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The Fusion of Christianity and White Nationalism

The Fusion of Christianity and White Nationalism January 27, 2021

Earlier this month, I wrote about the “Jericho March”, a pro-Trump election protest that promised fascist rhetoric wrapped in Christian symbolism.

In the aftermath of the day, which became an insurrection against the U.S. government, the Jericho March was overshadowed. But where did the participants go?

The answer, it turns out, is they were on the front lines. According to news reports, the violent Christianity of the Jericho Marchers was on full display among the rioters who stormed the Capitol:

As the mob swarmed the Capitol steps, climbed the inaugural scaffolding and even scaled the building like it was a gym climbing wall, the now commonplace red, white and blue “Trump 2020” and “Make America Great Again” flags flew alongside flags and banners with a range of Christian symbols. A wooden cross was carried past the Capitol building as well. Some of the identifiable flags were:

• The Christian flag, an ecumenical white flag with a blue field and a red Latin cross, was carried by one rioter on to the floor of the House of Representatives even as guns were drawn to keep them out;

• At least two flags featuring the icthys, the outline of a fish adopted by early Christians;

• An American flag altered to read “Make America Godly Again” on its white stripes;

• A white flag with a green pine tree and the words “An Appeal to Heaven;”

• And blowing prominently in the foreground as the mob kicked in a Capitol door was a red, white and blue flag that proclaimed, “Jesus is my savior” and “Trump is my President” on either sides of an elongated American flag.

In addition to these flags, there was also at least one yellow banner reading “Jesus saves” seen on the Capitol steps, and multiple articles of clothing touting Christianity including a “Jesus” baseball cap and a jacket with sleeves printed with the words “Cry to God.”

Some of the rioters at the Capitol were yelling prayers to Jesus as they stormed the building, according to this article by Jack Jenkins on Religion News Service:

[Jenna] Ryan also livestreamed herself as she entered the Capitol with other insurrectionists. As she crossed the threshold, she can be heard declaring “Here we are, in the name of Jesus! In the name above all names!”

…According to The Washington Post, when staffers who work for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell barricaded themselves in a room to hide from the rampaging mob, they could hear a woman praying loudly outside the door for “the evil of Congress to be brought to an end.”

Even the Proud Boys, a neo-fascist militia, took the time for a mid-insurrection prayer break:

As they approached the Capitol, Proud Boys — some donned in camouflage or military-style helmets, others gripping weapons such as a baseball bat — paused for a moment of prayer.

As they knelt, a man with a bullhorn — his words captured on a livestream — prayed that God would “soften the hearts” of government officials who have “turned harshly away” from God, asking for “reformation and revival.”

He concluded: “We pray that you provide all of us with courage and strength to both represent you and represent our culture well.”

What we witnessed on January 6 was a bizarre spectacle, but it was no aberration. It’s the culmination of a worldview that the American religious right has spent decades cultivating, and it will likely define our politics for years to come.

The first step, which has been ongoing since the civil rights era, was the melding of conservative Christian churches with the Republican party until there was no daylight left between them. The GOP became a theocratic institution, and the churches became vehicles for a partisan political agenda.

It was a match made in heaven. Both institutions spurned rational thought and expert opinion; both were committed to upholding racial and gender hierarchies; both worshipped wealth and power; and both idolized a semi-mythical past of white male dominance. Most important, both held an ultranationalist view of America, treating it as uniquely virtuous or blessed among all the world’s countries.

It was a cult-in-waiting, ready-made for a strongman like Donald Trump to step in and take it over. And the religious right hailed him the same way that every cult hails their messiah.

But when Trump lost the 2020 election, it was a severe blow to conservative egos. To cope with the cognitive dissonance, they’re spinning a new lost-cause mythology. They’ve always viewed themselves as the only rightful rulers of America, whatever the vote count says. It was only a small additional step to persuade themselves that victory was stolen from them, and that they’re justified in taking the country back by force.

What happened at the Capitol was the first major breakout of this belief:

The presence of Christian rituals, symbols and language was unmistakable on Wednesday in Washington. There was a mock campaign banner, “Jesus 2020,” in blue and red; an “Armor of God” patch on a man’s fatigues; a white cross declaring “Trump won” in all capitals. All of this was interspersed with allusions to QAnon conspiracy theories, Confederate flags and anti-Semitic T-shirts.

