Behind New Zealand Terror Attack Is a Problem Bigger Than Islamophobia

Brenton Tarrant flashes white power symbol. Image: Getty

As a white terrorist from Australia emptied clips of his M16 into the Al Noor and Linwood mosques in New Zealand, killing 49 innocent worshippers, his manifesto revealed the depths and scope to which Christian nationalism has entrenched itself into white majority countries.

Even as advocates point to growing Islamophobia as the cause of the attack, the larger issue seems to be a reactionary—and almost theological—white Christian nationalism that has taken hold over the past decade. And it can’t just be whitewashed away with the “economic displacement” trope.

Indeed, white Christian terrorists like Anders Breivik in Norway, Dylann Roof in South Carolina, and now Brenton Tarrant, are self-styled (and self-described) soldiers in a fight against greater threats: secularism and pluralism.

While white Christian nationalism has its roots in the United States during Reconstruction, it grew in the 1960s as the evangelical movement attracted new congregants fearful of racial and gender equality activism. Over time, these congregants conflated their racial resentment with religiosity, and viewed the idea of a secular country—and a pluralistic one—as tantamount to their extinction.

This Christian nationalism found its way to other parts of the globe, and weren’t necessarily tied to evangelical movements. The resentment-bred, reactionary politics of the National Front in France and far-right movements across Europe were tied to insecurities about what it meant to be a citizen of a particular country. Breivik weaponized that sentiment in 2011 with his terror attack, and Roof cited similar sentiments after slaughtering congregants of an African American Church in 2015.

We are distracted by incidents of mass murder and terror, and assume white Christian nationalism is a series of one-offs, rather than an increasingly pandemic problem across white majority nations in demographic transition. It’s growing in our own backyards, too, and not just because of Trumpism and social media.

To blame Trump, Facebook posts, and rambling manifestos for carnage overlooks our failure to confront the grievances fueling white Christian nationalism. Assuming secular values and pluralism will win out in the end does nothing to prevent the ideological violence of Christian nationalism from spreading. Just as Wahhabism spread as a grievance-based movement against ostensibly secular Pan-Arab dictatorships in the 1960s before morphing into a powerful global threat, white Christian nationalism is a tinderbox.

We have to have the tools to snuff the fire before it lights.