It’s impossible to understand the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol without addressing the movement that has come to be known as Christian nationalism.
Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry, professors of sociology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and the University of Oklahoma, describe Christian Nationalism in their book “Taking America Back for God”:
It includes assumptions of nativism, white supremacy, patriarchy and heteronormativity, along with divine sanction for authoritarian control and militarism. It is as ethnic and political as it is religious. Understood in this light, 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.
In her recent book, “The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism,” Katherine Stewart, a frequent contributor to these pages, does not mince words:
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 interests of its plutocratic funders and allied political leaders.
This, Stewart writes, “is not a ‘culture war.’ It is a political war over the future of democracy.”
While much of the focus of coverage of the attack on the halls of the House and Senate was on the violence, the religious dimension went largely unnoted (although my colleagues Elizabeth Dias and Ruth Graham made the connection).
I asked Perry about the role of the religious right, and he replied by email: “The Capitol insurrection was as Christian nationalist as it gets.”
Obviously the best evidence would be the use of sacred symbols during the insurrection such as the cross, Christian flag, Jesus saves sign, etc. But also 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 in order to take it back from the socialists, globalists, etc., but also believed God empowered their efforts, giving them victory.
Together, Perry continued, the evidence
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 and what I call “good-guy violence” for the sake of maintaining a certain social order.
The conservative evangelical pastor Greg Locke, the founder of the Global Vision Bible Church in Mount Juliet, Tenn., epitomizes the mind-set Perry describes. In his Sept 2020 book, “This Means War” Locke writes, “We are one election away from losing everything we hold dear.” The battle, Locke continued, is “against everything evil and wicked in the world.” It is
a rallying of the troops of God’s holy army. This is our day. This is our time. This means something for the Kingdom. As a matter of fact, THIS MEANS WAR.
On Jan. 5, Locke tweeted:
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.
Along similar lines, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council and a leading figure among conservative evangelicals, was asked in a 2018 Politico interview, “What happened to turning the other cheek?”
“You know, you only have two cheeks,” Perkins replied. “Look, Christianity is not all about being a welcome mat which people can just stomp their feet on.”
Robert Jones, the founder and C.E.O. of PRRI, a nonprofit organization that conducts research on religion and politics, argues in his book “The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity,” that Christianity in America has a long history of serving as a cloak for a racist political agenda.
“The norms of white supremacy have become deeply and broadly integrated into white Christian identity, operating far below the level of consciousness,” Jones writes. “The story of just how intractably white supremacy has become embedded in the DNA of American Christianity.”
On Jan. 7, the mainstream Baptist News published comments from 21 Baptist leaders, including Steve Harmon, professor of theology at Gardner-Webb University School of Divinity:
Minister friends, we must confront directly the baseless conspiracy theories and allegations that our own church members are embracing and passing along. They are not just wrongheaded ideas; they have consequences, and to tie these falsehoods to the salvation of Jesus is nothing less than blasphemy.
Charles Kimball, a professor of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma-Norman, shares some of Jones’s concerns. In his 2002 book, “When Religion Becomes Evil,” Kimball wrote:
History clearly shows that religion has often been linked directly to the worst examples of human behavior. It is somewhat trite, but nevertheless sadly true, to say that more wars have been waged, more people killed and these days more evil perpetuated in the name of religion than by any other institutional force in human history.
In an email, Gerardo Marti, a professor of sociology at Davidson College, described a fundamental strategic shift among many on the religious right toward a more embattled, militantly conservative approach:
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 result in broad change on a collective level.
Marti contends that
the accumulated frustrations of not being able to ease their sense of religious decline, their continued legal struggles against abortion and gay marriage, and the overwhelming shifts in popular culture promoting much less religiously restrictive understandings of personal identity have prompted politically active religious actors to take a far more pragmatic stance.
As a result, Marti continues, revivalism has largely
been abandoned as a solution to changing society. Their goal is no longer to persuade the public of their religious and moral convictions; rather, their goal has become to authoritatively enforce behavioral guidelines through elected and nonelected officials who will shape policies and interpret laws such that they cannot be so easily altered or dismissed through the vagaries of popular elections. It is not piety but policy that matters most. The real triumph is when evangelical convictions become encoded into law.
