Category Archives: Politics & Religion

A History of Christian Violence

 

The insurrection at Capitol Hill in January of 2021 was by no means the first act of Christian violence in the United States. According to Thomas Edsall, Samuel P. Perry, a professor at Baylor University and no relation to Samuel L. Perry who I quoted in early posts,  pointed out to Thomas Edsall that the invasion of the Capitol by insurrectionists reminded him of “past acts of Christian violence.” American history, he said, is crammed full with such acts but he mentioned one, the confrontation between federal law enforcement officials at Waco Texas in 1993 with a group of white supremacists that were part of an extremist Christian sect. Perry believes that was a seminal moment in which the hard Christian right were united with white supremacist militias. Many see that time  as the crucial moment  when militias in America “grew up.”  But they grew up to be monsters. From that moment they became dangerous. According to Perry, both groups saw themselves “as targeted by the government in the aftermath of the standoffs at Ruby Ridge and Waco.” 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.” Numerous other similar incidents occurred in the US since then, including of course the occupying of the State Capitol in Michigan last year followed by the Trump insurrection.

 

The scholar of religion, Ann Burlein, concluded “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.”

Samuel Perry told Edsall this in an email to him:

“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 conjoining of Christian nationalism and politics in the US has produced a particularly nasty concoction. I think it is far from over. That is the real point. Where is this headed and when will it end?

 

Christian Tribal Power

 

I am still trying to make sense of all those prayers and Christian symbols I saw at the Capitol the day of the insurrection. What do they mean and what do they tell us about the matrimony of politics and religion?

Paul D. Miller, a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, made these  claims in an email to Thomas Edsall of the New York Times:

“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.”

 

According to Benjamin Lynerd, a professor of Political Science at Christopher Newport University and the author of Republican Theology: The Civil Religion of American Evangelicals,” Christian Nationalism involves

“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.”

 

Professor Lynerd asserts, that there is a difference,

“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.”

 

When theology is used to cloak a grab for political power the religion is far from pure. Then it has jumped into the fray and got soiled by it.

As Robert Jones said in an email to Edsall:

“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.”

 

Jones also said, those religious symbols used on Capitol hill by the insurrectionists:

“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.”

Like I said before, the deep connections between anti-black racism in the United States are deeply disturbing. No mild words of religious comfort can gloss them over. The same is true of the religious trappings of the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6, 2021. Samuel Perry in his email to Edsall said that when white Americans are asked about taking the country back they mean that the Christian character of the country should be restored, and by that they mean “they want to take the country back to the days when they (white, native-born, conservatives) were in power.” But if you asked blacks the same question they would mean, a return to a ““civil religion” where there was a sacred obligation to be a “just” nation, characterized by fairness, equality, and liberty.

That mixture of religion and white supremacist politics is incredibly toxic and dangerous. That is what Trump tried to bring about and in that battle his greatest allies were Evangelical Christians. To the extent that this is true, the Evangelicals have been besmirched with their leader’s slime. By leader of course, I mean Donald Trump, not Jesus Christ. This is my conclusion: Those Evangelical Christians that followed Trump to the bitter end, gave up on Jesus a long time ago, in favour of their own bully in the White House. Trump became their Savior supplanting the one on the cross.

Blood and Apocalypse: Christian White Nationalism

 

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, also noted that many of the insurrectionists at the Washington Capitol on January 6, 2021 made it clear by their actions and signs that they supported Christian nationalism. This is what he told Thomas Edsall of the New York Times in a personal email to him:

“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.”

You put them all together and you get Christian Nationalism.

Professor Gorski did not claim that he could tell by watching that a majority of the insurrectionists were Christian nationalists. That would be very difficult to discern from a distance. Yet, there is no denying that they were a substantial presence. Professor Gorski told Edsall in his email that the Christian nationalist movement was a loose confederation of people and institutions that shared,

“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.”

 

Professor Gorski had some disturbing things to say about Christian Nationalists. He distinguished them from more traditional Christians. As he said in his email to Edsall,

“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.”

Anyone who watched and listened to the Christians on the hill during the insurrection would, I think, find the above description apt. And disturbing. That sounds more like Christian Nationalists than Sunday school at the local Baptist Church.

Is that your kind of Christianity? I don’t know about you, but I find it disturbing.

Authoritarian Christianity

Evangelical Christians rightly complain when their religious freedom is attacked. But trying to impose their religious is not freedom. That is authoritarianism.

