This Insight focuses on white Christian extremist communities on Telegram, which have been growing in the context of a renewed interest of extreme right communities in Christian Nationalism. It analyses their key narratives and discussions of aesthetics and religious practice. Based on this analysis of the digital manifestations of white Christian extremism, it argues that the role of religion in general and Christianity in particular within extreme right communities deserves greater attention from the research community.
In the post-9/11 context, debates about the role of religion within extremist movements and radicalisation pathways have predominantly focused on Islamist extremism and Salafi-jihadism in particular. While some scholars have argued that the importance of religious belief and its implications for the behaviour of extremist groups is overstated, others have argued that religion needs to be taken more seriously.
Less attention has been paid to the role of Christianity within contemporary extremist movements. This is partially due to the diminished role of Christianity within extreme right groups and propaganda in Europe at the end of the 20th century, which coincided with the increasing secularisation of European societies. Similarly, some of the key figures of the so-called ‘alt-right’ in the U.S. were self-declared atheists.
However, the US did not experience the same rapid process of secularisation in the second half of the 20th century. Levels of belief among Christians and church attendance in the US fell slowly, but remained high until their decline began to accelerate in the 1990s. In this context, many extreme right groups in the US retained a Christian outlook. More recently, there has been renewed interest in once-fringe concepts like Christian Nationalism and Catholic Integralism which have been embraced by the extreme right ‘Groyper’ movement but also by Republican Member of the House of Representatives and noted conspiracy theorist, Marjorie Taylor Greene.
This renewed interest in Christianity is also visible on the encrypted messaging app Telegram – a key platform for contemporary extremist movements. Telegram, which has a libertarian ethos and rarely enforces its own community guidelines, became one of the most popular messaging platforms among Salafi-jihadists over the course of the late-2010s. There are also hundreds of extreme right channels on Telegram that openly celebrate and encourage violence, share guides for committing attacks and collate fascist literature, art and music. This network of channels and groups has often been referred to as ‘Terrorgram’. Within the ‘Terrorgram’ community, there is a growing sub-section that explicitly self-identify as white Christian or ‘Christgram.’
Christian Extremist Communities within ‘Terrorgram’
The relationship between the extreme right and religion in general, and Christianity in particular, is complex. It should be noted that we see a divide on ‘Terrorgram’ between groups and individuals that take inspiration from Christianity and those that do not. One of the key disagreements within the extreme right centres around whether Christianity can be viewed as the faith of a particularistic racial movement or if its universalism should disqualify it from the movement. Proponents of the latter view tend to take anti-Christian stances, which are prominent within ‘Terrorgram’ channels as well.
The Christgram sub-section of extreme right communities on Telegram can be further subdivided on denominational lines. While some channels appeal to all (white) Christians, some specifically self-describe as promoting Christian Identity or Christian Aryanism, Catholicism, Protestantism or Orthodox Christianity. Among the 80 Christgram channels and groups identified by the author in March 2023, 16 were Christian Identity, 24 were Catholic, 6 were Orthodox, 5 were Protestant and 29 were cross-denominational. While some channels tend to highlight the need to maintain unity among the white Christian extreme right, there is significant infighting between these channels, especially between Catholics and Protestants as well as within sub-groups of Christian Identity communities.
These extreme right Christian communities seem to be growing; in 2019, the largest explicitly Christian channel had 1,245 followers. By the end of March 2023, there were 30 channels with more than 1,245 followers, with the biggest channel reaching 19,749 users.
Narratives of Christgram
A key theme within the Christgram community is Christian Nationalism. According to Cynthia Miller-Idriss, Christian Nationalism in the American context is based on the proposition that the US “is and should remain a Christian nation and that Christianity should be prioritized by the state.” Christian Nationalists therefore explicitly reject the separation between the Church and the state. Interestingly, some Christgram users seem to be sceptical about high-profile politicians like Marjorie Taylor Greene embracing the term, fearing that they will abandon Christian Nationalism as soon as they face public criticism.
There are dozens of Christgram channels that argue for the need to use violence to defend the faith, white people or both, and call on Christian men to prepare themselves to fight for the survival of their in-group and protect their religious heritage. In more extreme cases, Christgram users make direct calls for violence, although these tend to be non-specific rather than being directed against identifiable individuals. For example, they may publish lists of groups they believe should be killed – including LGBT people, blasphemers, abortion clinic doctors, journalists, paedophiles or pornographers – or call for a (racial) holy war.
