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White-only religious groups aren't new to America. Trump's helped reinvigorate them.

White-only churches are making more space for white Americans who have lost faith in democracy and replaced it with Trump.
Image: A white church with a red door
The Asatru Folk Assembly has morphed from a seemingly romantic celebration of Viking myths to an all-white, explicitly racist religious group. Renee Jones Schneider / Star Tribune via AP

In 2015, the Asatru Folk Assembly, a religious group devoted to the worship of the Norse pantheon, opened its first physical house of worship in Brownsville, California, calling it Odinshof — the "Temple of Odin." In a celebratory post on the AFA's Facebook page, Odinshof is revealed to be a red building adorned with Nordic runes and flanked by a celebratory, posing crowd — every single one of whom is white, the California sun shining through their sheaves of blond hair.

The vision presented by the Asatru Folk Assembly relies on the notion of a "folk" — a racially pure white body of worshippers.

The triumph is punctuated with a curious imprecation, with a tint of fascism: "Hail the Gods! Hail the Folk! Hail the AFA!" Much like the crowd pictured in the Facebook post, the "folk" being hailed by the AFA are unambiguously white. On its website, the religious group declares itself to be "a solid spiritual force for our ethnic European folk" and exhorts "traditionally-minded sons or daughters of Europe" to join.

The group has sought to dramatically expand its operations this year, and, amid a contentious anonymous City Council vote, the small Minnesota town of Murdock has found itself playing reluctant host to a new hof, having leased a vacant church building to the group — offering an enclave to a religion explicitly premised on white separatism.

Originally founded in the 1970s as the Viking Brotherhood, the AFA has morphed from a romantic celebration of Viking myths to an explicitly racist endeavor: what the religious scholar Matthias Gardell calls the "biologization of spirituality," the notion that "gods and goddesses are encoded in the DNA of the ancestors of the ancients" — and an abhorrence of "mixed blood." The AFA is representative of a militant strain of Norse paganism that makes a religion of whiteness itself, an ethnoreligious separatism whose boundaries are explicitly racial.

The organization's founder, Stephen McNallen, has repeatedly embraced the racist slogan known as the "14 words": "We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children," first promulgated by the white supremacist terrorist David Lane. The group's current leader, Matthew Flavel, has spoken at a celebration of the centennial of American Nazi Party founder George Lincoln Rockwell's birth and at a racist conference whose other guests have included Holocaust deniers, according to the West Central Tribune newspaper of Willmar, Minnesota.

The founder of modern Asatru in the United States, Else Christiansen — a Danish weaver and National Socialist for whom the AFA held a Day of Remembrance in May — envisioned Norse worship as a way to reclaim the blood heritage of whiteness and achieve "Aryan spiritual liberation" through the establishment of separatist, white-only tribal societies.

There have been rumblings of dissent in Murdock against these white supremacist interlopers — the Murdock Alliance Against Hate spoke out against the conditional use permit for the church before it was granted, and the antiracist group Heathens Against Hate has offered support — but the AFA's new expansion is just one small part of a broader tide of white separatism, explicit and implied, sweeping the country in the chaotic wake of the Trump era.

The Constitution has become something of a watchword for far-right movements, both a justification for violent organizing and a panacea for all ills.

As a national struggle over the legitimacy of the 2020 election staggers limply on — rebuffed by state and federal courts and this week by the Electoral College — white separatist movements have made their sentiments known in the fight. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a quixotic bid this month to overturn the election results in Michigan, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin in the Supreme Court. Seventeen Republican state attorneys general and 126 Republican members of Congress signed on to the case, which the court summarily rejected, but among the many appellants filing amicus briefs were two states that, by current law, do not exist.

The "states" of New California and New Nevada — both far-right secession movements that seek to separate rural areas from broader polities — argued that California's and Nevada's same-day voter registration policies and acceptance of mail-in ballots were violations of the Constitution. New California State premises its desire to secede on a Martin Luther-esque list of "95 grievances," composed in 2018 and posted on the movement's website; they are rife with thinly veiled racism, denouncing the state for an "invasion of illegal foreign nationals" and the subjugation of "natural born citizens." New Nevada State, which declared its independence from Nevada in January 2018, is even blunter.

Remixing one of Nevada's state nicknames, "Battle Born," its slogan is "Battle Born — Again," and it directly proposes that rural Nevada secede from Clark County, the state's most populous county, where 43 percent of the population is Black or Hispanic. Functionally, these movements serve as agitation for white separatism, using an idea of the Constitution that amounts to a kind of religious worship.

