SALT LAKE CITY — In the wake of this weekend's tragic shootings in Texas and Ohio, President Donald Trump condemned harmful ideas and violent people, urging Americans to focus on unity instead of spreading hate.
"In one voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacy. These sinister ideologies must be defeated," he said.
But to be defeated, they have to be understood. And that's not an easy task, according to Andrew Whitehead, an associate professor of sociology at Clemson University.
Most people can memorize the definition of racism or white nationalism and grasp that some Americans think white people deserve to be in power more than people of color. However, it's more difficult to recognize or grapple with how these ideas interact with more common beliefs.
For example, it's relatively common to think America is meant to be a Christian nation. But, in some cases, this belief is infused with racism and bigotry and becomes a reason to harm members of racial or religious minority groups, said Whitehead, the co-author of a forthcoming book titled "Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States."
White nationalists believe whites deserve privileged status in the United States and Christian nationalists believe Christians deserve the same. Both ideologies stand in the way of unity, he said.
On Monday, the Deseret News spoke with Whitehead about dangerous ideologies and how to address them. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Deseret News: How do you define white supremacy and nationalism?
Andrew Whitehead: White supremacy is a desire to see white people have a privileged position in the public sphere. It means you want white people to have greater access to power and to positions of authority.
White supremacy and white nationalism are closely related concepts. White nationalists believe white privilege should be built into social institutions. They believe that to be American is to be white.
DN: And so Christian nationalists think you have to be Christian to be truly American?
AW: Yes, Christian nationalism is the desire to see Christianity hold a place of prominence. It's intertwined with the idea of white racial superiority.
What we've found in our research is that the more strongly you embrace Christian nationalism, the more likely you are to hold negative attitudes toward racial and religious minorities. That's consistent over time and in different surveys.
The idea that America should be a Christian nation undergirds a history of white supremacy and some Christians' support for slavery in the past.
DN: Surveys have shown that around one-third of U.S. adults believe being Christian is a "very important" part of being American. Does that mean one-third of Americans are white supremacists?
AW: Many Americans believe this is a Christian nation but don't actively hate racial or religious minorities. As the author Jemar Tisby has pointed out, they can still be part of the problem.
Tisby describes American culture like a moving walkway in the airport. We're pulled toward racism and white privilege. Even if you're standing still and not actively attacking minority groups, you're being pulled in that direction.
Until you turn around and move in the opposite direction and oppose people who say harmful things, you're allowing white Christian nationalism to be taken for granted.
DN: The man who attacked a California synagogue in April shared Christian nationalist sentiments in the letter explaining his actions. This weekend's shooters don't seem to share those same beliefs. So why is it still worth talking about Christian nationalism now?
AW: We don't know yet whether the shooters in Dayton, Ohio, or El Paso, Texas, were Christian or adopted a Christian nationalist worldview. That may emerge as we learn more.
But Christian nationalism is still a key part of the public response to their actions. It helps us understanding what's happening.
Christian nationalism is intimately associated with opposition to gun control. It justifies doing nothing to reduce the number of guns that are available.
Christian nationalists believe mass shootings happen because America has turned its back on God. They think we have to reinstitute Christianity's prominence in the public sphere in order to address gun violence.
On Fox News yesterday, the lieutenant governor of Texas connected taking prayer out of public schools to the rise of mass shootings. We've heard those exact words before.
Those statements correlate with other talking points about constitutional rights being God-ordained. Changing those rights, including by limiting access to guns, is seen as an affront to God.
Shooters might be motivated by different things, but Christian nationalism is part of what keeps the U.S. from moving towards any sort of new gun control laws.
DN: But again, wanting more Christian voices in the public square isn't an extreme belief. Is it fair to equate that with nationalism or white supremacy?
AW: I think the key is asking whether those that want to see more Christianity in the public sphere want it to be the only voice there. If you're desiring Christianity to be privileged, it begins to ostracize those who belong to other faiths. It becomes more problematic.
Making room for more Christian voices shouldn't require silencing people of other religious faiths and races.
DN: Now that President Trump and others have started talking about white supremacy and nationalism, how do we move from talk into action? What can we do to stop harmful beliefs?
AW: I do think calling them out is part of the solution.
Some Christian leaders recently joined together to do that. They spoke out against the idea that Christianity should be privileged.
When you speak out about problematic beliefs, you may help others speak out, too. They'll see you talking about it online and think, 'OK. This isn't right.'"