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.
19 thoughts on “Is Authoritarianism a Christian Value? by Esther Nelson”
I keep hearing people say, “this isn’t us”. Since when? We have always been a violent nation. Our nation was founded and built on violence. This shouldn’t surprise anyone.
Yup! I think it’s important for people to understand the role of religion in fueling that violence. Thank you for commenting.
Let us not forget that the Byzantine Empire sanctified the Emperor, as did states within Europe with the divine right of Kings, that the Pope is an authoritarian ruler, able to promulgate infallible decrees that overturn decisions of groups appointed within the authoritarian system to study the issue, that Protestant churches have collaborated with authoritarian rulers in Europe, and that the Puritans began to exile and dissenters to their idea of theocratic rule almost as soon as they took power in the New World.
For this reason the hair on my neck stands on end (as Judge Judy says of her bodily lie detector) when liberal or progressive Christians state that Jesus stood against Empire and with the poor, as if that conclusion/interpretation is a) obvious and not a matter of interpretation b) obviously definitive not only in terms of the words of Jesus, but also for the Christian tradition as a whole.
We might argue that the Evangelical position, is from some points of view, wrong, but that is not the same as flat out stating it is obviously wrong, while ignoring the history of Christian authoritarianism.
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As you state Carol Authoritarian CONTEXT is critical to understanding the Evangelical position.
Thanks for your “on-target” comment, Carol. One of the ways I see this whole thing we call religion is that some branches of Christianity as well as Islam (the two traditions I’m most familiar with) use “God” (and God is what those who have power insist is God) are able to enforce their particular interpretations of what they call “God’s infallible Word”–both the Bible and Qur’an–and for some reason the “faithful” swallow it all as TRUTH.
I think all of us look at the world through a specific lens, not just those who claim to be “religious.” Narrative/story provide that lens. No text/story speaks for itself. But, in my experience, those people who interpret the world in a non-authoritarian manner are not likely to insist that their interpretation is right and then go about enforcing it.
I continue to hold you in my thoughts daily. May you continue to heal.
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Non authoritarians in religion may not try to enforce their interpretations, but they often state them totally uncritically–as the Word of God. Judith and I discussed this in Goddess and God in the World. Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza is always careful to bracket her assertions with the statement that she is reading the Bible from a feminist critical point of view. Her followers and even some here on dear old FAR are not always so nuanced. William Barber continually presents his Jesus and the poor point of view as if it is the truth about Christianity. Siggggghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. Of course from some points of view it makes a more compelling story to state that your interpretation is “the” truth about your religion
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Yes, you’re right with many people interpreting what they call the Word of God as something “self-evident.” However, I do think there’s a difference between those insisting that their interpretation is THE Word of God and foisting that way of understanding on others such as was done at the Capitol. Nasr Abu Zaid (1943-2010), the Islamic scholar I worked with, saw the world through the lens of his understanding of the Qur’an, yet freely admitted that that was only one way of understanding the text, saying that all religious traditions and interpretations (from his pov) have a place at the table and it’s through hammering out our human differences (based on the textual lens we see through) in a public forum that we emerge into greater light. Authoritarian groups in all traditions refuse to acknowledge that there are multiple perspectives. They somehow KNOW what’s right like those at the Capitol believing that they were instruments in the hands of God Almighty. Absolutism at its finest and most dangerous–as Charles Kimball develops in his book WHEN RELIGION BECOMES EVIL.
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Esther – the first thing I did after reading this article was to post it. It’s so critically important. We are living in dangerous times – that there is a direct connection between Christianity, Nationalism, White Supremacy, and Violence seems so obvious to me but I also know that this point of view is not widespread. You articulate the connections so well… thank you so much for writing this very timely article.
” 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.”
Oh, yes indeed.
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Thanks, Sara, for your positive feedback.
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Excellent post, Esther. I love the quotation about the doctrine of original sin being the red sock in the laundry. Thanks also for an accurate dating of the pernicious doctrine that Christ died to expiate our sins. Never made sense to me. Today’s right wing authoritarian militant Christianity with its precedents in Christianity’s long, bloody history, is and always has been a heartbreak for those Christians who seek to live by the Beatitudes. Jesus wept….
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Thank you, Elizabeth. I also think the red sock quote is quite apt!
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Amen amen amen to you and all the commenters here who cite the so-called holy books and the numerous interpreters of those so-called holy books who tell us their god gives them authority, which is actually power-over. Over other people, over animals wild and tame, over plants, and (I guess) over rocks (well, fossil fuels) and “stewardship” over our blessed Mother Earth. That means those authoritarians don’t care about climate change because the standard-brand god seems not to care about anything beyond his own power. Which they echo. That’s basically what they care about, too. Sigh.
Sorry to sound mean here, but, yes, let’s look again at the Inquisition, Tudor England, centuries of religious wars throughout Europe and Asia, genocides against native peoples and peoples of color.
Let’s all pay more attention to the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes. Bright blessings to us all!
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Yes, thanks for commenting, Barbara. Authoritarians as you so aptly put it think “…the standard-brand god seems not to care about anything beyond his own power. Which they echo. That’s basically what they care about, too.” It’s all about who gets to tell whom what to do!
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It’s a monotheistic value, and a patriarchal value.
Yes! Would love to hear you expand on your statement.
Here is one expansion: the all powerful or omnipotent God is modeled as Charles Hartshorne said on the idea of God as a divine (male) tyrant (king or emperor).
It is monotheistic insofar as the doctrine of divine omnipotence is assumes that ONE GOD holds all the power in the universe. This doctrine in effect cancels out not only the power but also the existence of beings other than God, for if the other beings have no power, then they have no existence other than as puppets in the mind of the single power.
Yes, monotheism as you describe here is but ONE way to think about the divine. Male king/emperor is the image that often emerges from human experience giving shape to a particular notion of divinity. The chaos in the Capitol unfolded as certain Christians gave hands and feet to that notion. Other Christians were appalled in spite of worshiping a monotheistic god. To me, that shows the importance of critical thinking–putting everything under the lens of inquiry–to see where what we hold dear can lead.
Just wanted to add that the doctrine of divine omnipotence is part and parcel of the authoritarian mindset. Just recently an Islamic authority told his people that they could not use the evil eye for protection because they should understand that God will decide if they will suffer or not, while using the evil eye suggests that the will of the perpetrator of suffering comes from free choice which can be averted by the evil eye.
I note that the doctrine of divine omnipotence works its way into some versions of Goddess spirituality too. I say, no, everything is not decided by Goddess/God but that all events come about through chance and choices of actors other than Goddess/God, whose power is to influence, inspire, and persuade, not to cause.
Authoritarianism, to my way of thinking, sucks. I do see a slow change happening in society over my lifetime. As a child, I went to school every day with fear and trepidation because of the threat of corporal punishment. Nowadays, physical abuse of school children is not officially tolerated–although for sure, it happens. But the brakes have been applied. Another example is the medical profession. Used to be doctors were treated as infallible and powerful–they had the last word on things. For the past 25 years or so, have noticed a striking change in the medical profession’s modus operandi, relying on collaboration with the patient, not a “my way or the highway” mentality.