Gerardo Marti, a professor of sociology at Davidson College, in an email to Edsall of the New York Times, said that modern American evangelicals have shifted to a more militant approach to imposing their religious views:

“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.”

 

For that reason, Marti said 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.”

In other words, many Christian Nationalists have moved towards authoritarianism. They want their religious views to be enshrined in laws. This is not freedom of religion. This is freedom to impose religion on others.

No better example could be found than the recent insurrectionists on Capitol Hill. What better example could one think of than rioting at the Capitol in a country that is still (to some extent) democratic? That is certainly not a case of trying to persuade; that is trying to impose. That is what authoritarianism is all about.

When Religion Becomes Evil

It must have been disconcerting to see the rioters a the Capitol in Washington on January 6, 2021.  Seeing Christians pray and then run through the halls yelling “Hang Mike Pence” must have been chilling. Yet, I am surprise how few Christians have mentioned those images. Why are they so  quiet? Do they still support Trump so steadfastly? Evangelical Christians are among his most fervent supporters.

I have always taken the position that when religion leads to hate, it is not genuine religion at all. Hate makes religion heretical.  However, my views are not mainstream. My views are far out on the fringes.

As Charles Kimball, a professor of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma-Norman, wrote a book called “When Religion Becomes Evil,” in which he said,

“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.”

 

I have heard such statements many times, but I am not sure such statements are accurate. It is undeniable that religion has produced many good things as well evil. It has been a force for both good and evil. Religion has often in the past led to violence and murder while it has also led to some of the best things humans have ever done.

The effect of religion is complex. We should remember that. Life is rarely simple. But perhaps religion show stay away from politics. It might be good for both!

Christian White  Supremacists

 

 

One more remarkable aspect of the rioters at the Capitol on January 6, 2021 was that most of them were white. Not only that, but many of them were White Supremacists who had been encouraged by Trump to attend. Many of them claimed to be Christians as well.  Many of them, claimed they were there because Trump had invited them. The close ties between white supremacists and Christian nationalists have deep historical roots.

The founder and C.E.O. of P.R.R.I., a non-profit organization that conducts research on religion and politics, Robert Jones, claimed 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 agendaThe norms of white supremacy have become deeply and broadly integrated into white Christian identity, operating far below the level of consciousness…The story of just how intractably white supremacy has become embedded in the DNA of American Christianity.”

 

As I said, often the offspring of marriage of politics and religion are ugly monstrosities. They are sometimes ugly but we don’t realize it because we have become so accustomed to it. We don’t even notice it.

That does not mean that all American Christians adopted this point of view. Some like the 21 Baptist leaders that included Steve Harmon, professor of theology at Gardner-Webb University School of Divinity said this on the day following the riot on the hill in Baptist News a mainstream publication:

“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.”

The fact is however, that the violent and disruptive views of the evangelicals I have been mentioning are common among American and Canadian evangelicals. There are so many that support the more extreme views that it would not be fair to characterize them as fringe views. Trump has always received broad support among evangelicals. Polls have consistently showed that about 80% of American evangelicals have supported Trump and continue to support Trump even though his racist statements and positions are pretty plain to see. Trump himself often admitted they were his staunchest supporters. To me the reasons for this have always been mysterious, but no less real for that.

The close ties between racism and evangelicalism are disturbing and should not be swept under a carpet.

 

Messiahs don’t come around every year.

 

Donald Trump called his followers to the Washington Capitol on January 6, 2021 and like dutiful followers they came. They came to put a wrecking ball to what they considered false government and fraud. Their spiritual leader called them, so Trumpists arrived from all over American to the Washington Capitol as he had asked. He asked them to “fight for their country.” Was he being metaphorical?

To his faithful followers they were on a religious mission. It was their sacred duty to come to the Capitol to defend the leader of the faith and the country. It was a holy cause. So, men and women who would normally be going to work, their Bridge club, or doing laundry, or sending their kids to school, turned up instead in Washington ready to riot. Many of them actually planned a riot. After all, as one of their posters said: “Jesus is my Savior; Trump is my president.”

 

And, like so many sacred causes in the past they were deceived by their leader. He told them to march to the Capitol and he would be right there with them. That was a lie. He stayed back at the White House where he could be safe to watch the action on his big screen TV instead. To his followers it was a sacred cause. To Donald Trump is was entertainment.

Now you might ask why would anyone believe a New York real estate developer who had a notorious aversion to the truth?  That didn’t matter to the true believers. The leader called; they came. After all, 2000 years ago,  who would believe a young man who appeared to be the son of a poor carpenter?

