling” came to be used (and overused) by journalists provides an example of what can happen when an increasingly newsworthy frame shapes and distorts coverage. It can also help point us to what not to do this time.

In the early-mid 2000s, the terms “trolling” and “troll” were adopted by users on and around 4chan, an image board that would eventually be associated with violent white supremacy but initially served as an incubator for early meme culture. At the time, most journalists were oblivious to 4chan and, as Whitney Phillips, a coauthor of this piece, chronicles in her 2015 book on trolling, used terms like “cyberbullying” or other credulous framings to describe trolling exploits. This often misrepresented a story, but sure made the trolls laugh.

As the years passed, however, more journalists became more aware of trolling and its connection to 4chan. From 2010 onward, a growing number of stories were filed about trolling, with the term increasingly used in headlines as click insurance — a trend Phillips chronicled in her 4chan research and which technology journalists later affirmed in interviews for Phillips’ 2018 Oxygen of Amplification report. It wasn’t long before “trolling” became increasingly disconnected from 4chan, serving instead as a go-to descriptor for anything on social media that was antagonistic, annoying, or funny. As trolling transformed into #trolling, a shorthand meme that simultaneously described everything and nothing in particular, it became meaningless — and very easily weaponized. Far-right reactionaries had a field day; “trolling” was the perfect rhetorical cover, particularly when coupled with the equally unwieldy (and clickbaity) “alt-right.” It was also key to ending up in a headline.

Applying the lessons of “trolling”

Journalists’ use of “white Christian nationalism” as hashtag shorthand is already running on a parallel track to “trolling.” This trend carries three main risks.

The first is that #WhiteChristianNationalism undermines rhetorical precision. In the case of trolling, overuse linked harms with play and targeted violence with mischief, conflating both things into an undifferentiated mass. The same thing happens when white Christian nationalism is used to describe someone like Mike Pence — a genuine fundamentalist — and the January 6 rioters who wanted to kill Mike Pence, some of whom might themselves be devout, but some of whom may have never stepped foot inside a church or don’t believe in God.

The hashtagging of white Christian nationalism also undersells the fact that the most prominent messages and messengers ascribed with that label are secular. They’re not connected to churches, and if the messages end up in churches, that’s because church leaders are echoing right-wing media.

How those messages end up in churches and why so many Christian audiences are open to them is critical. But so is the blurred boundary between what happens in church and what happens totally disconnected from church.

Our current book project focuses on this blur. Drawing from 80 years of media history, we argue that there are critical links between Christian and secular media, Christians in the pews and those who never attend church, and Christian political advocacy and policy goals that have little to do with religion. These overlaps are almost always present in stories about white Christian nationalism as reporters shift focus between religious and secular subjects.

We need more direct interrogation of the fact that so much of what falls under the broad umbrella of white Christian nationalism isn’t fundamentalist, doesn’t have a strong (or any) connection to Biblical principal, and is totally disinterested in Christian morality. Again, think Donald Trump’s Bible-bouncing outside St. John’s church.

Our political landscape has been shaped by fundamentalism, yes. But it’s also been shaped by a Christianity with little need for the teachings of Christ. That story is key to understanding our present political moment, and it ends up obscured when white Christian nationalism is used as a catch-all.

Clickbaity headlines, which often run parallel with viral journalism, feed into the dynamic of imprecision. Clickbait makes an even blunter object out of the dynamics of search optimization; above and beyond the imperative to capitalize on trending issues, its objective is to provoke readers to click and share by virtue of the headline alone. Common strategies include the overstatement of threats, simplistic finger pointing, and the collapsing of distinctions.

When used to headline stories about trolling, clickbait tactics helped incentivize the adoption of the term by media manipulators looking for attention (because it landed them right where they wanted to be, in a headline). An inadvertent but powerful effect was to create an ironic foothold for those who otherwise wouldn’t have described themselves as an “alt-right troll,” but who saw an opportunity to harness free baked-in publicity (“Sure, I’m an alt-right troll, do you want to interview me?”) — and laugh all the way to the top of the trending topics list.

Similarly, clickbaity use of white Christian nationalism risks incentivizing “if you say so, lol” adoption of the term by media manipulators and others looking for easy SEO, regardless of their religious beliefs or if they care one bit about Christianity as such. This dynamic is already well underway. Some hyperconservative pastors and evangelical leaders have embraced the label as a semi-playful badge of honor, arguing that their theological enemies within Evangelicalism are simply using “Christian nationalist” to describe true Christianity. Other hyperconservative political figures have also embraced the term in apparent anticipation of the headlines it will generate (and they aren’t wrong).