I asked Philip Gorski, a professor of sociology at Yale and the author of the book “American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion From the Puritans to the Present,” if supporters of Christian nationalism were a dominant force in the Jan. 6 assault on Congress. He replied:
Many observers commented on the jarring mixture of Christian, nationalist and racist symbolism amongst the insurrectionists: there were Christian crosses and Jesus Saves banners, Trump flags and American flags, fascist insignia and a ‘Camp Auschwitz’ hoodie. Some saw apples and oranges. But it was really a fruit cocktail: White Christian Nationalism.
Gorski described the Christian nationalist movement as a loose confederation of people and institutions that share
a certain narrative about American history. In rough outline: America was founded as a Christian nation; the Founding Fathers were evangelical Christians; the Nation’s laws and founding documents were indirectly based on “biblical” principles, or even directly inspired by God, Himself. America’s power and prosperity are due to its piety and obedience.
The narrative is propagated through a network of channels, Gorski wrote:
The history curricula used by many Christian home-schoolers are organized around a Christian nationalist perspective. Christian Nationalist activists also seek to influence the history curricula used in public schools.
In addition, Gorski said,
Some evangelical pastors have made national reputations by preaching Christian Nationalism. Robert Jeffress of Dallas’ First Baptist Church is a well-known example. In recent years, some Christian Nationalist pastors have formed a network of so-called “Patriot Churches” as well.
It should be noted that Jeffress went out of his way on the afternoon of Jan. 6 to dissociate himself from the attack on the Capitol.
In a discussion of religion published at The Immanent Frame — a forum of the Social Science Research Council — Gorski drew a sharp distinction between Christian nationalism and traditional religion doctrine:
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.
In contrast, according to Gorski, the American version of civil religion
draws on the social justice tradition of the Hebrew prophets, on the one hand, and, on the other, 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.
Paul D. Miller, a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, reasons along parallel lines:
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,’ as someone else wrote; it is an attitude of entitlement among Christians that we have a presumptive right to define what America is. I oppose identity politics of all kinds, including the identity politics of my tribe.
Christian nationalism reveals what Benjamin Lynerd, a professor of Political Science at Christopher Newport University and the author of “Republican Theology: The Civil Religion of American Evangelicals,” calls “the tragedy of evangelical politics, a tragedy that the unrestrained loyalty to President Trump lays bare, but which stretches well beyond this moment in American history,” when “political theology serves merely as cover for the more pragmatic agenda of social empowerment.”
There is a difference, Lynerd writes,
between searching out the implications of the Christian gospel for politics and leveraging this gospel to advance the social position of American Christians. When evangelicals disguise the latter in the robes of the former, not only do they engage in dishonesty, but they also give fuel to the cynical view that there really is no difference — that the theological is nothing more than a cloak for the political.
Jones, the founder of P.R.R.I., made a related point in an email:
While many media outlets focused on decoding the myriad white supremacist signs and symbols, they too easily screened out the other most prominent displays: the numerous crosses, Bibles, and signs and flags with Christian symbols, such as the Jesus 2020 flag that was modeled on the Trump campaign flag.
Those religious symbols, Jones continued,
reveal an unsettling reality that has been with us throughout our history: The power of White supremacy in America has always been its ability to flourish within and be baptized by white Christianity.
Many of those I contacted for this column described Whitehead and Perry’s book, “Taking America Back For God,” as the most authoritative study of Christian Nationalism.
The two authors calculate that roughly 20 percent of adult Americans qualify, in Perry’s words, as “true believers in Christian nationalism.” They estimate that 36 percent of Republican voters qualify as Christian nationalists. In 2016, the turnout rate among these voters was an exceptionally high 87 percent. Whitehead wrote that “about 70 percent of those we identify as Christian nationalists are white.”
A small percentage of African-Americans qualify as Christian nationalists, but Perry pointed out that “it’s obvious Black and White Americans are thinking of something completely different when they think about the nation’s ‘Christian heritage.’ ”
To ask white Americans about restoring America’s Christian character, Perry continued,
is essentially to ask them how much they want to take the country back to the days when they (white, native-born, conservatives) were in power. To ask Black Americans about America’s Christian past is more likely to evoke thoughts of what we’ve traditionally thought of as “civil religion,” our sacred obligation to being a “just” nation, characterized by fairness, equality, and liberty.
