What just happened?
Last Saturday, an 18-year-old white man killed 10 black people and injured three others in a racially motivated act of terrorism. According to authorities, the accused gunman is believed to have posted a 180-page document online in which he expressed a fixation on the “Great Replacement” theory.
What is the Great Replacement theory?
The Great Replacement theory is the latest version of a century-old white genocide conspiracy theory. At the root of the theory is the claim that “elites”—especially Jews—are deliberately plotting to reduce or eliminate white people in the United States and Europe. The claim is that this is being done primarily by promoting interracial marriage and immigration of non-white populations, who are assumed to have higher fertility rates than whites.
The Great Replacement theory is the latest version of a century-old white genocide conspiracy theory.
The idea is rooted in early 20th-century eugenics and gained popularity in the 1930s when a version of the conspiracy theory (focused primarily on “Nordic peoples”) was used by the Nazi party in Germany. Hitler used such propaganda as justification for his genocide of Jews and other ethnic groups.
During the post-war era, the theory was adopted by and gained prominence among French nationalists. Perhaps the most well-known example is the publication in 1973 of the racist and xenophobic novel Le Camp des Saints (The Camp of Saints) by Jean Raspail. The title is taken from the KJV translation of Revelation 20:9 (“compassed the camp of the saints about, and the beloved city”), where Satan’s armies (“the number of whom is as the sand of the sea”) rally against the people of God. In the novel the “camp of the saints” are the Western nations being overrun by migrants from such regions as Africa, China, and India,
Almost four decades later, Raspail’s ideas were advanced and popularized by another French novelist. In the 1990s, Renaud Camus was best known for his autobiographical novel Tricks, which explicitly detailed his promiscuous homosexual encounters. But he swiftly shifted from gay icon to hero of white nationalists with the publication of his 2011 book titled Le Grand Replacement (the great replacement).
Camus’s theory claims that native French people (“the replaced”) are being demographically replaced by non-European peoples in a process encouraged by a “replacist power.” After a march in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which white supremacists shouted, “Jews will not replace us. You will not replace us,” Camus published a book of essays titled You Will Not Replace Us! (He later said only one thing about Charlottesville bothered him: “It was ‘Jews will not replace us!’ that horrified me.”)
Great Replacement has become such a dominant idea within white nationalist circles that the most popular white supremacist slogan is purported to be the so-called “14 Words”—“We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.”
How prevalent is this theory?
Forms of white genocide theory have been floating around the United States for more than a hundred years. White nationalist groups adopt it as a foundational truth and have primarily used it to oppose interracial marriage and immigration from non-European countries.
But as with many ideas that take root in white supremacist and alt-right circles, the internet has spread this theory throughout the mainstream. Most mainstream proponents avoid talking directly about babies born to interracial couples and refer to the “replacist power” by the amorphous term “leftists” or Democratic Party rather than blaming it directly on “Jews.”
Many also avoid using the term “replacement,” though some have begun to be more open in advocating for the word and the conspiracy. For example, Fox News personality Tucker Carlson said in April 2021,
I know that the left and all the little gatekeepers on Twitter become literally hysterical if you use the term “replacement.” If you suggest that the Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate, the voters now casting ballots with new people, more obedient voters from the third world. But they become hysterical because that’s what’s happening actually.
Several Republican politicians, such as Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida, Representative Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, former Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, and Representative Elise Stefanik of New York—the third-ranked GOP member of the House—have also openly proposed the conspiracy theory.
A third of poll respondents agreed there’s a group of people in this country who are trying to replace native-born Americans with immigrants who agree with their political views.
Not surprisingly, a large number of Americans are beginning to believe the conspiracy is true. A recent AP/NORC poll found that a third of respondents agreed there’s a group of people in this country who are trying to replace native-born Americans with immigrants who agree with their political views.
Almost half of Republicans and one in five Democrats agreed with that claim. The belief was higher among viewers of OANN, Newsmax, and Fox News than those who get their news from other outlets. About one in four Republicans also agreed the election system in the U.S. discriminates against white people.
What terrorist incidents have been connected to that theory?
The recent shooting in Buffalo is the fifth terrorist attack in the past five years in which a white supremacist gunman made reference to the Great Replacement conspiracy theory:
In October 2018, Robert Bowers killed 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, after writing a post on social media blaming Jews for bringing non-white immigrants and refugees to the U.S.
In March 2019, Brenton Tarrant killed 51 people at two mosques in New Zealand. He released a manifesto online called “The Great Replacement.”
