The Thomas Achord Affair: Race & Credulity

Update: After repeated denials and counter-accusations, Thomas Achord has admitted earlier today that he in fact is the owner of the @TuliusAadland account on Twitter who tweeted some truly terrible things. While elements of his admission and apology feel a bit self serving I can only hope this turn towards honesty continues and brings repentance and spiritual growth for Achord at this time.

If you do not pay attention to the wider discussion of political theology in the Christian world, you will likely have no clue who Thomas Achord is or why his name became infamous.

Ad Fontes: Back to the Sources

To recap briefly, in the last several years there has been a movement of Christian ressourcement across all traditions – Protestants of all stripes, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, you name it. From the Center for Baptist Renewal to the Theopolis Institute (and a bunch of different other organizations and periodicals), there’s been an emphasis in looking back to the past for Christian wisdom. Since Christian theology covers a host of issues, this is a really broad movement covering multiple traditions with different answers to the questions of how should we worship, what ought we believe and how we should live together. This should not surprise any one, in fact this drive to seek something older, more traditional and more substantive was predicted by Francis Fukuyama in his End of History and the Last Man.

For myself, I’ve written on my own journey from agnosticism back to Christianity and into traditional Protestant Anglicanism from generic “non-denominational” Christianity. Playing a small role in this project has been immensely rewarding. In particular since 2015, there’s been a renewed emphasis on recovering traditional Christian political theology. Naturally all the political chaos in America leads people to seek a different way from the choices we have right now. I wrote on this myself back during the 2020 election.

Christian Renewal, Christian Nationalism?

In particular there’s been a huge boost of discussing what is often called “Christian nationalism.” Very, very broadly speaking this is the idea that nations should be Christian (an interesting theological discussion of what it means to be a Christian and what is a nation ), that this should be reflected in the politics of the state (an interesting political question with serious theological implications) and that a Christian worldview should influence how we understand the common good. For myself this term is so broad as to become largely useless unless it is narrowed down dramatically. My good friend Miles Smith points this out over at Mere Orthodoxy:

Whatever usefulness the term Christian nationalism might have historically through its connections to Protestant political theology, its primary use today by both its detractors and its proponents bears little, if any, relation to the historic usage. What is left is progressive Evangelicals labeling anything they don’t like “Christian Nationalism,” and right-wing folk Evangelicals labeling everything they do like “Christian Nationalism.” Neither group’s understanding of the relationship between Christianity and the state seems sustainable or desirable. Neither revivalist folk Christianity nor en masse progressive deconstruction are worthy successors to historic Protestant political thought passed down from the Reformers to the conservative older mainline churches. Christian Nationalism, as it’s used in 2022, represents neither the Reformers nor the best of the disestablished liberal Protestant tradition of the American republic. So I’ve changed my mind: The term is at best probably useless, and more likely cartoonishly silly altogether. Whatever energy spent trying to rescue the term could be better spent on more substantive Christian socio-political pursuit.

If Trumpist Republicans rather comically reenacting the ancient Israelites’ march around Jericho in Arizona and the church-state relationship in the United Kingdom can both be grouped in the same term (if you don’t think that’s a form of Christian nationalism, then what else should we call an arrangement where the sovereigns is consecrated by an archbishop, the head of states swears an oath to “maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel” and to “maintain…the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law,” and where there are not one, but two state churches constitutionally enshrined in law?) then it has zero use or meaning.

Despite this since 2012, the discussion has skyrocketed.

For awhile journalists and writers discussed a concept that had very little concrete form or meaning. Rather cleverly a few different writers published books that became center pieces of the discussion by virtue of being some of the few explicit defenses of “Christian nationalism.” As Jeremy Irons in Margin Call says, while it helps to be the smartest or the best, it’s good to just be first. While associated with Doug Wilson’s church and his wider project, Andrew Isker and Andrew Torba’s book didn’t quiiiite get the full blessing from Wilson’s publishing arm (Canon Press) but Stephen Wolfe’s The Case for Christian Nationalism did. As such, and with the benefit of Wolfe’s academic background, it got the official boost and has become a centerpiece for the discussion.