Samuel P. Perry, a professor of communications at Baylor — and no relation to Samuel L. Perry — argued on Jan. 15 in an essay, “The Capitol siege recalls past acts of Christian nationalist violence,” that the confrontations with federal law enforcement officials at Ruby Ridge, Idaho in 1992 involving white supremacists and Waco, Texas in 1993 involving an extremist Christian sect, together marked a key turning point in uniting white militias with the hard core Christian right:
Christian fundamentalists and white supremacist militia groups both figured themselves as targeted by the government in the aftermath of the standoffs at Ruby Ridge and Waco. As scholar of religion Ann Burlein argues, “Both the Christian right and right-wing white supremacist groups aspire to overcome a culture they perceive as hostile to the white middle class, families, and heterosexuality.”
In an email, Perry followed up on this thought:
“The insurrection or assault on the Capitol involved unlikely coalitions of people in one way. You do not necessarily think of religious evangelicals and fundamentalists being in line with Three Percenters or Proud Boys,” but, he continued, the
narrative of chosenness and superiority made for broader group of support. I would not attribute Jan. 6 to Christian Nationalism alone, but I would not underestimate the involvement of the contingent of Christian Nationalists and the way the rhetoric of Christian Nationalism became a standard trope for Trump.
The emergence of Christian nationalism has in fact prompted the mobilization, in 2019, of a new group, Christians Against Christian Nationalism. The organization has lined up prominent religious leaders to serve as “endorsers,” including the Rev. Dr. Paul Baxley of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Sister Simone Campbell, the executive director of NETWORK and Tony Campolo, founder and leader of the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education.
More than 16,000 ministers, pastors and parishioners have signed a statement that reads in part:
As Christians, our faith teaches us everyone is created in God’s image and commands us to love one another. As Americans, we value our system of government and the good that can be accomplished in our constitutional democracy.
Christian nationalism seeks to merge Christian and American identities, distorting both the Christian faith and America’s constitutional democracy. Christian nationalism demands Christianity be privileged by the State and implies that to be a good American, one must be Christian. It often overlaps with and provides cover for white supremacy and racial subjugation. We reject this damaging political ideology and invite our Christian brothers and sisters to join us in opposing this threat to our faith and to our nation.
There is evidence, Robert Jones argues, that even though both Christian nationalists and, more broadly, white evangelicals, are in decline as a share of the electorate, the two constituencies may become more, not less, assertive. Jones noted that his data suggests that the more a group believes it is under siege from the larger culture, the more activated it becomes.
Some of the clearest evidence of this phenomenon lies in the continually rising level of Election Day turnout among white evangelicals, even as they decline as a share of the electorate.
The trend among white evangelicals Protestants — declining numbers in the general population but stability in the proportion of voters in the exit polls — is basically what we found over the last decade. Compared to 2008, white evangelical Protestants have declined from 21 percent of the population to 15 percent of the population. But the “white born again or evangelical” category has remained stable over this period at approximately one quarter (25 percent) of all voters.
Even more worrisome, in Jones’s view:
It’s also worth noting that even AFTER the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, PRRI’s final favorability poll showed white evangelical Protestant’s favorability toward Trump remained at 62 percent — double the level of Trump’s favorability rating among the public (31 percent).
Unsurprisingly, the assertiveness of white evangelicals, and especially of Christian nationalists, is activating their adversaries in the traditional moderate religious mainstream. The rise of the Christian right is also feeding a tide of secularization that steadily thins the ranks of the religiously observant.
David Campbell, a political scientist at Notre Dame, further elaborates on Jones’s argument, writing in a June 2020 article, “The Perils of Politicized Religion, that
It is not just that the United States is becoming a more secular nation. It is that Americans’ secularization is, at least in part, a backlash to the employment of religion for partisan ends. The widely held perception that religion is partisan has contributed to the turn away from religious affiliation.
In other words, as members of the Christian right have become angrier and more adversarial, some to the point of violence, their decline from dominant to marginal status has bred a provocative resentment that is serving to spur the very secularization processes that so infuriates them. If the evidence of the Capitol attack and its aftermath is any guide, this vicious circle does not bode well for the future.
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