Across denominations, Christgram users combine antisemitic tropes with the transgressive humour and the meme culture that has been popularised among extreme right communities over the past decade. In contrast to the broader antisemitic subcultures online, Christgram users will justify antisemitism using references to religion and scripture. For example, users will blame the death of Jesus on the Jews or approvingly quote anti-Jewish statements by past Popes or Martin Luther.
Christgram communities often share references to and interpretations of the history of Christendom, the Church and various Christian movements. Many Christgram channels will also express grievances surrounding the history of Christianity, including in relation to cities and territories that were formerly controlled by Christian authorities. For example, Christgram channels often refer to Istanbul as Constantinople or Israel as the Holy Land which they seek to bring under Christian control again. As in many non-Christian ‘Terrorgram’ channels, Christgram channels regularly celebrate historical martyrs and heroes of their movement (‘Terrrogram’ channels collate lists of violent extremists they venerate as ‘saints’).
Aesthetics and Practice
Aesthetics, visual styles and religious practice are key themes for discussions within Christgram communities. While these elements often do not serve any immediate political or ideological purpose, they reflect the wider cultural background and preferences of these communities.
Christgram channels, especially the Catholic and Orthodox ones, frequently share images highlighting the beauty of churches, landscapes, religious paintings and art as well as traditionally dressed believers. Sharing such images serves an ideological function for the white Christian extremists, as they seek to strengthen in-group identity and reinforce an extremist worldview, in part by contrasting the idealised past with supposedly ‘degenerate’ modern societies. Contrasting an idealised past with the present is a wider trend observed among the extreme right online; the alt-right often employ images of Greek or Roman statues which they view as symbols of the ancient civilisations from which white people derive.
Christgram channels and groups similarly appear interested in classical liturgical music, at times sharing links to hymns or religious chants. Like the images of churches and paintings, these pieces serve as signs of Christian aesthetic achievements but also symbolise the longing for God. As one Christgram channel put it: “Our desire to see beauty is just an extension of our desire to be closer with God.”
Users on Christgram often portray their promotion of traditional values as a form of counter-cultural rebellion against the status quo. Through this counter-cultural pose, Christgram users try to draw a firm distinction between themselves and what they view as the secular, liberal, pluralist and individualist mainstream of society. This posture is by no means restricted to Christian extremist online sub-cultures: as previous research has shown, young Salafi communities online that self-identify as ‘Islamogram’ are adopting alt-right meme culture to rebel against mainstream society as well as liberal and progressive Muslims.
At the same time, channels and groups draw on the very un-traditional ‘fashwave’ aesthetic. ‘Fashwave’ is an attempt by extreme right communities online to appropriate electronic music genres such as ‘synthwave’ and ‘vaporwave’ and combine them with extreme right symbols and speeches. While synthwave communicates a nostalgia for a lost, idealised time, ‘fashwave’ instrumentalises this nostalgia and provides it with an ideological direction. ‘Fashwave’ graphics within white Christian extremist communities on Telegram generally venerate Biblical figures, martyrs, admired clerics or extreme right individuals.
Lastly, Christgram channel admins will sometimes provide advice on lifestyle and religious practice. Channels frequently draw a connection between mental and spiritual wellbeing, regular exercise, a healthy diet, prayer and building a traditional nuclear family. Catholic communities within these extremist channels often highlighted the importance of praying the rosary, a name for a sequence of Christian prayers as well as a string of beads that is used to count the prayers. It should be noted that many of these symbols and practices Christian extremists on Telegram show interest in have no intrinsic connection to extremism and should not be read as indicators for or warning signs of extremist beliefs.
This analysis highlights the key role that discussions of religious identity, belief and practice play within some sections of today’s extreme right. Within Christgram communities, white Christian identity, interpretations of history and aesthetics centred around faith are used to construct an identity and clearly distinguish between in-group and out-group. At the same time, these communities use religious language and references to justify violence. While many extreme right groups remain secular, there appears to be a renewed interest by some groups in Christianity, though it is difficult to assess if this interest will be a temporary or long-term trend.
In either case, it appears that the role of religion in general and Christianity in particular within extreme right communities deserves greater attention from the research community. Governments often draw a distinction between religious or faith-based extremism and ideological extremism, with the aim of describing and countering Islamist extremism. It would therefore be pertinent to explore, from a policy perspective, if Christgram and Christian extremism more broadly should fall under the former or the latter category.
Researchers and policymakers should learn from previous failures to engage key stakeholders from Muslim communities in the context of overly securitised attempts to counter violent extremism. To do so, it will be critical to avoid stigmatising mainstream Christian faith and practice and defend freedom of religion and belief from the threat Christians and non-Christians alike face from extremist interpretations of Christianity.