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The Deep Roots of American Violence ... and Why the Border Wall Works as a Political Brand

My new book, American Heresy: The Roots and Reach of White Christian Nationalism, will be released by Fortress Press two months from today, September 26. Thanks to so many of you who have already pre-ordered.

In this book I explore how the first generations of English Protestants who colonized North America were raised to think about foundational concepts like Creation, Providence, Salvation, Truth, Liberty, and Virtue. In each instance I show how these ancient impulses continue to play out in American public life. Chapter One (CREATION) explains how English Protestant understandings of the natural world have given rise to both the American commitment to systems of legal and administrative order, and to the pervasive American practice of racialized violence, a bitter fruit of White Christian nationalism. Here is an excerpt:

The longing for order, shaped by early American Protestant understandings of the natural world, has much to commend it, as can be attested by anyone who has ever lived in a place where disorder prevails. The American commitment to “law and order,” to private property, and to the orderly disposition of both private and public lands has given rise to a legal and administrative infrastructure governing land use that compares favorably to that found in many countries across the globe. This commitment can inspire a powerful pride of place, a respect for private property, and a genuine concern for the well-being of neighbor and community. A culture that enshrines these values in law and nourishes complementary practices in individuals helps to provide a foundation for safe, secure, and productive communities across the United States.
But this same longing undergirds a deeply rooted propensity to violence—especially violence over questions of “turf”— that has always characterized American public life. The body politic that would become the United States was conceived in the forcible settlement of Native lands in North America. It was bathed in violence during its period of gestation, marked by the continual prosecution of wars against the French and Indians. And it was birthed in violent insurrection against the authority of the English king. As John Shy observed long ago, “no other nation has had its official origin and constitutional preservation so clearly linked to warfare.”
The generations that founded the United States inherited “continental” aspirations from their forefathers. These fueled the practice of continual territorial expansion and the continuous application of force and violence to achieve it. They bequeathed these aspirations—and these associated habits of heart and mind—to their descendants, who acquired tranche after tranche of western lands by a combination of purchase, conquest, occupation, settlement, and broken treaty. Broadly reflecting the desires of their constituents, generations of US presidents embraced this vision wholeheartedly, occupying Native lands through the exercise of sustained and extraordinary violence and exterminating Native peoples as a matter of both policy and practice.
It is not difficult to draw a straight line from this early national history of conquest to the decision by Donald Trump to make a border wall the de facto logo of his successful 2016 presidential campaign. The idea of walling off the border resonates powerfully in the imaginations of white people descended from early English colonists, for whom the settlement and “fencing off” of land was a foundational colonizing strategy. The idea of building a “big, beautiful wall” to “secure” our nation’s southern border seems to hold out the promise that someday Americans will finally succeed in “enclosing” the continent. The taproot of this tradition of territorial conquest—the deep, often unconscious, way of thinking that served to rationalize centuries of land grabs—was what early English Protestants understood to be the essential work of bringing order to the wilderness of North America. Millions of white Americans today harbor this ancient prejudice that the darker peoples who live outside our borders are inherently wild and savage.
Neither is it hard to draw a straight line from the violence that was intrinsic to the American founding and the continued pervasive violence that characterizes American public life today. The United States remains an utter outlier among the nations of the world in deaths by firearm for two simple reasons. The first is that Americans own so many more guns than people in other nations—we are still, in Shy's apt encapsulation, “a people numerous and armed.” And the second reason is that so many Americans are trained from childhood to “defend your turf” and “stand your ground.” Many Americans take these commands as clear warrant for the exercise of violence in the defense of territorial boundaries.
American men are especially prone to this expansive understanding of property rights. On February 26, 2012, George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch coordinator in a gated community of Sanford, Florida, confronted an unarmed Black seventeen-year-old, Trayvon Martin, who was visiting relatives nearby. After an ensuing struggle, Zimmerman shot Martin to death. He was later acquitted of second-degree murder charges after arguing he shot Martin in self-defense. Ten years later, in the same Florida town, two white men accosted a Black sixteen-year-old, Jermaine Jones, who was speeding in their neighborhood. After throwing a traffic cone at the car, and then a brick through one of its windows, the men grew enraged when the young driver got out of his car and started recording the encounter on his cellphone. After one accused Jones of “burning out racing through my fucking neighborhood,” the other approached the teen, insisting, “I’m not in your face. Get out of my neighborhood.” After starting to record the confrontation on her own cellphone, a white woman reinforced the message: “Get out of our neighborhood. You don’t belong here.”
Some young white American men take this propensity to violence to its most horrifying extremes, the extremes of vigilantism and mass shooting. So, Kyle Rittenhouse, a seventeen year-old from Antioch, Illinois, felt compelled to travel to nearby Kenosha, Wisconsin, on August 25, 2020, when civil unrest broke out there after the fatal police shooting two days earlier of a twenty-nine-year-old Black man, Jacob Blake. Armed with an AR-15, Rittenhouse was confronted by protesters, and responded by killing two and injuring a third. Rittenhouse was acquitted on the grounds that he acted in self-defense. And so, Payton Gendron, a white eighteen-year-old living in Buffalo, searched by zip code in May 2022 for a neighborhood with the highest concentration of Black people so that he could “kill as many blacks as possible,” the number of which turned out to be ten. The victims of these crimes were all Black, a matter that will be addressed in chapter 3. But they were also victims of young white men who conceived of themselves as defending their turf.

It is my contention that to resist the temptations of white Christian nationalism we must acknowledge the depth of its foothold in our national history. Only by understanding the true origins of this distinctly American heresy can we appreciate the full weight of this cultural inheritance. Only by understanding the ways of thinking and acting it inspires can we learn to work together to resist its enduring influence in our shared public life, and in ourselves.

Each month as part of this newsletter, I'll share some praise for American Heresy.

My thanks to Randall Balmer for this generous blurb.

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