Interview with Eric A. Weed, author of The Religion of White Supremacy in the United States

On January 20, 2009 the United States entered a new era in terms of race relations in the country. The hope of many Americans were not to be fulfilled and many believe race relations are worse now. The reason is the legacy of race is integral to the American nation. The Religion of White Supremacy in the United States traces this legacy to show how race is defined by more than beliefs or acts of injustice. What this book reveals is that white supremacy is a religion in the United States. This book is a theo-historical account of race in the United States that argues that white supremacy functions through the Protestant Christian tradition. The Religion of White Supremacy in the United States is an interdisciplinary work of Critical Whiteness Studies, American History, and Theology to build a narrative in which the religion of white supremacy dominates US culture and society. In this way, the racial tensions during the Obama era became sensible and inevitable in a nationa that finds ultimacy in white supremacy. Author Eric A. Weed recently sat down with Reading Religion Research Assistant Therasa Topete to discuss his examination of The Religion of White Supremacy in the United States.

Therasa Topete:   We are at the 2018 AAR Meeting in Denver, Colorado speaking with Dr. Eric Weed about his book, The Religion of White Supremacy in the United States. Thank you for speaking with us today Dr. Weed, and congratulations on the publication of your wonderful book. Can you begin by telling us, in a general sense, what is the topic of your book and what motivated you to write Religion of White Supremacy in the United States?

Eric Weed:  Yes, the topic of the book is looking at the way white supremacy works on a macro level. It is not a book that is looking at white supremacist groups. It is looking at how white supremacy operates in a systemic fashion. How it is ingrained in US culture, and how it is a lived theology, a lived religion in the US that cannot be removed from the ethos of the United States because it is the founding nature of the US. I was motivated to write the book on several points. When I initially started doing my graduate work I was studying the Holocaust, or the Shoah, and I was looking at how good Christians could do such horrible things in another country. It was fantastic work and I was enjoying what I was doing, but then the election of President Barack Obama in 2008 started to bring up some deeper questions for me about race in the US, particularly after the rise of the Birther and the Tea Party movements. The birther movement questioned President Obama's legitimacy to be president because of the fact his father is from another country and whether this was a grand democratic conspiracy to elect a non-white male to be president.

EW:  The other part was looking at how the Tea Party movement operated in its protests and seeing, particularly in the largest protest that took place in Washington DC during the Affordable Care Act debates, how many pictures and posters you saw of President Obama with either a mustache similar to Hitler's or people walking around with effigies of President Obama in nooses. Suddenly it became clear to me that what I was doing from a distance, in studying the Shoah, was actually happening in the here and now in the United States and I needed to take responsibility for what white people, including myself, are doing in the everyday mundane functions of the US to create a society that is inherently white supremacist and affects non-white bodies that have to engage in white spaces.

TT:  That is definitely an extremely important and powerful motivation. You state you employ a theo-historical methodology in your work. Can you explain your methodological approach?

EW:  A theo-historical methodology is something that I developed out of my need to ensure that theology is not ahistorical. I have found that many theologians do their work while not considering the historical context. I developed a theo- historical method that is a combination of a theological reading of history but at the same time is going back and applying history to theological ideas to ensure that the ideas are not constructed in a void. It is a symbiotic dialectic method that continually works in and upon itself.

TT:  Interesting. I wonder how, if one is not employing a theo-historical methodology, this problematizes the issue or complicates how the subject is being approached?

EW:  People are trying to understand our present context, the evolution from the Obama era to the Trump era and the reality of the resurgence of white nationalism. One thing I have found is that it is not really a resurgence at all, you just now have a president who is willing to say he is a nationalist, but not a white nationalist, which in essence you cannot be one without the other. What I have noticed is that people who study race from a theological perspective and do not understand history cannot fully understand race. They come to answers from scriptural exploration, but they are not taking into consideration the lived realities of those who were quite literally oppressed and killed by Christians, particularly in the US, and it was a part of their faith reasoning that justified the white actions that caused so much violence.

TT:  You touched upon something that was really interesting that I often ask myself, something that often comes up in conversation with colleagues, friends, and even family. How can people of faith, good people, people who love their families and love their communities, people who are capable of acts of kindness in other contexts or with other people, how do people of faith, Christian people, do terrible things? How do they justify or rationalize a racist perspective, or justify the committing of violence against the minds and bodies of people of color?

