Author: Dr. Holly Walters, a cultural anthropologist at Wellesley College, United States. Her work focuses on religious experience and ritual practice in South Asia. Her current research addresses issues of political practice and ritual mobility in the high Himalayas of Mustang, Nepal among Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims who venerate sacred ammonite fossils, called Shaligrams. Holly is a regular contributor to TFS. Find more about Dr. Walters’ work on Shaligrams and especially her latest book release Shaligram Pilgrimage in the Nepal Himalayas on her blog, Peregrination.
The “great replacement theory”, “white genocide”, and “demographic winter” are all pseudoscientific conspiracy theories that did not begin, nor will they end, with Tucker Carlson or other FOX News personalities. Rather, they represent a number of deeply held American beliefs that remain at the very core of everything you’ve read in the news recently about abortion bans, anti-immigrant legislation, and conflicts over teaching race and history in public schools.
White Christian Nationalism isn’t unique to the United States but the particular version of it currently flourishing within conservative Republican politics does tell a particularly American story. It starts by boldly and unproblematically claiming that America was founded specifically as a Christian nation, by (white, European) Christians, and that its laws and institutions are based on “Biblical” (in this case meaning Protestant) Christianity. And while the use of “Biblical” here actually indexes an ideology of an imagined, less sinful, past and not, as scholars would note, the times and places referred to in the Bible, one thing is certain to adherents: The United States is divine. This then ties immediately back into the Prosperity Gospel (a popular form of Christian evangelism), which centers the idea that wealth and power, both individual and national, are evidence of God’s favor.
In exchange for these blessings however, America has been tasked with a mission: to spread this version of Christianity along with Euro-American ideals of freedom and civilization – by force, if necessary – to everywhere else on Earth not marked by the same concepts of “natural order” and Manifest Destiny that defined the colonization of the United States. Today though, that mission is being treated as directly endangered by the growing presence of non-whites, non-Christians, and non-Americans on (what should be) American soil. White Christians are thus called to “take back the country”, to take back their country.
How exactly this is supposed to happen, though, is murkier and quite often many such would-be American “patriots” find themselves at a loss: willing to follow but not willing to lead the charge themselves. Willing and wanting to see violence done in their names but not ready to throw the punches themselves. But there is one arena that conservative Christians absolutely do feel they have control over, a sphere of domestic power that concentrates their influence over time and is, otherwise, unrivaled in political rhetoric.
This is the part where I tell you that I grew up in a conservative Christian household in the rural Midwest. And right now, all the current “save the children” legislation speaks to one particular experience, and it is this: a lot of people, especially tradition-minded conservatives, see their children as extensions of themselves.
Take, for instance, this Tweet from Paul Gosar regarding Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, a “parental right in education” law meant to ban discussions of gender and sexuality in elementary schools. In it, he directly implies that talking to young children about gender identity and orientation is essentially describing gay sex to them, rather than talking about different kinds of families or different ways of experiencing relationships.
This overt focus on queer sex is not uncommon in conservative circles and is often the focal point of a lot of (totally fair) criticism. But it’s ultimately distractionary. Gosar and other Republicans know that kindergarten teachers aren’t showing their classes gay porn.
Despite what they publicly imply or claim, these bills are meant to prevent anyone from teaching their children that other kinds of families are possible other than the iconic nuclear family or that other kinds of gender identities are possible other than conservative ideals of naturalized (essentialized) manhood and womanhood rooted in biological determinism.
And the fears surrounding the dreaded Critical Race Theory are equally not so much something that “makes white kids feel guilty” but something that challenges conservative’s ideas about themselves as bootstrapping success stories rightfully passing their hard-earned legacies on to their kids.
See, my parents, and much of the Calvinist church I grew up in, are just like this. What I mean is that they are generally nice people who are consistently mired in the idea that their kids are their legacy just as they are their parents’ legacies. And with such legacies comes the responsibility to continue them.
“Just like my dad did!”
“Just like we’ve taught her!”
This is why, even though I have a PhD, teach anthropology at a college, and am married (no kids and not Christian), people from my hometown still say things like: “Where did we go wrong?”, “I guess I have to leave you in God’s hands”, and “that wasn’t God’s plan for you.”
This is largely because any deviation from “what they taught us” is seen as an affront to who they are. An affront to the certainty that they have it right. That they are righteous and deserving. That their kids should be just like them without exception.
And frankly, this attitude, and these bills, kill. These laws and these beliefs kill kids.
“Saving the Children” is also partially why they don’t see a problem with actual abusers nor do they view it as hypocrisy when harm is uncovered in their own ranks. It’s not about actual harm to children and it never was. It’s about making sure your kid turns into you.
You can even draw parallels with Pro-Life rhetoric and the resulting legislation. Again, the harm to actual pregnant people and to babies is not the point. It’s about control. Control almost entirely revolving around children, making children, and making the “right” children.
Hence also the outrage over the recent Supreme Court decision leak wherein Justice Samuel Alito included a line from a 2008 CDC report on adoption that read: “the domestic supply of infants” to refer to a shortage in relation to a rising demand for the very young children that middle class families prefer to take in. He then wrote on page 34 of the opinion that “a woman who puts her newborn up for adoption today has little reason to fear that the baby will not find a suitable home.” This then is the reasoning behind overturning federal abortion access in the United States (i.e., Roe v. Wade); in order, I will say, to ensure more babies for wealthy (presumably white) Christian families to adopt.
For this and other reasons, everything is therefore couched in “parental rights.” And that is exactly what they mean. The “right” parents must control everything in order to create the “right” children. Children just like them.
Finally, this takes us to why “Save The Children” has been so integral to Euro-American moral panics for decades: from the Satanic Panic to QAnon. It’s always the hypothetical children we must save. Not the actual ones.
Again and again, it’s the same song and dance.
But my point still stands. “Saving the Children” remains a legacy of eugenics and of current Republican politics in the US: as a couched phrase directed at those already primed to hear its underlying message that it’s all really about making sure that white, conservative, Christian parents are in complete control of creating a white, conservative, Christian nation. A nation of “mini me’s”.
And it all starts with the firm belief that your kids are not people. Your kids are not their own beings. Your kids cannot be allowed to fall into “degeneracy.” Because they are not themselves. They are you.
It’s how people end up getting sold on the “idea” of children, without having to address the complexities of dealing with real, living, messy, people.
Butt, Leslie. 2008. “Lipstick Girls” and “Fallen Women”: AIDS and Conspiratorial Thinking in Papua, Indonesia. Cultural Anthropology. Accessed on AnthroSource: https://anthrosource.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1525/can.2005.20.3.412 18 May 2022.
Fenster, Mark. 2008. Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture. University of Minnesota Press.
Gusterson, Hugh. 2020. “COVID-19 and the Turn to Magical Thinking.” SAPIENS. https://www.sapiens.org/column/conflicted/covid-19-magic/ Accessed 18 May 2022.
Saglam, Erol. 2020. “What to do with conspiracy theories?: Insights from contemporary Turkey.” Anthropology Today. Volume 36, Issue 5. https://rai.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/1467-8322.12606
Sobo, Elisa J. and Elżbieta Drążkiewicz. 2021. “Rights, responsibilities and revelations: COVID-19 conspiracy theories and the state.” In Viral Loads: Anthropologies of Urgency in the Time of COVID-19. Lenore Manderson, Nancy J. Burke, and Ayo Wahlberg (Eds.). UCL Press.
[All images in this blog courtesy of the author.]