The interplay between systems of Christian belief and conspiracy theories was the focal point of a recent webinar hosted by Religions for Peace, USA.

Facilitated by Bruce Knotts, co-moderator of Religions for Peace, USA, and featuring Carmen Celestini, a post-doctoral fellow with the School of Religion at Queen’s University, “The Fear of ‘The Great Replacement’ and Impact on Society” discussed conspiracy theory, nationalism and Christianity.

Celestini studies the overlap between systems of Christian belief and conspiracy theories. Perhaps considered an odd couple by some, she explained how white Christian nationalism, rooted in the fear of being replaced by those racialized as people of color, has brought the two together.

This relationship has become more visible in recent years, she said, as evidenced by the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

“When people feel their previous status of privilege is threatened and when others feel their hopes for a better future are lost, you have the makings of a civil war,” Knotts stated in his opening remarks. “In 1861, Abraham Lincoln was elected as the first American president elected without any electoral votes from the enslaver Southern states. Despite Lincoln’s assurances that he would not abolish slavery, the Southern states succeeded from the Union and the American Civil War started.”

“Similarly, today, we see rural whites, right evangelical Christians, southern whites facing diminished power and privilege,” he said. “They fear that they will be replaced by the growing majority of urban and educated people, people of color, immigrants, gays, lesbians, trans and people who strongly oppose white Christian nationalism. For the first time, our two political parties, which used to embrace most of America’s diversity, have sorted themselves into identity parties that vie for dominance.”

It is us against them, with both fearing domination by the other, Knotts explained. The fear of losing our America, our land, our heritage, our history, our jobs, our rights, our election is only increasing.

Celestini offered participants a fair warning that the conversation may be uncomfortable but emphasized that the implications of the discussion are important.

Challenging our image of the conspiracy theorist as one who wears a tin foil hat, she invited participants to look deeper. “One of the most motivating factors is fear,” she said. “They are articulating their fear and there is this notion that there is perpetual disaster, one bad thing happening after another.”

In these moments, it matters what they turn to. If they are a person of faith and feel unable to turn to their religion for solace and resolution, then they will look for theories to explain and address their sense of injustice or change in their world.

She traced “The Great Replacement Theory” to Renaud Camus’ Le Grand Remplacement written in 2011. Camus believes that French citizens are being replaced by immigrants as part of a strategy of the global elite, considering it an attack.

Celestini demonstrated how this fear traveled to America and was passed on by persons like Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller. Both men cited the book in their discussion of immigration policies.

Celestini argues that “The Great Replacement Theory” is being articulated through:

  • “Population control with disinformation and conspiracy theories about COVID-19;
  • Policies articulating how to end immigration; and,
  • Policies to bring women back to traditional roles.”

Regarding conspiracy theories and nationalism, she explained that persons are separated into two groups — “who is or is not an American or a Canada or a European,” which is then “used as a tool to separate who is truly a hero and a patriot and who is an enemy of that nation.”

The fear aroused by this theory has led to violent acts by its adherents. Celestini detailed massacres where “The Great Replacement Theory” was cited by the perpetrator.

Such actions include the Christchurch Mosque shooting in New Zealand and the shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, both in 2019. More recently, the theory was cited by the shooter at the TOPS supermarket in Buffalo, New York, in 2022.

Celestini noted that this brand of nationalism is found in other nations, including Europe and Canada.

Traveling the world through social media platforms via tropes and memes, this ideology of fear spreads easily and seemingly innocuously online, she said. The fear allows adherents to reimagine themselves as heroes who are saving their loved ones and their preferred social norms, as well as protecting their country.

Not surprisingly, Celestini pointed out that this has led to a call for a civil war. Back to 1861, it is a true full circle moment for America.

A recording of the webinar is available here.

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