On the audience side of the equation, clickbait use of #WhiteChristianNationalism primes readers to focus on the religious elements of a story. These elements might be present, at least in terms of the language being used by interview subjects. But just because someone is using Christian-sounding language (or holding up a Bible) doesn’t mean that Christianity has anything to do with their motives — or their objectives, if what they ultimately want is to secure secular power and have zero willingness to even pretend to adhere to Christian morality.

The nuance of a story is further obscured when research focused on a specific community or behavior is applied to something the research didn’t actually cover. Phillips encountered this impulse frequently when she would be contacted by reporters looking to file stories about “trolling” that had nothing to do with 4chan, didn’t engage with trolling subculture, or otherwise described participants who didn’t themselves use the term “troll.”

Reporters today court a similar dynamic when grounded social science research on the religious behavior, sense of belonging, and beliefs of people in pews is applied to people outside the churchgoing orbit. There is certainly a great deal to say about the deep stories that animate secular and religious worldviews; the influence of Christian symbology within the U.S. doesn’t hinge on church attendance alone. At the same time, research about active, churchgoing Christians doesn’t account for those who lean MAGA yet reject adherence to organized religion (intriguingly evidenced by the declining numbers of white Evangelicals), have no use for biblical principle, or simply don’t believe in God.

History doesn’t have to repeat itself

To be clear, white Christian nationalism is an invaluable framework when we are talking about white Christian nationalists. There are lots of them out there, just as there were lots of subcultural trolls actively trolling even as the term became hashtag shorthand.

But a metonymonic approach, where any reference to God and country becomes a stand-in for white Christian nationalism, pushes us further from the truth. Stories should unfold organically based on the specific dynamics and beliefs of a community or group. They should not be poured into a Jell-O mold labeled “white Christian nationalism.” Doing so risks shaping stories by shaping the questions that journalists are inclined to ask — or not ask: Most notably (and vexingly), “Is this Christian-sounding thing actually Christian?”

Accuracy of this kind is critical when considering what we can and should do about the antidemocratic energy of flag and cross politics — however actually Christian it might be.

The fact that many Christians reject white Christian nationalism, claiming that it distorts both Christian and American values, creates a different sort of challenge  —  one related to communications outreach. When the term “white Christian nationalism” is used loosely to describe anything with a flag and a cross, or just a cross, or even more abstractly, a Trump 2024 bumper sticker, it risks threading a needle between — for example — violent insurrectionists and people who love Jesus and also think January 6 was terrible.

In the case of trolling, flattening harmless pranks into violent white supremacy meant that when violent white supremacy happened, it was more likely to be seen as some X-out-able internet thing — nothing to worry too much about, just memes, just trolls being trolls.

In the case of white Christian nationalism, flattening insurrectionists and fundamentalists — and everything that exists in between — risks feeding into mistrust of mainstream journalism by Christians who don’t see themselves in the extremity of white Christian nationalism but still feel implicated by the coverage. A person doesn’t need to be a devout Christian for this to rankle; scholars like Anthony Nadler have shown how media portrayals of Trump supporters, particularly in the context of January 6, contribute to many conservatives’ worry that they are being driven from public life.

There is a fundamental tension here, however. On the one hand, flattened keyword white Christian nationalism constructs a category of extremism and applies it to a whole spectrum of Christians and non-Christians alike. This might not radicalize anti-insurrectionist Christians, but it does make them less likely to publicly ally themselves with pro-democracy forces, since those forces have, in their minds, falsely implicated their beliefs and communities in something they find abhorrent.

On the other hand, many Christian theological tenets and institutional structures do lend themselves to conspiratorial thinking and antistatist extremism. Going the other direction and focusing on the most outrageous Marjorie Taylor Greene version of white Christan nationalism creates a false division between the extreme and the mainstream. What ends up obscured in such a framing are all the political, economic, and religious institutions that make insurrection seem like a viable, and indeed righteous, path for millions.

The takeaway is that, just like flattened keyword and clickbait use of trolling, #WhiteChristianNationalism too easily functions as a red herring. In the process it pushes us away from the kinds of historically grounded analyses that are needed to make sense of the overlap between the religious and the secular, and between cultural influences and individual belief.

The ability to make meaningful pro-democracy interventions through news coverage, technology policy, and community outreach hinges on our ability to understand and articulate those overlaps. That task becomes all the more daunting if the term white Christian nationalism, like trolling before it, transforms into something meaningless — or becomes a weapon.

Whitney Phillips is an assistant professor in the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication. She studies political communication, media history, and digital ethics. Mark Brockway is a faculty fellow in religion and political science at Syracuse University. He researches the evolution of religion, secularism, and politics in the United States. Abby Ohlheiser is a senior editor at MIT Technology Review. They report on digital culture and online influence.

Photo of a flag and a cross by Madison used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Nov. 7, 2022, 11:25 a.m.
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