This book has become fairly controversial due to the author’s writings on Black Americans as criminals, his back and forth musings on whether or not interracial marriage can be a sin, and his stance that a nation should not comprise of more than one ethnicity, or that true friendship between people of different ethnicity is not truly possible.

Naturally Wolfe’s racial views and the book’s popularity is a cause for alarm but for those who are interested in traditional Christianity and this renewal should be doubly concerned. Wolfe’s penchant for beating around the bush (Neil Shenvi in the earlier cited review notes that Wolfe studiously avoids any specific definition of a nation), or confusingly backtracking stances and then reaffirming them later has lead many to examine his associations.

Enter Thomas Achord. A former educator, academic, and author, he co-hosts a Christian podcast with Wolfe and has written a book (rather incredibly named Who Is My Neighbor?) that has been recommended by Wolfe. Since it became maddeningly difficult to get a straight answer out of Wolfe about the contours of his views, people started to wonder what does Achord believe, since Wolfe thinks so highly of his work. That’s where it gets pretty wild.

You see, Achord’s book (co written/compiled by Darrell Dow) is explicitly racist in its understanding of the world. Specifically Achord’s book is kinist (if you are unfamiliar with kinism this write up is helpful, long story short, it is explicitly against interracial marriage or equality on theological grounds), a theological blessing of explicit racial separatism. Achord’s book goes well beyond racial separatism into full blown white supremacy and outright hatred of his fellow Christians or Americans who are Black. If you don’t believe me, let’s consult the table of contents of his book (freely available on the Amazon preview)

It shouldn’t surprise you that Achord loved social media (white nationalists always do). Very soon people became horrified with a twitter account that is believed to be his (@TuliusAadland, which is still up). Alistair Roberts has a very long write up with a host of evidence explaining why it is incredibly obvious this was Achord’s account (it hasn’t tweeted in some time). This was backed by Rod Dreher, over at the American Conservative, who knew Achord, as his kids attended a school Achord taught at (also where his ex-wife worked until this controversy broke out). The twitter account revealed the owner to be a racist vulgarian with repeated insults towards Jews, Black people, interracial adoptees complete with slurs. His school removed him from his position after it became obvious that Tulius Aadland was Thomas Achord.

I won’t belabor the case but to me it is fairly simple. “Tulius Aadland” is not a common pseudonym. It’s a combination of a Roman name with a rather uncommon Norwegian surname (before deleting his personal GoodReads account, he noted an interest in Scandinavian history). He had used this pseudonym before, had written kinist articles under this name and had used various combinations of similar names (ex. Tu_Aad). He’s a pretty obvious kinist with an interest in white nationalism and, apparently books that defend Nazism and related movements.

For the record there is nothing with reading books by objectionable authors. It’s educational and worthwhile. I’ve read Mein Kampf (hint: it sucked) as well as Islamist writings as it is helpful to read how terrible people think. But given the preponderance of evidence one has to raise their eyebrows at consistently reading of Holocaust deniers, Klansmen, literally Hitler, and other white nationalists. In particular it is bizarre he found Rowan Helper’s Negroes in Negroland as “Eye-opening” (so eye opening he read it twice apparently), a vicious 250+ page polemic against Black Americans and Africans, devoting an entire chapter to biracial people as the “Offspring of Crimes against Nature.” Even more bizarre is his detailed endorsement of a book that justifies Nazi Germany’s war by blaming the Jewish people, which apparently helped Achord reveal the true “aims of all actors involved, including Jews.”

Achord, of course, denies that Tulius Aadland is him (no word on his kinist book or his strange GoodReads reviews) and claims that instead he is being framed as an imposter. This beggars belief entirely. Apparently an imposter decided to ruin his life so they proceeded to not use his name or make any attempt to draw attention to the account but rather stole his incredibly specific and esoteric pseudonym. They then ran this account for two years, rather ingeniously aped how he wrote, what he wrote about, and his views to the point where his own friends interacted with and followed the account, not notifying Achord of the ostensible fakery. Apparently this imposter then even posted a picture from inside the small school he taught in, again not to draw attention but simply to mock a grief counseling group for men. Then they just stopped posting apparently in the hopes that someone else would discover this niche account two years later. Achord was so gulled by this clever pantomime he at first believed they were his tweets before denying them.