 

But Trump was no Jesus. In the case of Trump, the true believers were sad fools. We pity them. They made a horrible choice. Some of them like the QAnon Shaman with his wide grin, bare muscular chest, coon skin hat, horns, spear, and face painted with the colors of the American flag, came all the way from my “home” state of Arizona. He thought if he got into trouble, as he did, his spiritual leader and savior Donald Trump would pardon him or save him in some other manner. The Shaman was sadly deluded. That’s what his “true belief’ was—a sad delusion. Too late he realized he had been a fool.

That doesn’t mean all such beliefs are delusions. Not all prophets are false, but certainly enough of them are false to make us wary. We should recognize that and use some critical judgment. Messiahs don’t come around every year. Or even every four years

Where do Mennonites Stand on the War for Trump?

 

Many Christians, including Mennonites among whom I was raised, have always argued that Christians have a duty to turn the other cheek. They advocate for non-violence. In fact, many of them, like my father, conscientiously objected to World War II. He worked in what were called essential services. He worked in a mine in Flin Flon Manitoba during the war. Of course, I realize that many Christians, including many Mennonites have taken a different interpretation of their Christian duties, and have instead joined their fellow citizens in wars. It is all a matter of interpretation of the sacred text and conscience.

In the U.S., the president of the Family Research Council and a leading figure among conservative evangelicals, Tony Perkins, said the following in a Politico interview in 2018, when he was asked what happened to turning the other cheek:

“You know, you only have two cheeks. Look, Christianity is not all about being a welcome mat which people can just stomp their feet on.”

It is clear on what side of the divide many Trumpers reside.

This leads me to the next question: on what side do Mennonites stand?  Would they have joined the melee pummelling police and guards?

The Christian Holy War for Trump

 

Many American pastors, including particularly evangelical or fundamentalist pastors have endorsed Trump since 2015 and continue to do so,  reinforcing Trump’s view that he could kill people and not lose support. On January 6, 2021 that was clearly demonstrated. The only difference is that Trump did not have to do the actual killing or fighting. Like a true Mafia Don he just asked his followers to do it and they followed his instructions. Trump asked them to fight to defend the country and they did exactly that.

 

One of the American pastors was conservative evangelical pastor Greg Lock the founder of Global Vision Bible Church in Mount Juliet, Tennessee. He wrote this in his book This Means War, ““We are one election away from losing everything we hold dear.” The battle, Locke continued, is “against everything evil and wicked in the world.” Thomas Edsall of the New York Times interpreted these remarks this way: “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.”

The day before the riot at the capitol Greg Locke tweeted his faithful followers in a manner not unlike Trump but with religious language:

 “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.”

 Obviously, these are not the views of all Christians, but frankly I am shocked by how many feel this way. I wonder if police are considering charging  any of these pastors with inciting violence.  Their language is certainly incendiary.

Sometimes the marriage of politics and religion breeds monsters.

 

Christian Nationalism on Capitol Hill

 

In my recent blog post, Thomas B. Edsall from the New York Times pointed out that the recent insurrection on Capitol Hill could not be understood except as an act of Christian Nationalism.  The rioters were not there to fight for their religion, they were there to impose their religion on others. That is precisely what the American Constitution and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms try to block in their different ways.

As Edsall said,

“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)”

 

It may have gone unnoted by some, but not by me and others who watched the events unfold. First, I heard prayers uttered (blasphemously in my opinion) inside the Capitol by the insurrectionists. A number of the participants bowed their heads to acknowledge the prayer. I also saw numerous signs carried by rioters that made their religious affiliation clear. For example, one sign mimicked perfectly the Republican poster that read, “Trump and Pence 2020 on a sign that showed the exact same colors, and said, “Jesus and Trump 2020.”

 

Samuel Perry one of the authors of the book emailed Edsall the following statement: “The Capitol insurrection was as Christian nationalist as it gets.” Perry actually expanded on this in his email to Edsall, as follows:

“Obviously, the best evidence would be the use of sacred symbols during the insurrection such as the cross, Christian flag, Jesus saves signs, 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.”

Perry explained in his email to Edsall that taken together 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.”

There is no doubt that the insurrection had a religious taint. It was striking to see. What we all learned that day is that the commingling of religion and politics can be a dangerous thing. That does not mean it is always like that. For example, Christian pastors were instrumental in England in getting slavery abolished. But when religion gets violent or oppressive ion the political sphere, all of us had better look out.