Each of the essays in this forum offers a different theoretical, disciplinary, and intellectual approach to the intersection of anti-Muslim bias and White Christian Nationalism (WCN). All seven essays point to a project that links these two issues together in the contemporary American political milieu. As an anthropologist of American religion and politics, I see these contributions as excellent entry points into how social worlds are built and resisted. Worlds—social, cultural, religious, affinity, etc.—are produced, curated, and maintained by people. White Christian Nationalism is not only a religio-political ideology but also a world-building project. Through the language of fear, nostalgia for bygone eras, and the enactment of exclusionary social policies, White Christian Nationalists (WCN), in addition to others on the far right of the American political spectrum, are building new social worlds, new realities. These new worlds have borders, boundaries, and structures that make them homogenous and oppositional to ideas, people, and communities deemed as other, as outside of the normative confines of their world(view).
I spend quite a bit of time thinking about world-building, how American social ecologies are transformed, reimagined, and (re)built through religion, media, and politics. One type of world-building project I have explored is the phenomenon of White American converts to Russian Orthodoxy, who are supporters of Putin’s New Russia. There are, of course, a wide variety of world-building projects, but each of them, positively or negatively, encompasses design and ideology. Reactive world-building, one that is exclusionary, rests on a foundation of continual creation, constant repair, ongoing conservation, and caustic preservation. Reactionary world-building projects, from my experiences, are attuned to temporalities, metaphysics, and sociocultural anxieties, while being intimately tied to biopolitics, geopolitics, and constructions of religious soft power. From my vantage point, many of the groups and people who are the subjects of the essays in this collection are utilizing this type of world-building paradigm—one built on subjective realities about the self and others.
World-building offers space for ideologically related shareholders to stake out their claims, crafting their own unique understanding of the opposition, while also aligning with similar groups to achieve larger aims. In my own research on far-right religious communities, anti-democratic, pro-Russia Orthodox Christians align with MAGA diehards and antisemitic conspiracy theorists. While these types of groups might have different end goals for the(ir) world, they also forge connections and create coalitions with each other to craft an oppositional world that will be caustic to groups and individuals labeled as the enemy—woke academics, the “lavender mafia,” migrants and immigrants, Muslims, Jews, and many more. Together, these world-building groups, whether they be White Christian Nationalists or anti-democratic Americans looking abroad for a political strongman, draw on economic, historical, theopolitical, conspiratorial, and philosophical connections to strengthen their respective and collaborative projects.
Brett Bertucio’s essay shows that while WCN might be a popular world-building project today, it is, in many ways, beholden to the historical emphasis on syncretistic moral civility of the twentieth century that was expressed in both the courts and the public sphere by progressive religious leaders. The concept of moralizing, both then and now, as Bertucio points out, comes in the form of differing “theopolitical” visions for the future of what America should be. Visions become laws, curricula, and social mores; in other words, visions help build worlds that promote certain ideas, values, and people over others. Certainly, progressive moralizing legal projects still exist in the United States, and reactionary moralizing is on display through a wide variety of bills passed at the state level. What we sometimes fail to notice, Bertucio explains, is how these moralizing projects, even at the legal level, frame the world through a theopolitical type of futurity.
Rosemary Al-Kire, in her thoughtful work on the anti-democratic attributes of WCN, notes how the concept of spiritual warfare figures into the advertisements and speeches of political candidates. Al-Kire draws on examples from Ron DeSantis’s campaign that evoke God in defense of social morality. In 2018, while current presidential candidate DeSantis was running for the Florida governorship, he spoke at an event hosted by ACT for America, a nonprofit that has openly spread conspiracy theories about Muslim refugees and Sharia law. Throughout his political career, DeSantis has latched onto ideological compatriots through which he can craft a reactive world-building project that speaks to his constituents—a project that is ultimately borne out in both his current campaign rhetoric and in the laws he has passed as the governor of Florida, a state in which reproductive rights, diversity in higher education, and K–12 curricula are subject to moralizing political ideals founded not in liberal democracy but in particular theological conceptions of right and wrong.