Credulity & Race

It’s the reaction to this blow up (which so far has severed quite a lot of relationships among Christian, mostly Protestant writers and commentators) that really fascinates me. Despite the overwhelming evidence, many, including those I respected (and in some cases respect) continue either to deny that Achord is Tulius Aadland or are angrier at those who drew attention to Achord, leading to his firing. I think this group can be divided into three categories. The lines between them are not always opaque but here they are:

  • People who just agree: While this is easily the most visible group online (they are not hard to find and are comically now adopting the moniker Tulius Aadland in some weirdo Spartacus remake), in my opinion they are likely the smallest. There are, no doubt, people who silently agree with Achord and Wolfe’s racial views or enough of it that they simply think it is wrong to take a man’s job for posting good things and writing good books. You will often find these people appealing to supposedly neutral reasons to oppose Achord’s exposure and firing but when pushed to it, simply like his views on race. They are contemptible and pitiable.
  • The [Selective] Procedural Libertarians: This is the group I am actually the most sympathetic to. There is a sense among Christians, in particular those who are traditional or conservative (that is to say, holding beliefs older than 5 years ago), that there is a massive shift in the ideological climate. Americans are far more likely to be irreligious and attend no church. Ideas that were once common are now finding themselves out of vogue. Furthermore secularism in America is more muscular and militant than it once was. Can anyone imagine a senator, even a progressive, 10 years ago grilling a nominee for the Office of Budget Management for being a conservative Protestant and holding normal views on salvation and Christian exclusivity, for views utterly unrelated to his job?

    So there is a fear that a public spinelessness, combined with a zealous desire to punish, will lead to increased stigmatization of orthodox Christianity in public and private spaces. I don’t think this is an unreasonable fear (though I question how omnipresent this threat is). So naturally there is a leeriness of firing someone for views among folks like this. I repeatedly saw appeals to “innocent before proven guilty” or “reasonable doubt.” But basically they’ve put themselves in a position where, absent an actual admission from Achord, they are the equivalent of a bad faith juror who simply would never vote to convict regardless of what they see presented a trial.

    I say this stance is selective because they don’t actually think this consistently. No one really believes that the views of an educator are incidental to one’s role as a teacher. I don’t particularly care if the guy who sells me a car, fits my pipes, or sweeps the streets thinks stupid or evil things. But we all agree that people who are the role of a public instructor, whose job is to shape views are not simply providing service like someone handing you an order at a restaurant. Who they are is a crucial part of their position.

    If you feel that you cannot condone Sequitur Classical Academy removing Achord simply out of principle, ask yourself: do you think no teacher should ever be removed for their views? If, say, a Christian school found good evidence that one of their teachers was actually posting and writing vile and vulgar things but from a leftist point of view, would you really be outraged if they were fired? Be honest with yourself if with no one else.
  • The Apathetic: This is the one that I think may be one of the largest groups and this is something that truly concerns me. There seems to be a significant amount of Christians for whom the issue of racism simply doesn’t matter. They themselves would never read, much less write the things Achord/Aadland wrote. They don’t feel animus or contempt for other people and if you asked them, they would naturally say racism is a terrible thing. But overall it doesn’t factor as an actual reality. There’s a vague sense that slavery “was a thing,” that the civil rights movement was good but that was all “a long time ago” (before being cancelled Louis C.K. had a great bit on this tendency to overstate how long ago slavery ended).

    I’ll be the first to say a huge part of this sentiment is due to progressive overreach. As the label of racist became, correctly, stigmatized, the temptation to stigmatize all of your opponents’ views was just too powerful. Voter ID laws? Racist. (Please do not ask what most Black or Hispanic Americans think). Border security concerns? Racist. (Again, let’s not ask most Hispanics what we think) Funding the police? Racist. (I think we get the point now)

    But we can’t blame overzealous progressives for all of this. Due to discomfort and possibly a lack of interaction with Americans who are not white, a lot of folks simply do not really take into account the reality of racism. One can reject that America is innately a white supremacist nation or the wider implications of the 1619 Project and still consider it a major issue. In particular this is something Christians should be sensitive to. The Bible should inform the questions of who we see as our neighbor (hint: they may look different from us), where we see our origins from (Acts 17:26, all nations are of “one blood”), and for whom we should care (the poor, the oppressed, the foreigner). If we are worried about a man losing his job for his views imagine how one would feel if you were never considered for a job due to your background. If we worry about a hostile political climate that harasses one Christian to cow the rest of us, can we imagine what it would be like to wonder, “What if I was killed for not being white?”

