Lecture explores Christian nationalism, American antisemitism

Mount Holyoke College’s Department of Jewish Studies welcomed Riv-Ellen Prell, professor emerita, Department of American Studies, University of Minnesota, to speak about Christian nationalism, white power and American antisemitism.

Riv-Ellen Prell feels like the democracy in the U.S. is experiencing a moment of existential crisis.

For the past several months, Prell – who is an anthropologist and professor emerita, Department of American Studies at the University of Minnesota and is the recipient of the National Jewish Book Award and the Marshall Sklare Award – has been performing some secondary research outside the fields she’s worked in for so long. She publicly presented her work for the first time in a lecture, titled “Christian Nationalism, White Power, and American Antisemitism,” on April 11 at the Willits-Hallowell Conference Center.

“We are living in a moment of a divided nation,” Prell said. “And I understand that is an extraordinary understatement.”

She kicked off her presentation with some statistics gathered from a 2022 study that asked how likely Americans thought that there could be a civil war in the next decade. Though traditionally not a question posed in Western democracies, Prell said this number has continued to grow over time. According to her research, 43% of Americans believed that there would be a civil war.

Upon further examination, she looked at statistics on how well Americans feel democracy is working in the U.S. As of December 2023, 38% of democrats, 27% of independents and 17% of republicans felt that democracy was working reasonably well.

“I was actually stunned to see how badly over a very long time people thought democracy was working in the U.S.,” she said. “There are a great many people in this country who think we are moving towards civil war and that democracy is no longer working.”

She also shared some statistics showing that following the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war on Oct. 7, there was an increase of hate speech on social media. Antisemitic content, for example, increased by 919% on X, formerly Twitter, and anti-Muslim content increased by 422% on the same platform.

“Researchers who monitor these trends describe them as ‘unprecedented,’” said Prell. “Now, we might think we're living in a polarized time … But my goal today is to persuade you that this is not about polarization. This is about something far more disturbing. It is about a struggle for the nature of American society, and I'm phrasing that as many historians and other scholars do, as a struggle between civic nationalism and racial nationalism.”

American civic nationalism is classically described as viewing this nation, as grounded in law, built on equal rights for all citizens and all residents. Civic nationalism means that it is a changing nation and a dynamic nation. In comparison, the goal of white supremacists and Christian nationalists is to rewrite the nation’s story and assign blame for the changes that, in their minds, have victimized Christians and whites. They also identify Jews as architects of the dispossession of white Christians. Prell said that Christian nationalists and white supremacists do not accept the fact that against all odds, the Founding Fathers were very committed to the separation of church and state.

“I believe that we are in the fight for democracy and human rights,” she said.

Watch the full lecture

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