Did the January 6th Capitol riot involve Christian “heresy” or “apostasy”?
THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:
The U.S. Senate may have debated whether ex-President Trump bears responsibility for the January 6 riot at U.S. Capitol, but certain conservative Christians focused instead on his followers. They propose that the final day of Trump’s campaign to overturn President Biden’s December 14 Electoral College victory involved religious “heresy” or “apostasy.”
Those leveling this charge are not Never Trump politicians or pundits but devout and conservative Christians. That may seem surprising because in the media and the public mind the “religious right” fuses with devotion to Trump. But such thinkers take doctrine and biblical teaching seriously (unlike religious liberals who define political sins while ignoring theological errors).
A survey by the conservative American Enterprise Institute shows 63% of white evangelicals think Biden’s win was illegitimate, despite the numerous federal and state court rulings that found no evidence for Trump’s claim of a “sacred landslide.” But to what extent were Christians implicated in the Capitol mayhem?
As weeks roll on, we’re learning how a radical fringe planned the Capitol attack in advance and energized the crowd that Trump assembled and addressed. Terry Mattingly of www.getreligion.org distinguishes among four groups: The horde heard Trump demand that Congress and Vice President Pence somehow overthrow Biden’s election; those who obeyed Trump’s plea to march on the Capitol; the militant marchers who only protested outside the Capitol; and the smaller, violent, and foul-mouthed mob that desecrated this potent symbol of democracy across the globe.
Regarding that fourth group, Tony Carnes, editor of nycreligion.info, observed, “no pastors, priests, or other organized religious leaders have been identified so far as part of the riot.” Mattingly wondered where’s the evidence that links a legal protest that evolved into insurrection with “evangelical networks and institutions.” And yet, videos do capture some incongruous Christian symbols and prayers that mingled with the homicide, threats to kill national leaders, injuries to 138 police, vandalism, and theft.
One easy point. The New Testament opposes anarchy and any Christians who committed criminal acts should be prosecuted, as in “be subject to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1) and “honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17). (Trump was no “emperor,” of course; in modern democracy, legitimate sovereignty resides collectively among elected officials and their appointees.)
Was the January 6 riot heretical? World magazine, which is deeply Christian and politically conservative, published cover art of the “Jesus” and “Trump” banners and American flags brandished during the riot with this dramatic headline: “The Insurrectionist Heresy.” The cover story stated that “invading the seat of government as part of a spontaneous mob is antithetical to Scripture.”
The article quoted the Rev. Russell Moore, chief socio-political spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention, who called Christian signs waved by rioters “satanic.” Holly Pivec, author of “A New Apostolic Reformation?,” told the magazine that certain “prophets” brought “shame” upon the Christian faith by announcing that direct messages from God said Trump would and must win.
World Editor in Chief Marvin Olasky thought those living in the “fantasy land” of Trump’s 2020 victory are like his own 1970s “addiction” to the Communist Party. He appealed for prayers that Christians will not be “fooled” into embracing the Trump-centric QAnon conspiracy theory and “other Gnostic heresies that pretend to have secret wisdom.”
Which matches the broader “heresy” charge and Gnostic analysis of Edward Feser, a Catholic traditionalist teaching at Pasadena City College. His blog updated the view of the late political philosopher Eric Voegelin that disastrous Communism, Fascism and Nazism are modern forms of Gnosticism. The early Christian church suppressed this important and variegated heresy (which is fashionable with some religious seekers today). These ancient devotees dealt in secret knowledge and elite wisdom (shades of QAnon), distrusted human reasoning, and shunned the real world and its Old Testament Creator.
Heresy by definition draws elements from orthodox Christianity but spurns it. Feser thinks that in our time “essentially apostate and heretical” movements include the Capitol rioters and QAnon enthusiasts on the Right as well as “critical race theory” and “woke” demands on the Left. He said all these “subvert the Church” and then fill the vacuum left as “the Church loses its self-confidence, its fidelity to its traditional teaching, and its sense of mission. . . . The crisis of the West is the crisis of the Church.”
Others speaking along these lines include the Rev. Rob Schenck, a longtime “religious right” activist and World Evangelical Alliance advisor. In Religion News Service, he warned fellow evangelicals that the recent events constitute a “heretical defection from the faith.” Mark Tooley, president of the conservative Institute on Religion and Democracy and a longtime evangelical operative within the United Methodist Church, brands the January 6 atrocities “pagan” and “demonic.”
Tooley thinks “the thrust of the Capitol assault was a post-Jewish/Christian, neo-pagan will to power based on cultural and racial identity.” He contrasted the “pagan tribal deities” of a nationalism that values people on the basis of birth or race with the American heritage “rooted in the Bible’s assertion that all are created equally by God, all equally bear His image, all merit dignity because of their Creator, and all will be judged by His righteous standards.”
Another response among evangelicals troubled by these weeks is not theologizing but downright bafflement. Collin Hansen, an editor with The Gospel Coalition and formerly at Christianity Today, admits, “I don’t know how this happened. I don’t know how a nation with so many churches allowed this to happen. I don’t know why so many professing Christians wanted this to happen. And I don’t know how it ends.”
Final note: Old-fashioned journalism fairly reports on opposing views. Whether heresy or not, The Guy could find no respected evangelical figure proposing a biblical argument for Trump’s effort to make Biden an illegitimate president by rejecting the Electoral College decision. Please post a comment if you know of such examples.