Roger Baumann’s essay on American evangelicals and Muslims post-9/11 helps to explain why someone like DeSantis might ally with ACT for America. Looking at evangelical books, Baumann notes how the discourse on Muslims and Islam has evolved over time to become focused on interconnected yet different positions—threat and peacekeeping—that relate back to the idea of belonging and allowability. In my ongoing research on reactionary American converts to Russian Orthodoxy, Muslims and Islam tend to be positioned in a somewhat paradoxical, moralized space. On the one hand, Islam is assumed by reactionaries, who are typically traditionalists, to be an ultra-conservative group interested in preserving certain social mores and gender norms. On the other hand, Muslims, seen through the lens of orientalism and White Christianity, are depicted by many of these far-right actors as migratory anti-Christian jihadists aimed at making Sharia law enforceable globally. As with any religious tradition, Islam holds within itself a multitude of different ways to be a practitioner; yet the complexity of Islam and Muslim identity is flattened in far-right world-building attempts to reckon with the so-called other.
Attempts to categorize communities and people are not just about social labels; they are nuanced, and often institutionalized, projects aimed at policing the American body politic and the civic sphere through distinctly Christian notions of who should belong. Post-9/11, the state and governmental categorization of WCNs and White far-right ideologues as extremists grammatically links together extremism and theopolitical realities. When law enforcement, government agencies, and even scholars label White reactionary politics as extremism, they ignore the racialized dynamics attached to the term, as Najwa Mayer rightly notes. In doing so, this labeling both erases the structures of White supremacy that are embedded into the United States and negates the actions of American imperialism abroad that have helped facilitate the birth of extremist movements. Mayer deftly points out that viewing WCN as extremism positions the movement outside the history of settler colonialism that has foundationally shaped everything from social discourse to democracy in the United States in religious and racialized ways. In other words, the project of WCN is part of a larger colonialist world-building project founded in White theopolitics.
Muslims are not the only ones affected by the world-building project of White Christian acceptability. Nor is it simply White Christian Nationalists who recapitulate moralizing social ideas and ideals onto the bodies of secular, Black, brown, and immigrant populations. Emily Frazier’s much-needed analysis of evangelicals who are not antagonistically oriented toward immigrant and refugee populations shows there is still, as Frazier aptly contends, the White colonialist impulse to care for, to missionize, to save the other, both outside of and on American soil. This need is not based only in philanthropic desire to provide support for communities, but to fulfill part of their theopolitical world-building project—hastening the coming of Christ and ushering in a new, transtemporal reality, a heavenly world. WCNs also seek a transformed world that they believe is theologically beneficial; they implement their theological vision through bills and policies that affect health care, education, immigration, and human rights.
Perhaps there is no better place to see reactive world-building in action than in Florida, where Governor DeSantis installed an anti-vax surgeon general, banned gender-affirming care for minors, pushed for education reform that downplays the systemic violence of racism and slavery, and banned DEI programs in higher education, among other divisive moves. Paradoxically, these moves seem to appeal to political conservatives who have long decried big government oversight. However, many political conservatives who oppose social progressives seem willing to overlook the authoritarian-style politics of DeSantis if he helps fulfill their world-building project of mapping religious or theological values onto public life. In many respects, Florida is (or is quickly becoming) a blueprint for building out a larger theologically attuned social reality at the national level. The question then becomes: What happens to communities outside of these reactive world-building projects?
Amidst the rising far-right transformation of American politics and public life, two of the authors in this forum show that efforts to confront the reactionary erasure of otherness, of plurality, of democracy even, can be found in both activism and crafting communities of religious or ethical belonging. This openness to possibilities, to new forms of placemaking and community, is in part what anthropologist Jarrett Zigon talks about in his work on “liberative world-building.” R.G. Cravens points to how LGBTQ+ religious people push back against a normative portrayal of being unreligious by continuing to practice their faith in ways that are meaningful and affirming. In this way, LGBTQ+ Christians upend the reactionary world-building rhetoric of queer secularity through their faithful commitments to liberative religion and politics. Resistance to caustic world-building can also take shape through combating fear spatially, as Sharmin Sadequee shows in her essay on Muslim resistance, ecological placemaking, and progressive Islamic futures. In post-9/11 America, a space in which Muslims have faced social persecution, surveillance, and the threat of incarceration, green burials become a cosmological world-building project of grounded resistance and hopeful belonging.
Each of these essays reminds us of the multifaceted nature of worlds. Worlds are designed, which means they can change, be adapted, or reimagined. Cravens and Sadequee illumine those possibilities. With regards to reactionary worlds, such as White Christian Nationalism, we must reckon with the historical roots of that world(view), seek new solutions that utilize interdisciplinary methods or community-based approaches, and figure out the hard grassroots work of engaging with WCN world-builders to make positive changes for the betterment of a pluralistic, democratic America.