Fighting Back against the Christian Nationalism Underpinning the Insurrection

Fighting Back against the Christian Nationalism Underpinning the Insurrection February 12, 2021

As many of you who were looking closely (or not really even that closely) will have recognised about the insurrection at the Capitol, there were a good many “Jesus Saves” type flags. Pretty much every lawmaker has condemned the actions of the rioters, even if they are less likely to link them to Trump directly in causal terms. There were seas of Trump flags and a large number of recordings admitting to this causality, however. But, rather interestingly, there was a large presence from the Christian nationalist contingent, and those same lawmakers have made no comment on this connection.

We have seen an uptick in militaristic and oppositional rhetoric from churches and church leaders themselves, although in 2019 a new group Christians Against Christian Nationalism was created attempting to push back against this overt direction of travel. The rhetoric plays into the grievance narrative perpetuated by those on the right, and particularly the theocratic whote evangelical Christian nationalists.

But what is 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” [Source]:

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 wrote:

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.

In an email to a NYT writer, the aforementioned Perry said of the insurrection:

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….

[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.

Indeed, Thomas Edsall, in that fascinating New York Times piece, states (this is an extended quote from him, as he includes blockquotes himself, until the three asterisks):

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.

***

The secular pushback

It’s about time we saw some movement in the other direction. Far too little seems to be openly admitted in Congress (hence why so many Republican senators openly defend Trump but harbour very different private views. However, there are some shoots of hope. We got a little insight into an openly nonreligious lawmaker when Congressman Jared Huffman from California stated in an address (HONORING RELIGIOUS FREEDOM DAY; Congressional Record Vol. 167, No. 8Extensions of Remarks – January 13, 2021):

The past four years have made clear that there are those who would choose to distort the true definition of religious freedom, in order to allow the proliferation of discrimination under the guise of what they refer to as “religious liberty”. The result of this callous and malignant effort culminated a week and a half ago with the storming of the United States Capitol building by White Christian Nationalist groups allied with the President, and the deaths of five Americans. The evidence of this fact is made clear by the thousands of “Jesus” signs, banners, and flags that flew beside those bearing the President’s name, and those representing the White Supremacist movement.

From the erosion of the Johnson Amendment, to the numerous executive orders issued which have served to undermine the rights of women and workers, the damage done to true religious freedom by a malicious administration, is drastic and undeniable. However, I stand before you today to pledge that with the aid of this body, my colleagues and I in the Congressional Freethought Caucus will do everything within our Constitutional powers to correct this distortion of America’s “first freedom”.

It is a new day for our nation. The discriminating policies of the last four years are no more. I look forward to working with President- elect Biden, Vice President-elect Harris to correct the harmful policies enacted by the Trump administration. On this Religious Freedom Day, I call upon my colleagues in the House and Senate to pass the Do No Harm

The Washington Post published a story on Nov. 9, 2017 with the headline, “This lawmaker isn’t sure that God exists. Now, he’s finally decided to tell people“:

“Huffman said that at the moment, he’s a ‘nonbeliever, a skeptic,’ but he’s open to having his mind changed. ‘I suppose you could say I don’t believe in God. The only reason I hesitate is — unlike some humanists, I’m not completely closing the door to spiritual possibilities. We all know people who have had experiences they believe are divine … and I’m open to something like that happening.’”

CNS News reports, in their piece “‘Nonbeliever’ Congressman: Rioters Who Stormed Capitol Carried ‘Thousands of “Jesus” Signs, Banners and Flags’“:

Huffman is a co-founder of the Congressional Freethought Caucus. In a “Dear Colleague” letter to other members of Congress, Huffman said that one of the goals of this caucus was: “To promote public policy on the basis of reason, evidence, science, and strong moral values.” Another was: ‘To protect the secular character of our government by adhering to the strict Constitutional principle of the separation of church and state.”

The US needs more of these sorts of lawmakers.

White supremacy and Christian nationalism: an integrated history but now in decline

The battle, though, looks to be long and hard; this movement has been historically ingrained. As Edsall also wrote in his NYT piece:

Robert Jones, the founder and C.E.O. of P.R.R.I., a nonprofit organization that conducts research on religion and politics, argues in his book “White Too Long: 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.”…

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.

Jones himself states:

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….

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).

The silver lining is that the more adversarial and outspoken such Christian nationalists and evangelicals become, arguably in their cultural death throes, the stronger the counter-reaction to them is. This presents grist to the mill for secularists. This lends itself to a political and cultural polarisation, but one where the louder, more repulsive evangelical white Christian nationalist side is in a seemingly terminal decline.

Perhaps those who most annoyingly shout the loudest have the shortest time booked on the stage.


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