The blend of cultural references, and the people who brought them, made clear a phenomenon that has been brewing for years now: that the most extreme corners of support for Mr. Trump have become inextricable from some parts of white evangelical power in America. Rather than completely separate strands of support, these groups have become increasingly blended together.

What this means is that white Christians are dropping the pretense. Until recently, they considered it necessary to at least say they value equal rights and democracy. But four years of Trump made them comfortable with openly embracing white supremacy and authoritarian rule. They believe God is on their side, and that’s the only justification they need.

Needless to say, this is dire news to the few evangelical Christians who retain some vestige of intellectual independence – or who recognize that becoming the faith of sedition and white supremacy is going to ruin them. One such is an essay by Michael Brown, who insists: “No! It Was Not Jesus-Loving Evangelicals Who Vandalized the Capitol“.

In it, Brown admits that “many… Christians have become caught up in a partisan political spirit” and “an unhealthy mingling of patriotism with the worship of Jesus”. Still, he insists that the violence at the Capitol doesn’t reflect badly on Christianity as a whole, because the insurrectionists didn’t do their organizing on “solid evangelical sites”, but “extremist” websites that merely “profess to be Christian”.

It’s not as if he has any better defense to offer, but it’s still incredible to see this naked No True Scotsman argument: that the people waving Christian flags and yelling praise to Jesus as they battered down the doors of Congress don’t count as real Christians, because they didn’t use the right websites to organize. Of course, this is an apologist shell game: any website they used would, in Brown’s eyes, become one of those that merely “profess” Christianity.

The more honest view is that conservative Christianity is, and always has been, about theocratic domination and worldly power. Its American incarnation was born in the era of slavery, its theology forged in a crucible of white supremacy. And despite America’s tentative progress toward racial reconciliation, right-wing Christianity still bears the stamp of its origin. It retains the attitude that equality is evil and that people who look and think like them are entitled to hold all power.

According to a study by Paul Djupe, even when controlling for demographics and political partisanship, conservative Christians score highly in “social dominance orientation” – a metric which measures agreement with statements like, “If certain groups stayed in their place, we would have fewer problems.”

Djupe says:

Social dominance is inherent in the Christian nationalist project. They believe in a social order with (white) Christians at the top. Though their advocacy may be packaged as seeking protection from the state to simply live their lives, the data indicate otherwise.

No one better embodies this attitude than Josh Hawley, the Republican senator who, more than any other, has stood with Trump’s mob against democracy. Katherine Stewart writes about his openly dominionist worldview:

In multiple speeches, an interview and a widely shared article for Christianity Today, Mr. Hawley has explained that the blame for society’s ills traces all the way back to Pelagius — a British-born monk who lived 17 centuries ago. In a 2019 commencement address at the King’s College, a small conservative Christian college devoted to “a biblical worldview,” Mr. Hawley denounced Pelagius for teaching that human beings have the freedom to choose how they live their lives and that grace comes to those who do good things, as opposed to those who believe the right doctrines.

…The fifth-century church fathers were right to condemn this terrifying variety of heresy, Mr. Hawley argued: “Replacing it and repairing the harm it has caused is one of the challenges of our day.”

To the nationalist-fascist-white supremacist Christian right, “freedom” is a snarl word. It means a world where roles aren’t set in stone at birth, where people can decide for themselves what to believe and what makes their lives meaningful. Down that road lies sexual liberation, free inquiry, multiculturalism – everything that we view as a blessing and an achievement, but they view as a curse.

It won’t be easy to defeat them. After four years of Trump, the right has sunk deeply into their own bubble. Enmeshed in conspiracy theories, listening only to their own loudest voices, and accustomed to demonizing their opposition as illegitimate and evil, they’ve grown extreme, even violent. Convincing them to change course is likely to be a fool’s errand.

The good news is that they’re a minority, and a dying one at that. What’s more, the January 6 insurrection made it impossible to ignore how radical and dangerous they’ve become. They’re being scrutinized and exposed in the media as never before, including in outlets that rarely offer any sharp critique of religious ideas. We can win, not by persuading them, but by persuading the rest of society that their ideas are violent and hateful and belong only to the past.

Image: Two Pro-Trump protesters outside the U.S. Capitol holding a “Jesus Saves” sign, January 6, 2021. Credit: Tyler Merbler via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0


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