By Pamela A. Lewis
One of the most frequently used words in modern English is “great.” It’s an all-purpose adjective we use indiscriminately to define the quality of a wide range of people, places, things, events, and experiences, regardless of whether they deserve such high praise. “Great” has become the ultimate superlative: He’s a great guy; (Title) is a great movie!; You got the job? Great!; “Make America Great Again!” Two of the world’s most famous novels include the word, “The Great Gatsby” and “Great Expectations.” And, what with all of its horror and devastation, World War I came to be known as the “Great War.” In these last three examples, “great” refers to renown, as well as to amplitude.
Of late, there has been another use of the word “great,” and though it has been around for several years, I only recently became aware of the term the “great replacement.”
While the slogan has stealthily yet increasingly made its way into American right-wing socio-political rhetoric and has become the currency within white supremacist circles both in this country and abroad, it was first conceived and expanded by Renaud Camus, a little-known gay French writer who was once a member of the Socialist party and was active in leftist politics.
According to Camus (no relation to Albert Camus, the great 20th-century French author, best known for his novel “The Stranger”), who resides in the south of France in a refurbished medieval castle, the idea of the “le grand remplacement” first took root when, while visiting a 1,000-year-old village, he spied a group of veiled women milling around a fountain. Those veil-clad, Muslim women, standing around the fountain in the heart of what Camus (and many of his fellow Frenchmen) understands as “la France éternelle” (“eternal France”) represented a new and disturbing reality: the population and the culture of eternal France — the glorious France of cathedrals and châteaux pictured in glossy travel brochures — were changing.
In 2002, Camus formed his own political party, which he named “l’Innocence,” that called for the end to all immigration and promoted sending nonwhite immigrants and their children back to their countries of origin. But in 2012, when he began using the phrase “great replacement” and wrote a book bearing the same title, Camus’ fame began to grow.
In its simplest terms, according to Camus, the great replacement means the “replacement of a people, the indigenous French people, and, by extension, of its culture and cultural identity due to multiculturalism.”
France had long attracted European immigrants, drawn to the country by love for its strong visual and musical arts traditions. Numerous Americans — especially African American writers and musicians like James Baldwin, Sidney Béchet, and Josephine Baker — emigrated to France, seeking refuge from America’s entrenched racism or puritanical morality. However, immigrants from France’s former colonies in the Maghreb and in sub-Saharan Africa have not come “as friends,” according to Camus. Rather, driven by hatred and a desire to “punish” France, they have come intent on invading and conquering his beloved country. Nonwhite immigrants generally, and Muslims in particular (who comprise the largest immigrant group in France) are guilty of this plan, evidenced by their refusal to assimilate into French society, but seeking instead to replace the indigenous French (and Christian) population.
Far-right politicians in Europe, notably Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s National Rally Party, who was defeated in her second attempt at the presidency against Emmanuel Macron, have embraced Camus’ ideas, despite his longtime publishers having rejected them and mainstream news no longer extending invitations.
The “great replacement” theory has not been limited to France and Europe, nor has it remained only in the political sphere.
It is also not new and is only the latest version in a series of earlier concepts throughout American history, such as Manifest Destiny, Jim Crow, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” in the 1970s, and, in 2017, the “Unite the Right” protest in Charlottesville, where tikki torch-toting white supremacists marched and chanted “Jews will not replace us.”
Though the names are different, the underlying myth is the same: that we are a chosen nation, an innocent nation, and a Christian nation. This undying myth, embraced and dog-whistled in speeches or debates by some of this country’s politicians, is also deeply embedded in white Christian nationalism. Fear of the “other,” as represented by a rapidly changing demographic, where, according to census projections, non-Hispanic whites will no longer comprise the majority racial group by 2045, is arguably the most powerful force driving the great replacement theory. The decline in the number of white people presumes the loss of political, economic, and cultural power. For those who fear such seismic change, the “great replacement theory” makes sense and is a galvanizing motivator to fight back.
Since 2015, there has been a long and growing list of racism-fueled attacks in the United States against Black, Asian, Latino, and Jewish communities. The perpetrators of at least two mass shootings — at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas and at Tops grocery store in Buffalo, New York — claimed to have been inspired by the tenets of the “great replacement” theory, that this country’s growing racial and ethnic diversity — spearheaded by “elites” — will overwhelm and supplant what has been a white Christian nation.
Christians need to be wary of the “great replacement” theory, which, in addressing the nation in the aftermath of the Buffalo shooting, President Biden called a “lie” and white supremacy a “poison.” It stands in hostile opposition to the vows we make (or which have been made for us by adults) in the baptismal covenant, which states that we will, with God’s help, persevere in resisting evil, and that we will seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves. Though we are multi-denominational, we are, in the words of St. Paul to the Galatian church, “one in Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 3:28) These words are a reminder of our shared identity that transcends all other identifications and allegiances.
Regardless of their own political views, our clergy and religious leaders must preach courageously and forthrightly against all forms of white supremacy by denouncing the great replacement theory and upholding the other and better “great,” Christ’s Great Commission, which is his mandate to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:16-20). This is not achieved by looking with hostility on others who are different, by calling for their removal from our land, or by murdering them. If we are the Christians we claim to be, then we engage with the “other” in love, as Christ loved — and loves — us.
I appeal to all Christians to resist the evil of race hatred; but I appeal in particular to my white Christian brothers and sisters to examine their hearts and conscience and to engage in the hard and holy work toward removing bigotry from within themselves. Like many parents of color, white Christian parents must also have “the talk” with their children about bigotry and why it is contrary to Christ’s teachings.
The “great replacement theory” is neither great nor a theory. It is the misbegotten idea of a fearful and unenlightened mind that does not want to understand the people God created. We have a better choice. May we make the right one.
Pamela A. Lewis writes about topics of faith. She attends Saint Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue in New York City