The document is sacralized, a catechism undergirding an extreme politics of tribalist whiteness. New Nevada State's primary grievances are taxation and the notion that Nevada's Democratic governor has caused a "Constitutional violation by infringing upon the citizens' right to keep and bear arms as provided in the 2nd Amendment of the U.S. Constitution."

The Constitution has become something of a watchword for far-right movements, both a justification for violent organizing and a panacea for all ills. This crosses a broad spectrum that might be called the MAGA coalition: from the militia movement, which, though composed primarily of illegal paramilitary groups, sees itself as the inheritor to the Constitution's "well-regulated militia," to "sovereign citizens," QAnon adherents, white nationalists and superfans of President Donald Trump.

Functionally, these movements serve as agitation for white separatism, using an idea of the Constitution that amounts to a kind of religious worship.

The far-right "constitutional sheriffs" movement, a group of sheriffs across the United States who claim to derive their authority from the Constitution alone and not from state governments or voters, has refused to enforce Covid-19 lockdowns and gun laws this year. No article or clause is necessary to cite in specifics; the Constitution is evoked as a general symbol of narrow, fanatical patriotism, a malleable document whose readers can derive from pure air and bile what is legal and illegal, legitimate and illegitimate. For the white separatists of New Nevada and New California, the constitutional sheriffs movement, and other members of the extreme right, "constitutional" principles outline a vision of law and order just as racialized — and just as extreme — as the dreams of Asatru adherents in their Temple of Odin.

Arcane and politically convenient interpretations of the Constitution have been the mainstay of Trump's slew of unsuccessful lawsuits, furthered by the far-right, conspiracy-friendly lawyers Sidney Powell and L. Lin Wood. Another member of Trump's "elite strike force" election legal team, Jenna Ellis, argued in a 2015 book that the "U.S. Constitution as Supreme Law is built upon the legitimate authority of Divine Law" and that "Divine Law is the only correct foundation for Constitutional interpretation."

This melding of Christianity and originalist worship of the Constitution laid the groundwork for Ellis to participate in the haphazard if deadly earnest legal effort to overturn the will of 81 million Biden voters.

The lawsuits, and the conspiracy theories swirling around the Trumposphere, have targeted heavily Black areas for the wildest allegations of fraud: Milwaukee, Detroit and Philadelphia have been the targets of ceaseless opprobrium. The mantra of those who cling to a Trump re-election is that "every legal vote must be counted" — and every "illegal" vote thrown out. In fixating on minority-heavy areas, the motley crew of remaining Trumpists makes it clear precisely whose votes should be considered "illegal" and whose should count. It has made it clear that political opposition is itself illegitimate.

And this week, Republicans in numerous states that voted for Joe Biden put forward slates of "alternate electors" to the Electoral College, a group with no legal standing — representing not America as it is but as a nation within a nation, a Trumpistan of the mind.

The country of Trumpistan is built on a faith that seems unshakable, even as the ungainly workings of democracy plod into place. It's built on a ripening of indignation that shows itself in "Stop the Steal" marches on state capitals and in Washington, D.C., where white nationalist leaders and street-fighting gangs showed up last weekend to denounce the election results as illegitimate; where armed crowds gather at the homes of election officials, while others get death and rape threats; where supporters of Trump shoot their political opponents in the street.

The vision of Asatru presented by the Asatru Folk Assembly relies on the notion of a "folk" — a racially pure white body of worshippers. The gods and goddesses are embedded in their European genes, a holy heritage of their racial past. It is an article of faith that only those in possession of the right white genes can offer sacrifices and libations.

It's tempting to believe that this white supremacist religion is foreign, alien to mainstream America, with its Germanic terms and rites of worship. But the truth is that one church in a Minnesota town used for the worship of whiteness is little compared to a whole swath of the country — 76 percent of Republicans — who have lost their faith in democracy and replaced it with a faith in Trump.

Pundits like Rush Limbaugh and political leaders like Texas Republican Party Chair Allen West have suggested that the time is ripe for secession by Trump voters. "Perhaps law-abiding states should bond together and form a Union of states that will abide by the Constitution," West wrote in response to the Supreme Court's Dec. 11 decision to reject the election case. The Constitution served again as the inspiration for a separatist faith — one in the domination of Christian whiteness, the uncompromising, fractious and fanatical nation within the nation that will neither secede nor disappear.