In April 2019, John Earnest killed one and injured three at a synagogue in Poway, California. In a letter he released online, Earnest claimed that Jews were responsible for the genocide of “white Europeans,” and he cited the influence of Bowers and Tarrant.
In August 2019, Patrick Crusius opened fire at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, killing 23 people and wounding almost two dozen. In a manifesto, Crusius talked about a “Hispanic invasion” and made reference to the “great replacement.”
Is there any truth to the Great Replacement theory?
The Great Replacement theory was originated by people who had white supremacist views and is indisputably rooted in racism and xenophobia. But to completely dismiss it based on its origin would be to commit the genetic fallacy. Instead, we should simply ask whether it’s true.
The answer is complicated because the theory isn’t based on any particular claim that can be judged true or false based solely on factual evidence. “Replacement theory” has become a catchall for a number of terms and concepts that are ill-defined, malleable, and based more on emotion than reason.
For example, to determine whether there was a cabal to bring about white “replacement” we’d first have to determine both what counts as a “white person” and what counts as “replacement.” Currently, one in every nine babies born in the U.S. today (11 percent) will be raised in a mixed minority-and-white family. The average white supremacist would say such a child is indeed “replacing” a “white person,” while people like Tucker Carlson and Elise Stefanik would (hopefully) claim that isn’t what they mean by replacement. Does “replacement” only matter if it’s external (through immigration) and not internal (through mixed-race children)? If so, what’s the distinction?
Let’s consider the most charitable interpretation, that the concern is not about the replacement of white people but of “voters.” The question then becomes, “Which voters?” The common view today is that immigrants who become citizens will vote for the Democratic Party. This is not an unreasonable assumption, and it might be a legitimate concern if your primary worry is about the future of the Republican Party.
The reality, though, is that the number of U.S. immigrants eligible to vote is relatively small, making up roughly 10 percent of the nation’s overall electorate. Immigrants who are in the country illegally are already prohibited from voting in federal elections, so they aren’t replacing anyone. And for decades those born in the U.S. have had much higher voter turnout rates than immigrants. If the concern is truly about “voter replacement,” the simple solution would be to encourage U.S.-born voter turnout, thereby offsetting any influence by “replacement voters,” rather than demonizing foreign-born citizens.
How should Christians respond?
Christians should be the first to decry the racism and xenophobia of the theory, along with condemning the violence it has perpetuated. But we also need to encourage our fellow citizens who believe some version of replacement theory to heed one of the most repeated commandments in the Bible: “Do not fear.”
At the root of replacement theory is fear of ethnocultural outsiders. Far too often, as in the case of terror attacks listed above, that fear turns into hatred and violence. But even more often the fear leads to moral panic about demographic changes. Moral panic is defined as a public mass movement based on false or exaggerated perceptions or information that exceeds the actual threat society is facing. Moral panic is a widespread fear and often an irrational threat to society’s values, interests, and safety.
At the root of replacement theory is fear of ethnocultural outsiders.
Unfortunately, such race-based moral panics are common in American history. In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt said the question “more important than any other question in this country” was “the question of race suicide, complete or partial.” The race in question was “Anglo-Saxon.” Similarly, in 1916, Madison Grant wrote The Passing of the Great Race. That book—which Hitler would later call his “Bible”—fretted about the extinction of the “Nordic race” because of mixing with “dark whites” from such areas as Italy or Ukraine. The main difference between those moral panics and the one today is the expansion of who is included in the class of “white people.”
Moral panics also have a tendency to become inflamed by the media, whether biased toward the right or left, which stokes fear by using an “us and them” narrative. While Tucker Carlson is trying to scare people about various Others—including an invasion of gypsies—the rest of the media is promoting a more generic “white vs. minority” framework. On one side is the white “majority” (which now includes previously non-white groups, such as the Jewish and Irish) and on the other side is the non-white “minority”—a category that lumps together almost every ethnic group on the planet. Why use this framing? Because it provokes anxiety among many who self-identify as white, causing them to think they have something to dread when they’re no longer a majority (though still a plurality) of the population.
Whether you think the anxiety is irrational (as I do) or completely justified, we should be able to agree that the solution for such fear is found in God’s Word. “Do not be anxious about anything,” says Paul in the letter to the Philippians, “but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:6–7). Paul also tells us what we should be focused on instead:
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. (Phil. 4:8–9)
Rather than get caught up in another media-driven moral panic, Christians should be focused on that which is true and commendable, pure and lovely. If we do that, we’ll be better prepared to help our neighbors who are worried about being “replaced” by people who have the same skin color as Jesus.