    Racism should bother us. It doesn’t mean you have to absorb DiAngelo’s White Fragility (you shouldn’t). But the opposite of a mistake is often the opposite mistake.

Let me tell you a quick story. Around election time I sat in a friend’s renovated barn having a drink with him and his father. We were talking about the potential for Trump to be elected. Just recently there was the incident where Trump had openly said a judge reviewing his case could not be trusted because, “He’s a Mexican.” The fact that Judge Gonzalo Curiel is a natural born American citizen didn’t matter. He’s a Mexican. I remember saying I worried about a scenario where tensions between Hispanic and Anglo Americans would be purposefully heightened and exploited by demagogues. I could feel myself become more impassioned as I poured out my worries. What if the situation became like a Southwestern Belfast? My father is a second generation Mexican-American. My mother is a white American of Old Stock American, Irish and German ancestry. What if their communities, which I saw from my time growing up as melding together, hated and feared each other?

2016 came and went. I wondered, gratefully, if I was wrong. Then El Paso happened. 23 Mexicans were shot dead in a terrorist massacre for the crime being Mexican. The murderer said he did so to “end the threat” of “Hispanic invasion.” Blessedly, statistically very few people are murdered in hate crimes in America. But statistically speaking it wasn’t going to happen to them in El Paso that August morning. Statistically speaking, none of the Christians attending a Bible study in Charleston at Emmanuel Church were likely to be murdered. But it did happen to them.

Now this is not to say Trump supports or supported such things (in fact the killer’s manifesto explicitly said he was radicalized before Trump). Whether Trump’s rhetoric made people feel more comfortable in expressing hateful views that ended up inspiring others to commit the sin of murder isn’t my point here one way or another. But it really did shake me to my core. This isn’t to say I was convinced I would be next. Looking at my güero face, if it did happen to me it would probably be by accident. But the fact is that people were murdered and they were murdered for being a part of a group my father, my grandparents, my aunt and uncles, my cousins, and many of my friends are members of. A membership I share with them. I can’t imagine what it would be like to live with this fear and have it inform your decisions. What it would be like to plan your life, in some part, around other men’s sinful hatred of you.

There are people alive who don’t have to wonder. They know what it is like. Rod Dreher once wrote one of the most poignant essays on race I ever read. It’s called “When ISIS Ran the South.” Rod wrote about the harrowing EJI report on the lynchings in America. These lynchings were a brutal, almost ritualistic display of grotesque and gleeful hatred. Whole towns, pastors included, attended and participated. People took pictures. Refreshments were served. This was not 1,000 years ago. This was in our grandparents and their parents’ lifetime. Rod found out that at least 10 lynchings happened in his own home parish in Louisiana. If you are not sure why you would care if a literal white supremacist is teaching Christian children and shaping the next generation, I encourage you to read this post:

I see from the graphic in the EJI report that they appear to have documented at least 10 lynchings in West Feliciana Parish, where I live. I have written EJI for a copy of the report. I want to know who was killed, and under what circumstances. We all need to know these things, and face down what our ancestors did. These weren’t Crusaders sacking Constantinople. These were our fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers, doing it to the fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers of our black neighbors. Attention must be paid. That may be the only atonement available now, but it’s better than what we have had, which is nothing.

No, the American South (and other parts of America where racial terrorists ran rampant) was never run by fanatical theocrats who used grotesque public murders as a tool of terror. But if you were a black in the years 1877-1950, this was a distinction without much meaningful difference.

Christians are called to be a light in this world and the movement to recover what has become a lost Christian heritage will increasingly play a bigger role in this vocation. However we cannot afford to remain apathetic and credulous in the face of those who would encourage hateful sin. The task of being vigilant against wolves among the sheep may be exhausting – wolves after all take many forms – but it is absolutely necessary if we are to be faithful to the charge given us.

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