How the coronavirus has exposed the religious right’s racism
On March 10, President Trump retweeted a post from conservative political activist Charlie Kirk, who referred to the coronavirus (COVID-19) as the “China Virus.“ Kirk also exclaimed in his tweet, “Now, more than ever, we need the wall…the US stands a chance if we can get control of our borders.” Trump retweeted this and added the comment, “Going up fast. We need the wall more than ever!”
At first blush, this exchange might seem like the garden-variety white nationalist xenophobia characteristic of Trump or many of his influential supporters. Fox News’ Tucker Carlson and GOP House Representative Kevin McCarthy, in fact, have both insisted on continuing to call the disease the “Chinese Coronavirus.” But Trump’s retweet, and where it originates, helps shed light not only on the Right’s brazen xenophobia, but on the link between America’s supposed religious heritage and fears of ethnic pollution.
Charlie Kirk is co-founder of Liberty University’s Falkirk Center for Faith and Liberty. The Falkirk Center is described by Liberty’s newspaper as a “modern think tank set to renew and defend God-given freedoms and Christian principles throughout American politics and culture.”
That an ambassador of Christian nationalism like Kirk would hold xenophobic attitudes should be no surprise. In Taking America Back for God, we show that such views are fundamental to the Christian nationalist framework. One of the most consistent findings in research on Christian nationalism over the past decade is that Americans who more strongly subscribe to this ideology are more likely to be staunchly anti-immigrant―especially if those immigrants are non-white and/or non-Christian.
But Kirk’s repeated “China Virus” tweets, and Trump’s powerful retweet, both connecting the spread of disease with the need to keep immigrants out, are a clear reminder that white Christian nationalism has always connected non-white immigrants with social and biological contamination. Immigration is framed as an issue of purity or contamination; a righteous body politic or pathological disease.
Chinese immigrants have long been the target of such attacks. The Immigration Act of 1882 included the Chinese Exclusion Act, which all but banned immigrants from anywhere in Asia, who were perceived to be plagued with “the social and political diseases of the Old World.” Asians in particular, and to a lesser extent Eastern Europeans, were deemed less worthy than immigrants from parts of Europe populated by those more likely to be “White” and “Protestant,” which have often been historically been understood to mean the same thing.
Trump’s 2016 Presidential campaign, which was successful due in no small part to his appeals to white Christian nationalism, drew on similar “contamination” rhetoric to shore up support for the Mexican border wall. He insisted that not only are Mexicans supposedly bringing violent crime and drugs into the country, but they are responsible for “tremendous infectious disease…pouring across the border.”
Survey data from a nationally representative sample of Americans collected within the past year allows us to see the explicit connection between White Christian nationalism and Americans’ perceptions that immigrants are disease-ridden. The 2019 Chapman University Survey of American Fears asked respondents to indicate how much they agreed with five statements, including: “The federal government should declare the US a Christian nation,” and “The federal government should advocate Christian values.” Responses ranged from zero (“strongly disagree”) to three (“strongly agree”). We added the responses together to make a Christian nationalism index, with values ranging from 0 to 15. The survey also asked Americans about their agreement with a range of statements about perceived xenophobic threats, including: “Immigrants bring diseases into the United States.”
To the left we see the percentage of Americans who agree that immigrants bring diseases across scores on the Christian nationalism index. The trend is striking. Not only are those who affirm Christian nationalism more likely to believe immigrants transport disease into the U.S., at the highest levels of Christian nationalism, nearly all (98%) believe this to be true.
But is this perhaps just a function of political conservatism, or age, or being a fundamentalist Christian, all of which are associated with both Christian nationalism and xenophobic fears?
Not at all. When we account for various factors such as age, political party and ideology, religious practice and belief, education, gender, and so on, we see the same pattern. In fact, as the figure to the right shows, this trend shows up across political party. While numbers aren’t quite as pronounced for Democrats and Independents as Republicans, clearly, as adherence to Christian nationalist ideology increases, the likelihood that someone associates immigration with disease increases greatly.
What all this shows is that xenophobic responses to the coronavirus by Christian nationalists like Charlie Kirk, or their champions like Donald Trump, are entirely predictable. It has been this way for centuries. For those who believe the nation rightly belongs to “people like us” (read: White, native-born, Christians), anyone who falls into the category of “them” is polluting―both culturally and biologically.
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