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Governor Kristi Noem vs. Lil Nas X: the ‘white man’s burden’ of conservative Christianity

<h6>Matt Johnson / Flickr</h6>
Matt Johnson / Flickr

This week, Governor Kristi Noem of South Dakota took to Twitter to criticize 21-year-old recording artist Montero Lamar Hill. The latter is better known by the stage name Lil Nas X and recently released his music video for “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)” and its associated promotional “Satan shoes.” 

Lil Nas X’s music video has sparked intense backlash from Noem and many other white, conservative Christians: “Our kids are being told that this kind of product is, not only okay, it's ‘exclusive.’ But do you know what's more exclusive? Their God-given eternal soul,” Noem wrote of the shoes. 

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I find this ironic and extremely sad. According to The New York Times, approximately one in every 500 people in South Dakota has died of COVID-19. Indigenous people represent a disproportionate amount of these deaths. These losses are in no small part due to Noem’s refusal to acknowledge the science and implement the most basic precautions. Yet Noem has shown no remorse for the loss of any “God-given eternal souls” killed by the pandemic: she has expressed pride in her failure to act and apparently has enough free time to argue with a musician on social media.

The choice to label Lil Nas X as a threat to morality while failing to address the literal, fatal threat a pandemic poses demonstrates a spirituality centered around the holiness of white “saviors.” This attitude has its roots in the exportation of Christianity around the globe through brutal colonial regimes that forced millions to assimilate. Genocidal violence against Indigenous peoples was repeatedly justified with a “civilizing mission”: it was the “burden” of the white Christian man to bring “salvation” to the “heathens” around the world. Slavery was similarly rationalized as the result of a Biblical curse on all people of African descent: white Christians’ paternalism allegedly saved them from “savagery” and damnation. 

Similarly, white, conservative Christians like Noem see themselves as “spiritual warriors” in a world of sin. Their role is to protect their own holiness and their community’s holiness from the corruption supposedly espoused by Hollywood and others who do not adhere to their moral standards. As previously mentioned, these standards are founded in the key assumption of the “white man’s burden”: that whiteness is closest to godliness. Just as Christianity was historically used to degrade and dehumanize people of different religions and cultures while undergirding early constructions of race, Noem is indicative of its continuation as a tool to perpetuate these distinctions.

To recognize how Christianity becomes a club with which to batter transgressors, one only needs to return to Lil Nas X’s recent music video. It is obvious that his foray into Satanic imagery is not for the purpose of promoting Satanic worship, as Noem and many others wish for us to believe. Lil Nas X, as a young, gay Black man, is referencing the many times he has been told to “go to hell” or that he is “going to hell” because of his sexuality. In the video, he does precisely that, but he kills Satan. (This Satan is merely a person in red body paint and clunky facial prosthetics as opposed to a terrifying representation of pure evil.) Ultimately, the only agenda “MONTERO” promotes is that of radical self-acceptance in the face of hatred. This is emphasized by the song being self-titled.

Noem and many other white, conservative Christians fail to recognize this, instead clamoring about their children and an imagined spiritual peril. These are not problems that a faith grounded in love, respect, and compassion for others has. These are the problems of a faith that remains centered on the white, cisgender, heterosexual man as the essence of human experience and all others as “heathens” who need “civilizing” and to be controlled. 

This would explain why Noem’s Twitter offered nothing other than silence following the shootings in Atlanta. There should be no question of mourning the victims and taking action against anti-Asian racism and all forms of white supremacy. It is furthermore imperative to understand how evangelical teachings of “purity culture” contributed to the shooter’s objectification of Asian American women as specifically disposable sources of temptation.

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Given that I was raised in the Christian faith and still identify with it, I did not write this article to condemn it. Rather, this is an urgent plea to recognize Christianity’s role in constructing race and rationalizing genocidal violence. It is not too much to ask our policymakers to think critically about these histories and recognize that the lives of those who are not white, not Christian, not heterosexual, not cisgender, and otherwise different from them matter just as much as theirs. 

I also wrote this article to insist that Christian and Christian-affiliated groups on campus recognize Christianity’s brutal past and present. Some of them continue to espouse hateful beliefs borne out of poor biblical scholarship, especially in relation to gender and sexual norms. This includes the Anscombe Society. While the group’s website states that it believes that “all persons have inherent dignity and worth,” it nonetheless provides links to four articles — including one co-written by Princeton professor Robert P. George — that maintain that same-sex marriage is immoral and should be prohibited by the state. The Anscombe Society also asserts that “there are inherent physical, behavioral, emotional, and psychological differences between men and women” despite a lack of scientific evidence for the gender binary.

Ultimately, an interpretation of Christianity like that of Governor Kristi Noem, or that which informs the Anscombe Society’s transphobic and homophobic activism, misses the real problems that face our country and our world. Lil Nas X’s Satan shoes are not a sign of the end times. They are at worst severely overpriced, very gimmicky, and misleadingly marketed. People are dying and being killed every day: from COVID-19, from targeted violence, and from lack of access to healthcare. These deaths are avoidable, yet leaders such as Noem would rather commit their time to promoting white saviorism and thus spreading hatefulness. A failure to confront the amount of death that happens daily, and an apathy toward these losses, are the real indicators of depravity.

Brittani Telfair is a junior from Richmond, Va. majoring in SPIA and pursuing a certificate in African American Studies. She can be reached at btelfair@princeton.edu.  

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