Some are seeking justification for their racism in the American Church's chequered history

Jesus of Nazareth, drawing on Deuteronomy and Leviticus, teaches us the Law of Love. We must love God with our whole heart and our whole being. And we must love our neighbour as we love ourselves. It is a threefold law: love God, love ourselves and love our neighbour.

In the story of the man who shows compassion to the stranger, beaten, robbed and ignored by his countrymen, Jesus teaches us that our neighbour is any fellow human being of any race, nationality, religion or social situation anywhere in the world. The beliefs of white supremacists and white nationalists, such as neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan, are incompatible with this Law of Love.

Christians seeking to be faithful to the teachings of the Catholic Church and to obey the Law of Love are challenged by daily headlines that have placed white supremacist movements before us in ways that we would not have expected as the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King draws near.

Some white supremacists and white nationalists represent an ideology that has the goal of ensuring the survival of the “white race” and what they consider to be the superior “white culture, history and heritage”. Many white nationalists believe that multiculturalism, interracial marriage, immigration of non-white people to the United States and the low birth rates among white people are threats to the survival of the “white race” in America.

Richard Spencer is a leading proponent of “white nationalism” (who denies that he is a white supremacist). He first began using the term “alt-right” (short for “alternative right”) about 10 years ago. His National Policy Institute circulates papers repeating Thomas Jefferson’s claims of the superior intelligence of white people over African American people and stressing the crime rate in African American and Hispanic communities. Speaking at a conference of the National Policy Institute, after the presidential election, he saluted his audience saying: “Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory!” His followers responded with the Nazi salute.

In August, Spencer led alt-right marchers who opposed the city council’s decision in Charlottesville, Virginia, to move a prominent statue of Confederate General Robert Lee from the city’s central square. They walked through Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia carrying torches and proclaiming “white lives matter”, “Jews will not replace us”, “take back our country” and the Nazi slogan “blood and soil”, while performing Hitler salutes.

The following day there was a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville to protest against the Lee statue’s removal. A large number of people turned out to oppose this rally, which was widely seen as a white supremacist gathering. The event became deadly when white supremacists clashed with counter-demonstrators (including Black Lives Matter and anti-fascist groups).

Since the city council voted to remove the Lee statue, Charlottesville has attracted members of the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis and other white supremacist groups. After this violent conflict, there was widespread condemnation by civic, political and religious leaders of the extremist groups that were unambiguous about their racial bias and hatred. Nevertheless, plans for future protests by white nationalists have been announced.

To many people, the initial response of President Trump to these events seemed forceful but vague: “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.” Many criticised him for not specifically condemning white supremacy in any form, especially the neo-Nazis.

They were deeply troubled by his reference to violence “on many sides”, which seemed to imply that everyone involved in the conflict was equally at fault. David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard, expressed gratitude to the president for the honesty and courage “of this initial statement and for telling the truth about Charlottesville and condemning the leftist terrorists involved with Black Lives Matter and Antifa [anti-fascists].”

Days later the White House issued a new, stronger statement on behalf of the president. But the next day he criticised the media for mischaracterising white supremacist protesters in Charlottesville, stating that some of those marching alongside them were “very fine people”. This response surprised many and was quickly criticised by leaders of foreign governments, Republicans, Democrats, Christian and Jewish organisations and the Joint Chiefs of Staff for seeming to suggest there was a moral equivalence between neo-Nazis and white supremacists and the counter-demonstrators (a mixture of groups, including some who advocate violence).

Sadly, the Catholic Church stood for a long time on the wrong side of history in the face of the racial divide. Catholic bishops and institutions “owned” enslaved free human beings. The Church did not condemn or oppose human slavery nor the US Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision of 1857 (when a slave unsuccessfully sued for his freedom). The Church was not at the forefront of ending segregated neighbourhoods, schools or churches. People of colour were not welcome in Catholic seminary or convents. This led some Catholics to conclude erroneously that the mentality of white supremacists was compatible with Catholic beliefs and the Law of Love. As a result, some members of the Catholic Church have associated themselves with these movements.

In “Brothers and Sisters to Us”, their 1979 pastoral letter on racism, the bishops of the United States spoke emphatically:

Racism is an evil which endures in our society and in our Church. Despite apparent advances and even significant changes in the last two decades, the reality of racism remains. In large part it is only external appearances which have changed. In 1958 we spoke out against the blatant forms of racism that divided people through discriminatory laws and enforced segregation. We pointed out the moral evil that denied human persons their dignity as children of God and their God-given rights. A decade later in a second pastoral letter we again underscored the continuing scandal of racism and called for decisive action to eradicate it from our society. We recognise and applaud the readiness of many Americans to make new strides forward in reducing and eliminating prejudice against minorities. We are convinced that the majority of Americans realise that racial discrimination is both unjust and unworthy of this nation.

In August, Cardinal DiNardo, president of the United States Conference of Bishops, said: “On behalf of the bishops of the United States, I join leaders from around the nation in condemning the violence and hatred that have now led to one death and multiple injuries in Charlottesville, Virginia. We offer our prayers for the family and loved ones of the person who was killed and for all those who have been injured. We join our voices to all those calling for calm.

“The abhorrent acts of hatred on display in Charlottesville are an attack on the unity of our nation and therefore summon us all to fervent prayer and peaceful action. The bishops stand with all who are oppressed by evil ideology and entrust all who suffer to the prayers of St Peter Claver as we approach his feast day. We also stand ready to work with all people of goodwill for an end to racial violence and for the building of peace in our communities.”

We Catholics, like other Christians, sometimes have only a superficial cultural commitment to our faith. We do not experience our faith in Jesus Christ and his command to love at the deepest levels of our being. Only this deep existential commitment to follow Jesus as the Way, the Truth and the Life will impel us truly to live the Catholic faith and reject and oppose all forms of racial prejudice and arguments of racial superiority as incompatible with the meaning of the Incarnation of the Word of God in Jesus Christ. This requires true Christian, ecclesial, intellectual and moral conversion. The Law of Love compels us to affirm that all lives really do matter.

Bishop Edward Braxton of Belleville, Illinois, is a leading commentator on the racial divide in the United States

This article first appeared in the November 10 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here