In the days following the January 6 insurrection, a lot of us tried to make sense of the violence and chaos we watched unfold on live TV from the US Capitol. For as unpredictable as were the days following the election, the scenes of an enraged mob attacking police officers, chanting for the Vice President’s death, and waving symbols of national and religious allegiance defied even the most pessimistic expectations. In the months since, we’ve learned more about the motivations which drove the seditionists and which animate ongoing attempts to disenfranchise voters around the country. And, if we’re paying attention, Christians – and pastors who lead white Christians especially – ought to be rattled by what we’re figuring out.
So, who participated in or supported last year’s insurrection? In a thoroughly researched article for The Atlantic Barton Gellman investigates a number of possible motivating factors. But only “one meaningful correlation emerged. Other things being equal, insurgents were much more likely to come from a county where the white share of the population was in decline. For every one-point drop in a county’s percentage of non-Hispanic whites from 2015 to 2019, the likelihood of an insurgent hailing from that county increased by 25 percent. This was a strong link, and it held up in every state.” Additional research drew out another disturbing nuance. “Respondents who believed in the Great Replacement theory, regardless of their views on anything else, were nearly four times as likely as those who did not to support the violent removal of the president.” This theory, popular in the right wing media, states that the day is rapidly approaching when white people will not only no longer represent an overall majority in the country, but “African American people or Hispanic people in our country will eventually have more rights than whites.”
In other words, those most supportive of the violent overthrow of a democratically elected government are white people from regions experiencing demographic change who believe they are losing their rights to people of color.
Animating this resentment has been the former president’s lying insistence that he won the election. In reporting done by National Public Radio, Dr. Carol Anderson connects Trump’s “big lie” with his birtherism conspiracy theories during the Obama presidency. According to Anderson, “This is about, ‘My nation is about the real Americans. And all of those folks aren’t real Americans.’ It is so vile. It is so racist. And it works. That’s the thing, it works.” When she says that the tactics work, Anderson is thinking not simply about the insurrection but about the successful attempts by many state legislatures during the last year to make voting more difficult for their citizens. We have, says Anderson, “these legislatures write these laws figuring out not only how to stop Black people, brown people, indigenous people from voting, but also how to lower the guardrails of democracy that prevented Trump from being able to overturn the results in these states.”
According to the Times, the “Capitol riot continues in statehouses across the country, in a bloodless, legalized form that no police officer can arrest and that no prosecutor can try in court.” Almost three dozen voting laws, many in battleground states, which “empower state legislatures to sabotage their own elections and overturn the will of their voters,” have been passed in recent months. As should be clear by now, these laws will disproportionately impact citizens of color.
So the January 6th insurrection and the systematic attempts to disenfranchise voters are motivated by racial resentment and the desire to consolidate white power. But why should Christians be especially concerned? Shouldn’t we interpret these events through a civic lens?
This is undoubtedly a civic crisis, but recent research by scholars like Samuel L. Perry and Andrew L. Whitehead show how Christianity has been utilized by those who want to remake the country, often through authoritarian tactics, as a haven for white power. In a new article Perry writes that “Christian nationalist ideology — particularly when it is held by white Americans — is fundamentally anti-democratic because its goal isn’t ‘government of the people, by the people, and for the people.’ Its goal is power.” Whitehead and Perry’s research shows that white Americans who support Christian nationalist ideology also favor making voting more difficult. Those surveyed were asked whether they’d support “a policy requiring persons to pass a basic civics test in order to vote or a law that would disenfranchise certain criminal offenders for life.” Such policies hearken back to Jim Crow laws which kept Black citizens from voting. “Why? Almost certainly because these arrangements currently give white, rural, conservative Americans an electoral advantage even when they are numerical minorities. Again, the goal is power, not fairness or democracy.”