EW:  The way to understand this is to understand the genealogy of race and particularly its connection to Christianity. In my book, even though I am talking about it in the United States and in the North American context, I actually start with the debates that took place in Spain after the colonization of Mexico. I begin there because the main debate that took place in Spain was based on how to consider the indigenous bodies that the conquistadors were engaging. You do not want to use the word discovery because that is incorrect language. The fact was the land had already been discovered, it was just that white people were discovering it for the first time. The debate centered on the engagement of Europeans with the indigenous population of that area, and how the conquistadors tried to make sense of this new world, and they made sense of it through either saying that the indigenous people were less than because they weren't Christian or that they were not human at all. By the time the British come to North America that concept had been theologically ingrained, and all of the colonizing nations developed this kind of epistemology, a way of understanding the world for Europeans that made colonization sensible for good Christians.

TT:  Can you explain how white supremacy in the US can be viewed as a religion, and discuss its theological and historical foundations?

EW:  When I think about white supremacy as a religion in the United States I heavily employ Paul Tillich's understanding of ultimate concern and argue that the lived theologies and religions, the lived reality of the United States, is one of white supremacy. I am not looking at individual people, particularly individual white people, who are trying to live well-meaning lives. I am looking at the system they live within, and how that system, whether whites want it to or not, operates as a commitment to white persons. The backlash we saw to President Obama being elected is not an historical one-off in the US, any time major advancements have been made by persons of color in the US there has been significant white backlash. A good way for people to better understand that is Carol Anderson's book White Rage, which came out about the same time my book did. White supremacy is a part of everyday life, so whether a white person goes to an anti-racist rally, like the rallies that took place after the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh or the rallies that took place in Ferguson—and white Christians were involved in both those rallies and fights for justice—one thing that most whites do not want to recognize is they can walk in and out of those circles anytime they want to, the second it becomes too hard they can step back. That is part of them living into what most people would call whiteness, and I say that it is more of a religious expression.

TT:  Building on that, Dr. Weed, chapter 2 of your book discusses the idea of white Christ. What is the notion of white Christ and how has this view of the white Christ problematized race relations in the US and contributed to white supremacy as an embedded structure within the United States?

EW:  When I started thinking about systematizing this work, one thing that stood out to me was Warner Sallman's Head of Christ. It is this ethereal Christ painting that, whether people know the painting by name or not, it is pretty much in every church in the US. More than likely you will find it in your grandparents' homes, I found it there, and I found it in almost every church I have ever visited. It is a ubiquitous image of Christ that was painted by Warner Sallman in the 1940s, and it was his understanding, or his divine inspiration as his representatives today put it, that led him to paint the picture. He felt he was actually painting Christ the way Christ actually looked. Now there are hypotheses on the way Christ looked, but the reality is that the image of Christ that Sallman painted is not going to be the image that archaeology says is how Christ looked. The reason I go to the white Christ is because it problematizes this religion of white supremacy. If you ask students in a classroom, particularly in the US, which I have done, “tell me what your image of Christ is”—and I have to make sure to say, don't think about it, just answer—inevitably everybody describes Sallman's Head of Christ. So for me, it is a center point to this whole idea of the religion of white supremacy, but it is only a result of a much larger matrix. It is not the symptom, it is the result of the history.

TT:  Can you discuss what you mean by the ritual of sacrifice?

EW:  Absolutely. In that particular chapter I am looking at how African American bodies have been historically treated in the US. There is a particular section on the lynching that took place in Marion, Indiana. In the way lynching works in the US, lynching has not really stopped. You may not be seeing it in terms of bodies hanging from the poplar trees but you are seeing it in different ways presently. There is a very disturbing image that I have in my book. It is a photograph of the Marion Lynching. You see the people in the picture and it is a celebratory moment in their lives. There is a man and, presumably, his spouse and she is pregnant. They are standing and posing almost as though it is like church. There is a lady, this elderly lady, in the picture with a big smile on her face, and there is a man in the picture who is posing with his hand pointing to the bodies of the two men who were hanged. So when I am thinking about ritual sacrifice, I am thinking about how whites used these extreme moments of oppression and brutalization of non-white bodies to reinforce the power dynamics and the power matrix of white supremacy. That is why I call it a ritual. It is not one hundred percent the idea of a ritual in terms of cleansing, it is a ritual in terms of reinforcement.

