Back­ground pho­to by Mat­teo Gran­do on Unsplash

Endur­ing Marks of Inferiority

On August 11th and 12th, 2017, white suprema­cists, as the Wash­ing­ton Post report­ed, most­ly young white males,” gath­ered in Char­lottesville, VA, for the Unite the Right ral­ly osten­si­bly to protest the removal of the stat­ue of a con­fed­er­ate gen­er­al Robert E. Lee by the City of Char­lottesville and the renam­ing of the park in which the stat­ue stood as The Eman­ci­pa­tion Park.” The ral­ly attract­ed hun­dreds of white pro­test­ers and a diverse group of counter-pro­test­ers, each rep­re­sent­ing dif­fer­ent — and clash­ing — visions of Amer­i­can soci­ety and poli­ty. On the evening of August 11th, the white suprema­cists marched through the Uni­ver­si­ty of Vir­ginia, torch­es in hand, chant­i­ng Blood and soil!” You will not replace us!” Jews will not replace us!” and White Lives Mat­ter,” with some don­ning medieval Chris­t­ian sym­bols. The next day the events turned vio­lent. A white suprema­cist drove into the crowd of counter-pro­test­ers, killed Heather Hey­er, and injured nine­teen oth­ers, while still many oth­ers were phys­i­cal­ly attacked and beaten.

The events in Char­lottesville mixed anti­semitism and anti-Black racism — a char­ac­ter­is­tic of the so-called white suprema­cist” or white nation­al­ist” groups. But what has been, until recent­ly, often miss­ing from the cov­er­age and descrip­tion of these groups is that they rep­re­sent a dis­tinct­ly white Chris­t­ian suprema­cy, which has far deep­er roots than mod­ern racism and mod­ern antisemitism.

Two sharply con­trast­ing visions of a state were col­lid­ing in Char­lottesville — one embrac­ing mul­ti­cul­tur­al equal cit­i­zen­ship anoth­er eth­nona­tion­al white Chris­t­ian iden­ti­ty. Both emerged in the west­ern world in the after­math of the Amer­i­can and French Rev­o­lu­tions, but their roots run deep­er. Until the late eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry, Euro­pean soci­ety, which includ­ed colonies, had been orga­nized around social estates and legal plu­ral­ism — the con­cept of equal­i­ty before law did not exist. With the Enlight­en­ment ideas about equal­i­ty and rights began to be debat­ed and fol­low­ing the Amer­i­can and French Rev­o­lu­tions con­cep­tu­al­iza­tion of what cit­i­zen­ship and nation­hood start­ed to take shape. In Europe, two dom­i­nant ideas of cit­i­zen­ship and nation­hood emerged: one, root­ed in a polit­i­cal nation­al iden­ti­ty, grad­u­al­ly and grudg­ing­ly includ­ed all those who inhab­it­ed a polit­i­cal state; the oth­er, ground­ed in an eth­nic, or eth­nore­li­gious, iden­ti­ty, tend­ed to exclude peo­ple who were not con­sid­ered part of a giv­en eth­nic group. In some Euro­pean states these ideas clashed, some­times vio­lent­ly. In the US, sim­i­lar debates about equal­i­ty before law and about belong­ing emerged, but only a lit­tle lat­er, as the coun­try began to wres­tle with the legal mean­ing of the phrase We, the Peo­ple” in the pre­am­ble to the US Con­sti­tu­tion and the ideals of equal­i­ty con­tained in this doc­u­ment and in the Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence. But those debates were ground­ed in ideas about race and color.

The events in Char­lottesville mixed anti­semitism and anti-Black racism — a char­ac­ter­is­tic of the so-called white suprema­cist” or white nation­al­ist” groups.

But while mod­ern anti­semitism and mod­ern racism are indeed, as George M. Fredrick­son has argued, the out­growth of process­es asso­ci­at­ed with moder­ni­ty, and while, indeed white suprema­cy attained its fullest ide­o­log­i­cal and insti­tu­tion­al devel­op­ment” in the US between 1890s and 1950s, in South Africa in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, and in Nazi Ger­many, the ide­ol­o­gy espoused by white suprema­cists in the US and in Europe is root­ed in Chris­t­ian ideas of social and reli­gious hier­ar­chy, which devel­oped, grad­u­al­ly, first in the Mediter­ranean and Europe in respect to Jews and then in respect to peo­ple of col­or in Euro­pean colonies and in the US, before return­ing trans­formed back to Europe. That vision of social hier­ar­chy is built on the foun­da­tions of ear­ly Chris­t­ian super­s­es­sion­ist the­ol­o­gy that negat­ed Judaism as it claimed to replace” it, and is hence some­times called replace­ment the­ol­o­gy or replace­ment the­o­ry. Ancient and medieval Chris­tians devel­oped a sense of supe­ri­or­i­ty over Jews, whom they saw as car­nal and infe­ri­or, and reject­ed by God. Chris­tians, they assert­ed, were now the new Israel, a new cho­sen peo­ple, spir­i­tu­al and supe­ri­or. For Chris­tians, Jews became nec­es­sary con­trast fig­ures” cre­at­ed and used to val­i­date Chris­tians claims of the­o­log­i­cal replace­ment and superiority. 

The mod­ern rejec­tion of equal­i­ty of both Jews and Black peo­ple in the West is the lega­cy of Chris­t­ian super­s­es­sion­ism, a the­o­log­i­cal con­cept devel­oped in antiq­ui­ty and imple­ment­ed in law and pol­i­cy when Chris­tian­i­ty became a polit­i­cal pow­er — its fruit Christianity’s claim to supe­ri­or­i­ty and dom­i­nance. Schol­ars of anti­semitism and racism have fre­quent­ly focused on the­ol­o­gy and cul­ture, ges­tur­ing only slight­ly, and some­times not at all, toward the role law has played in that his­to­ry. But, as Ian Haney López has argued in the con­text of Amer­i­can law, law trans­forms” ideas into lived real­i­ty,” law rei­fies” them. When that the­o­log­i­cal under­stand­ing of the rela­tions between Jew/​Judaism and Christians/​Christianity became imple­ment­ed into law, that rela­tion trans­formed into Chris­t­ian supremacy. 

Mag­da Teter is pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry and the Shvi­dler Chair in Juda­ic Stud­ies at Ford­ham Uni­ver­si­ty. She is the author of Blood Libel: On the Trail of an Anti­se­mit­ic Myth, which won a Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award; Sin­ners on Tri­al: Jews and Sac­ri­lege after the Ref­or­ma­tion; and Jews and Heretics in Catholic Poland.