Many Americans described the recent (January 6, 2021) attack on the Capitol in Washington DC as shocking. I believe the event reflected one of the many times we’ve reaped the fruit of what we’ve sown throughout the course of American history. Thomas Edsall, in a New York Times article (1/28/21), wrote an excellent piece titled, “The Capitol Insurrection is as Christian Nationalist as it Gets.” He quotes a variety of experts on religion and other disciplines while contextualizing the incident within a religious narrative—something that is sorely lacking from our news outlets.
I think many people think of religion as something inherently good or at least as a neutral phenomenon belonging for the most part to an unearthly, apolitical realm. Charles Kimball writes in his book When Religion Becomes Evil: “History clearly shows that religion has often been linked directly to the worst examples of human behavior… more wars have been waged, more people killed…in the name of religion than by any other institutional force in human history.”
In his New York Times article, Edsall quotes from Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry’s book Taking America Back for God: “[Christian Nationalism] includes assumptions of nativism, white supremacy, patriarchy and heteronormativity, along with divine sanction for authoritarian control and militarism….Christian nationalism contends that America has been and should always be distinctively ‘Christian’ from top to bottom — in its self-identity, interpretations of its own history, sacred symbols, cherished values and public policies — and it aims to keep it this way.”
I grew up and lived a portion of my adult life in a community that prayed: “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” from The Lord’s Prayer in the New Testament. My former religious community believed this passage meant that America should be rooted in their specific interpretation of the Bible. Consequently, they yearned for an earthly government that enabled their vision. Today, the movement is known as the “Evangelical religious right,” and it has become synonymous with Christian Nationalism.
Katherine Stewart in her book The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism writes: “It is a political movement, and its ultimate goal is power. It does not seek to add another voice to America’s pluralistic democracy, but to replace our foundational democratic principles and institutions with a state grounded on a particular version of Christianity, answering to what some adherents call a ‘biblical worldview’ that also happens to serve the interest of its plutocratic funders and allied political leaders.”
Philip Gorski, author of American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion From the Puritans to the Present asserts regarding the January 6 event: “Many observers commented on the jarring mixture of Christian, nationalist, and racist symbolism…there were Christian crosses and Jesus Saves banners, Trump flags, fascist insignia and a ‘Camp Auschwitz’ hoodie. Some saw apples and oranges. But it was really a fruit cocktail: White Christian Nationalism.”
Gorski continues: “Today’s evangelical conservatives have given up on spiritual revival as a means of change. Even in the recent past, conversion—a change of heart and mind that is the fruit of repentance and spiritual regeneration—was thought to be the means by which America would become a morally upright nation: change enough individuals, and the change on a personal level would follow and result in broad change on a collective level.”
Edsall, again, quotes Perry: “…the language of the prayers offered by the insurrectionists both outside and within the Capitol indicates the views of white Americans who obviously thought Jesus not only wanted them to violently storm the Capitol…but also believed God empowered their efforts, giving them victory….[This] reflects a mind-set that clearly merges national power and divine authority, believing God demands American leadership be wrested from godless usurpers and entrusted to true patriots who must be willing to shed blood (their own and others) for God and country. Christian nationalism favors authoritarian control…for the sake of maintaining a certain social order.”
Violence becomes a means to a “good” outcome.
Gorski notes that “Christian nationalists use a language of blood and apocalypse. They talk about blood conquest, blood sacrifice, and blood belonging, and also about cosmic battles between good and evil. The blood talk comes from the Old Testament; the apocalyptic talk from the book of Revelation.”
Gorski juxtaposes this blood and apocalypse language with civil religion that “draws on the social justice tradition of the Hebrew prophets…[and] the civic republican tradition that runs from Aristotle through Machiavelli to the American Founders. One of the distinctive things about this tradition in America is that it sees Christianity and democracy as potentially complementary, rather than inherently opposed.”
The doctrine of original sin—humans are born with the stain of sin and nothing less than the bloody sacrifice of Jesus’ death on the old rugged cross can wash away that stain—dovetails nicely with Christian nationalists’ penchant for violence. (Incidentally, original sin didn’t surface in Christianity as an official doctrine until the fourth century C.E. with Augustine of Hippo (354-430).)
Danielle Shroyer, an author/pastor in Dallas, Texas, and involved in the “Emerging Church Movement,” writes: “Original sin is the red sock in the theological laundry—it has potential to discolor everything. Original sin hinders us from seeing the world as created for connection—to all created things.”
Greg Locke, a conservative evangelical pastor, tweeted on January 5, 2021, “May the fire of the Holy Spirit fall upon Washington DC today and tomorrow. May the Lamb of God be exalted. Let God arise and His enemies be brought low.”
Conquer and dominate is his theme—not connection with all that is.
Paul Miller, professor of international affairs at Georgetown University says: “Christian nationalism is the pursuit of tribal power, not the common good; it is identity politics for right-wing (mostly white) Christians; it is the attempt to ‘own and operate the American brand,’ it is an attitude of entitlement among Christians that we have a presumptive right to define what America is.”
I remember when many Americans feared (and still do) the influx of Muslims in the U.S., afraid that Americans would be subject to Shari’a law if Muslims got their way. Technically, Shari’a is not a law and I’ve addressed that subject on a previous blog.
Nevertheless, there was much criticism hurled towards Muslims because they did not separate “mosque from state.” But, aren’t Christian Nationalists doing the very same thing they accuse Muslims of attempting to do as Christian Nationalists work to fashion a state after their own interests and particular interpretation of their sacred text? How do they square that with what Jesus (or what has been attributed to Jesus) said, “My Kingdom is not of this world?” (John 18:36). As with all authoritarian people and systems, Christian Nationalists fight for power believing they are unique in their ability to understand and enforce what they contend is TRUTH.
The religious dimension that fueled the January 6 event has been underreported and barely analyzed. Even though all of the people taking part in the storming of the Capitol were not those most visible (such as the QAnon shaman), the religious framework they “believe in” and absorbed from their larger community gave them permission to join their leaders and support the insurrection.
Broadly speaking, it seems to me that Christianity frames its tradition in two main and very different ways. Authoritarianism, as we’ve experienced during the Trump years. The polar opposite is a mindset (and subsequent manifestation) of being connected to all that is—a theme that the many wonderful contributors to this blog address frequently.
I’m all about connection!
The following link will open an insightful American Academy of Religion webinar titled “Insurrection, White Supremacy, and Religion.” There are five panelists. Sarah Posner, a journalist, who used a brilliant phrase, saying the insurrectionists want “the U.S. to be reborn, turning insurrection into a resurrection.” Anthea Butler, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania, brought the panel together. She said Christian Nationalists believe “guns and violence become avatars of God.” Peter Manseur, a religious scholar who works with material culture, excelled. Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry, social scientists, contributed “bigly.” (Edsall quotes Whitehead and Perry in his New York Times article.)
Esther Nelson is a registered nurse who worked for several years in Obstetrics and Psychiatry, but not simultaneously. She returned to school (Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia) when her children were in college and liked it well enough to stay on as an adjunct professor. For twenty-two years, she taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, Women in the Abrahamic Faiths, and Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of Voice of An Exile: Reflections on Islam and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of What is Religious Studies? : A Journey of Inquiry. She recently stepped away from teaching and now splits her time between New Mexico and Virginia.