TT:  Yes, I see, absolutely. I was just thinking about these acts of violence and in particular the photograph of the Marion lynching that you were just describing, and it is as though it is a reinforcement, a justification for the worldview in these terrible events. Can you speak to this?

EW:  That is very much the idea. In the early church people tried to collect religious artifacts, and lynching was much the same way. The photograph that was taken at the Marion Lynching was actually turned into postcards. It was reproduced as pictures to pass around the community, for five cents you could get a copy of this picture. This was a very common occurrence after a lynching in the American lynching era, and sometimes even during the lynching because lynching was not just hanging bodies from trees, it involved any sort of extra-legal retribution against non-white bodies, particularly black bodies, including terror.

EW:  Another thing I speak about in that same chapter is a race riot that took place in Tulsa, Oklahoma. You could argue that this was a lynching of a whole black community because the black community denied the white community of Tulsa the right to lynch a black body. So whites destroyed the entire black community, murdered many black persons in that community, and then ran the black community out from Tulsa. If any black persons attempted to come back they were arrested and were held in a sort of makeshift detention camp. But going back to lynching as the way most people think of it, as hanging bodies from a tree, particularly with the case of Marion, Indiana, there is an instance of a picture in a frame of the lynching in Marion. Somebody had taken a lock of hair from one of the two men lynched and turned it into almost a sacrificial alter within their home, and it was something to talk to your children about and your grandchildren about because it was a way of educating future generations in the life of white supremacy.

TT:  This is why what you're doing is so important, that this is historically passed on. It is embedded, it is passed on through the generations.

EW:  Yes, this is an embedded theology.

TT:  What is so fascinating and disturbing to many other people, including other Christians, is the complete disconnect with these actions and the Christian worldview. These are completely un-Christian acts, right? And using these un-Christian acts to pass on a violent worldview to your children, this religion of white supremacy, is incredibly disturbing to many people because we cannot rationalize this disconnect. How can you be Christian but commit these un-Christian acts? I know we already touched on this issue, but it is so important and problematic.

EW:  Yes, it is. Another piece of evidence for this is, and somebody who has done great work on the historical legacy of lynching, is Angela D. Sims. In her work, in different aspects, she brings up that children were taken out of school to go to lynchings. It was a catechetical experience; it could not be described as anything else. If you are taking children out of what is supposed to be their education for something that is clearly meant as a "higher learning," to think of it in the way the propaganda film Education for Death was used against the Nazis by Disney. That higher education, that higher learning of white supremacy superseded the traditional learning of English, mathematics, and science because the installation of white supremacy in young Christians was much more important. To take it even further, when there was going to be lynchings, and if these lynchings were going to take place on Sunday, there were instances in the historical record of churches pausing worship to go to a lynching, performing the lynching, and then going back to church. To me, when you start to understand that level of connection, that you would pause Christian worship to go to a lynching and then go back to Christian worship, that connects the two events. The lynching becomes an extension of the worship. It is a sacrament of white supremacist Christianity in the same way that people think of holy communion as a sacrament of Christianity. In the time of lynching, lynching was a sacrament.

EW:  Lynching takes place in much more subtle ways today. I would very much argue for people to strongly study mass incarceration because in very similar ways it is an extension of lynching. Police brutality, and while the police officers I do know are actually just trying to live out their job, we are seeing too many instances of police officers using the power given to them by the state in extra-legal manners to the destruction of black bodies. That is why we are seeing visceral responses by communities of color, black communities such as Ferguson, and how that is an important element to understand, that there is no justification for why these men and women have been killed by police brutality. It is even more heinous when you think about the number of police officers who have been held accountable for what they have done.

TT:  Absolutely. You talked about how this embedded racism is surfacing, beginning with President Obama's election and continuing now. Can you speak about that a little bit more? Following the civil rights movement, the people who remained committed to a white supremacist or racist worldview did not necessarily change with the implementation of laws. Has it just been brewing and boiling under the surface, and now it has been given a voice again?