The research into Christian nationalism is nuanced and shows, in some cases, that the more people participate in the historic practices of Christianity the less likely they are to affirm Christian nationalism. However, this leaves many more nominal Christians susceptible to this undemocratic and racialized ideology. The result is not simply the stomach-turning use of Christian symbols and language at the Capitol insurrection, but also the more subtle ways that white Christians support efforts to disenfranchise their fellow citizens.
And this is where we need to be precise. Many of the people these white Christians want to disenfranchise are their Christian sisters and brothers. Not that their efforts are more tolerable when they impact those who don’t share our faith; Jesus’ teaching on neighbor-love doesn’t allow for that ugly distinction. But the racialized grasp for power is made more evident when we can see that those affected are fellow members of the Body of Christ. Christian nationalists are not acting from their identity as members of Christ’s Body but from imaginations infected by racial resentment and visions of white, nationalistic power.
In the coming months and years we’ll hear a lot about the fight for voting rights. The events of January 6 will be debated and different meanings – traitorous insurrection or patriotic intervention – will be ascribed to them. What will typically be missed, though, is that many white Christians can hold the beliefs common to Christian nationalism, can nurse feelings of racial resentment and utter disregard for neighbors and Christian siblings of color, and simultaneously and happily participate in the ministries of their local congregations. They’ll be able to sing the hymns, amen the sermons, serve in the soup kitchen, and chaperone the youth retreat without their anti-Christian inclinations being disturbed in the least. And this is because their pastors and ministry leaders are interpreting these events in only the most surface of ways- as civic debates about which good people can hold different opinions. They will miss the truer story, which is that the Christians in their spiritual care are captive to racist and nationalistic ideologies that actively harm neighbor and kin.
However, for those willing to dig into deeper truths, a risky opportunity opens up. We have, in the next couple of years, a chance to invite people to renounce their idols and ideologies. This is not a call to partisanship. No, this invitation is better and way harder. With the psalmist we’ll ask, “How long will you love delusions and seek false gods?” (Psalm 4:2) There is no gloating in this question, no shaming. Broken-heartedness and confession must characterize any attempt to lead people into the truth of the gospel and solidarity with the Body. We’ll remember that January 6 commemorates not only an insurrection but the miracle of Epiphany, yet more evidence of God’s unexpected grace displayed in the most unlikely ways.
The specific nature of this discipleship will necessarily look different in each congregation and community. We can trust the Holy Spirit for the contextual wisdom which will produce fruit of repentance. Still, for those willing to risk the invitation, here are a few suggestions. First, the work begins with clarity in our own minds about its specifically Christian nature. While others try to frame the struggle for civil rights in strictly political terms, we will remember the flesh and blood humanity whose well-being is threatened both by the lawlessness of January 6 and the unjust laws marching though legislatures throughout the country. The challenge is one of discipleship so it’s our responsibility to take it on. Second, we’ll count the cost before moving forward. Christian nationalism is powerful and its forming impact has been incredibly thorough. If my own experience is at all representative, we need to be prepared to be written off as misguided, partisan, and wolves in sheep’s clothing. Jesus prepared us for this sort of thing so we don’t need to be afraid when the slander begins. Finally, we’ll be sober about how long this will take. The idols which have recently been unmasked are not new. We won’t preach this false worship away with a single sermon. A book club won’t be enough to rescue people from their warped allegiances. We’ll need all of the Spirit’s gifts and power and each of the pastoral and congregational resources discerned by the church over many generations. Thankfully these gifts and resources exist and are ready for us to apply them to this particular idolatry.
In his article, Gellman writes about January 6 that “the chaos wrought on that day was integral to a coherent plan. In retrospect, the insurrection takes on the aspect of rehearsal.” The events of a year ago will not remain in the past; they are a glimpse into a reality many of us had missed but which will continue to exert great and terrible damage. The devastation will be inflicted not only on our democracy but upon our Christian sisters and brothers as well. Are we prepared to stand in the way? To disciple people away from the idolatry of Christian nationalism and into real solidarity with the Body of Christ?
May God give us the wisdom to understand our times and the courage to respond with the love of Christ no matter the cost.