According to the Anti-Defamation League’s website, the Celtic Cross — particularly when rendered as an equal-armed cross — is used by white supremacists as a symbol of their racist beliefs.
The website says:
The white supremacist version of the Celtic Cross, which consists of a square cross interlocking with or surrounded by a circle, is one of the most important and commonly used white supremacist symbols.1https://www.adl.org/education/references/hate-symbols/celtic-cross
This boggles my mind. And it breaks my heart.
As someone who is profoundly opposed to racism while also very much in love with Celtic spirituality, it both saddens and angers me that there are hate-filled people who co-opt what should be universally recognized as a symbol of love and unity.
The equal-armed Celtic cross, according to Wikimedia Commons, “was used by the National Socialist (NSDAP/Nazi) government of Germany or an organization closely associated to it, or another party which has been banned by the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany. The use of insignia of organizations that have been banned in Germany (like the Nazi swastika or the arrow cross) are also illegal in Austria, Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, France, Brazil, Israel, Ukraine, Russia and other countries, depending on context.”2https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Celtic-cross.png
Why Would a Celtic Cross Be a Symbol of Hatred?
Just the fact that the equal-armed Celtic Cross was co-opted by the Nazi party of Germany is reason enough why it represents racism and white supremacism to some people. But it is worth looking at how some white supremacists misunderstand Celtic spirituality (and northern European spirituality in general) to understand why this symbol gets mis-used.
In 1995, cultural critic Noel Ignatiev published a book with a provocative title: How the Irish Became White. It explores issues related to social privilege and the immigrant experience of 19th century Irish expatriates who discovered that, in the new world, they could assimilate into “white” society and enjoy the kind of privilege that was denied to people of color.
It’s not meant to be a book to attack the Irish — any group that might find an opportunity for social privilege in a new homeland would naturally take it. Rather, it’s a book about the evils of racism and social privilege in general. The experience of anti-Irish prejudice, especially in Europe, is a reminder that social privilege isn’t always a matter of race. The English and the Irish are both caucasian, yet for centuries the Irish were denied the kind of privilege in the British Isles that the English enjoyed.
All this is a backdrop to the unhappy fact that some white supremacists, in America and elsewhere, look to northern European cultures as their idealized notion of a “good” society. Scandinavia, Germany, and the Celtic lands of Ireland and Scotland all symbolize, in the racist mind, what they believe society “should” look like. Of course, nowadays northern Europe is just as racially diverse as any part of the industrialized world; but racists and white supremacists trade in a kind of fantasy-nostalgia. They are not interested in the way things are, but rather in how they imagines things used to be. And they imagine that, once upon a time, the Celts were “racially pure” — just like the Germans and the Scandinavians.
This spills over into a romanticized view of the spiritual heritage of these lands. The indigenous pagan spiritualities of northern Europe — the pagan religions associated with Norse or Celtic mythology — have in particular become attractive to white supremacists. Such pagan religions are seen as promoting a kind of tribal identity that is racially embedded in “whiteness.”
Unfortunately, it’s a short leap from “this spirituality is for people like me” to “this spirituality is only for people like me.” And so it’s no surprise that symbolism associated with Norse and Celtic paganism — from Thor’s hammer to runes to the Celtic Cross — all show up on the ADL website as symbols of racism and white supremacism.
The Truth About Celtic Spirituality
It is true that Celtic spirituality emerges from the history of a caucasian ethnic group: the Celts. But there is no inherent Celtic idea or teaching that promotes racism or white supremacism.
In fact, the opposite is the case: Celtic spirituality emphasizes hospitality, kindness to strangers, honor, peacemaking, and reverence for nature — all values that undermine racism rather than promote it.
This is especially true in terms of Celtic Christianity, where indigenous Celtic spirituality interweaves with the universalizing principles of the Christian faith. But even Celtic paganism has nothing in it that is inherently racist.
It breaks my heart that misguided people who have chosen to hate, sometimes use symbols associated with Celtic spirituality to promote their toxic worldview. It is important to understand that Celtic symbolism can be misused in this way. But it is just as important to understand that the Celtic heart is not racist. Anyone who truly seeks to follow the wisdom way of the Celtic peoples will find that it leads not to racism or “white identity,” but to values that actually are anti-racist: values like kindness, hospitality, and compassion. Those are the true Celtic values.