EW:  I would argue it never went under the surface, its coding has just changed, its grammar has changed. Richard Nixon's presidential campaign in 1968, and his law and order and southern strategy campaign, was the development of a moment where people like Nixon and those who helped him run his campaign recognized that out and out racist language and racist actions—in terms of what had been seen in the previous decade with civil rights—was not going to work anymore. So, you have something that is now called dog whistle politics, and it is taking the racist language that is outright racist and just changing it to make it more palatable. It became "law and order" and the "war on drugs" sort of language. Even the language of "creating better schools"—which was also code for white flight out of the city—was a way to ensure, in a very unintended way from the decision of Brown, the continuation of segregation in schools. In the south it was to create private schools and in the north it was the explosion of suburbs that enabled the segregation of the two groups, and that actually continues straight up through the decades that followed. Ronald Reagan was very good at using this dog whistle politics language. George H.W. Bush used it in how he employed the Willie Horton political campaign video and how it was held for the very last push of the election, and all this was designed to create white fear and he used white fear to get elected.

EW:  And we cannot just speak of Republicans. Bill Clinton, in creating his drug laws, and the three strikes you're out sort of ideals and mandatory minimums for drugs, is as much if not more culpable in this lower level maintenance of white supremacy. What you have with Donald Trump is a return to Nixonian language. Trump is really connected to the fear, and it is not just fear, it is existential fear for white persons. As the economy continued to shift from being an industrial economy where there were legitimate blue collar middle class jobs that families could survive on to an economy where those opportunities have continued to vanish, Donald Trump was able to tap into the fear, and tap into those communities, and was able to give them a scape goat for the blame allowing the idea of religion and white supremacy and white supremacist action, which never actually went underground, to become sensible for more people to be explicit.

EW:  In thinking particularly about Charlottesville, the most indelible images are of white men in their mid to late twenties or early thirties. This takes away that whole myth that it is something of the past year. Charlottesville had too many young white men as a part of it to argue that we are coming to the end of white supremacy, which I think has been a danger of some people thinking about the idea of the magic year of 2040 and the idea of an end of there being a majority population in the US. That is meaningless because there being a majority population means nothing. Whites will still hold the power in government, they will still hold the power in business and economics, and they will still hold the political influence to determine who becomes elected officials. These systemic issues are still going to be there in 2040 even though people want to say this is a glorious moment to look forward to. I hypothesize nothing is going to change.

TT:  That is interesting, and maybe you could elaborate a little bit more on that. What do you foresee is the trajectory of the religion of white supremacy in the United States? If nothing changes, what is the congregation of the religion of white supremacy going to look like?

EW:  So this will sound very defeatist and depressing, but when you think about going back to the very foundational ethos of the United States, it is white supremacy. The argument can be made that the only way for the destruction of white supremacy to happen in the United States is for a complete re-imagining of the United States. The United States is a functional symbol, in terms of a Tillichian idea of symbols, and for it to change that symbol would have to be destroyed. So, in the way I understand the United States to function, as long as there is a United States white supremacy will be a part of what happens. It ebbs and flows, as I have argued with white backlash, but I do not see any way for there to become an end game, an end to the religion of white supremacy in the United States because the United States and white supremacy are inseparable.

TT:  Would you say that white supremacy is the national religion? That is Christian White supremacy?

EW:  That is exactly where I am headed with my argument, that while people may hold to many different faiths the United States as a societal structure and the religious cultural foundations of the US are founded on white supremacy. That precedes anything else. What happens when you destroy your foundation? You destroy the structure on top of it. I recognize that some people are not going to be very happy hearing that, but there is no way to go forward with thinking about the end game of white supremacy without also thinking about what that means for the nation as a whole.

TT:  Right, and I know that is pessimistic but it is also realistic.

EW:  I am very much a realist.

TT:  It is rational, and a very realistic way of looking at things. Can you, or do you, propose a possible remedy to this religion of racism in the United States? And, particularly, what do you think is the responsibility of people of faith in trying to mediate some of the violence and the lack of compassion that is a product of white supremacist religion?

EW:  When we talk about people of faith, I think it comes straight down to a failure of theological education at its heart because, as James Cone said many times in his books, white theologians are committed to the traditional modes of doing theology. In his first two books he calls on white theologians to come to terms with race in America, and this was the driving influence for me and writing this book. But, theological education has to change, it has to understand the historical narrative of Christianity beyond the mythic understanding because the mythic understanding of Christianity in the United States whitewashes the truth. The way I envision it, schools need to be adding courses not just on cultural diversity but offering courses on race and how religion and race interact together historically and in the present moment. Because students going through a theological education and are envisioning their lives as going forward to become leaders of faith. Whether that be becoming clergy, becoming future scholars of religion, or running faith-based or interfaith nonprofit organizations, if you want to start to make a change in the church future generations of faith leaders do not only need to be conversant in the ways of racism in the US and its connection to Christianity, but they also need to become prophetic in calling out white racism and in calling out white supremacy where they see it. So this means pastors becoming activists again. That is something we have really seen diminish in the past fifty years. The job of theological educators also needs to be to prepare future faith leaders to be able to handle the backlash they are going to receive because it is not a case of when the baby boomer generation dies that these situations are going to magically change. What happens is, as each generation gets older, they become more ingrained in an us-versus-them dualism. Therefore theological education and future religious leaders need to be able to learn new ways to engage these topics and I have seen too many clergy be punished for trying to do that in their congregations. I really think it is the job of theological education to help prepare future generations to combat this where communities of faith operate.

TT:  You mentioned scholars of theology, and I would ask the same question about the responsibility of scholars of religious studies. Is it the same prescription, is the remedy the same? And this actually ties into my next question, what does your book add to the fields of theology, religious studies, and racial politics because it really flows in many camps, it is in many tents?

EW:  I am very multidisciplinary. I cannot conceive of doing my work without having theology, religious studies, critical race theory, sociology, and all of these different components informing the way I think. While I recognize there is some difference between religious studies and theological education, I think they are much closer than people want to admit, and it is a very unfortunate thing that I see as a young scholar who sees himself as a theologian, not in the sense of doing theology for the sake of the church but using theological tools to interpret and critically analyze society to understand lived religion. Then you see religious studies saying it is the academic wing of the study of religion. I think it is really the job of both to do this work, they just do it in different ways. I believe my book is as much religious studies as it is theology and it is because I am multidisciplinary. I think we need to see people claiming a multiplicity of voices in disciplines because that is the only way to continue to make religious studies and theology or theological education dynamic and to keep it relevant in the academy. It is, I would argue, one of the most important voices in the academy and a lot of places are forgetting it is important.

TT:  Absolutely. Well Dr. Weed I want to thank you again for speaking with Reading Religion and taking time out of your busy day here in Denver to discuss your book, The Religion of White Supremacy in the United States. I have just one final question for you. Who is the target audience for your book? Who do you hope is reading it and what do you hope they take away with them?

EW:  So my target audience really is anybody who wants to understand the operations of race and religion in the United States, whether that be graduate students, faculty, undergraduate classes, or general readers. I purposely wrote it in a way that it could be accessible to anybody and that is the way I wanted it to be done. For me, the way I understand my vocation as an academic is not to just talk to other academics. It is to do my work to better society as a whole, and that means writing in a way that enables anybody to read it and at least find significant portions of it approachable, and that is always my goal. What I hope people take away from the book is that there is much more to be done. The conclusion to my book starts off by talking about the reality of going from the first black president, to the transition on inauguration day, to the election of Donald Trump and calls into question, where do we go from here? There is so much more to study because there is not many books, and I really mean there are only a couple of books on this whole subject, period, in terms of looking at whiteness in religion or white supremacy and religion in the United States, and I feel it is incumbent on white scholars to start looking at their place within that narrative. I hope it happens, that is my biggest hope for the book. That it drives other scholars to maybe question whether they need to look at a component of this topic as well. Yet, when I think about the general reader I hope that what the book does is change the way they read the world around them, to see the mundane ways race and white supremacy operate in their context. You know, I hope that for scholars too because they need that as well. I actually think that is probably the thing I hope the most, that it provides a language to reframe one's understanding of interpretation of culture.

TT:   It has been a pleasure speaking with you, Dr. Weed. Thank you again and congratulations on your book, The Religion of White Supremacy in the United States. Are there any final words that you may have for your readers, or maybe you want to tell us about any future projects?

EW:  First, I would like to say thank you to anybody who takes the time to read the book. Being a young scholar, this is my first book and it is a true honor any time I hear from somebody who has read it. In regards to future projects, I am working on two chapters for two different edited books and I am starting to frame a next book.

TT:  Great! It is good to hear we can expect more scholarship coming from you in the future. I am sure it will be as wonderful as this book.