Stop separating ‘good’ Christians from Trump supporters
A year on from the Capitol Hill riots, US democracy is still under attack – and the media’s misunderstanding of religious values isn’t helping
One of those unspoken social rules I’ve never been very good at observing is that new years are supposed to be greeted with optimism, and this year is no different. Here we are at the beginning of 2022, one year after a violent right-wing insurrection aimed at overturning the legitimate results of the US presidential election, and I just don’t see much reason to be optimistic about the immediate future of American democracy.
As Religion Dispatches recently concluded: “Whether the first anniversary of [the 6 January 2021 attack on the Capitol] will bring further violence is unknown, but what is knowable is that, without accountability, there will be no peace.” As the article explains, contrasting the charges and sentences handed out to individual rioters with the lack of consequences for the architects of the insurrection – not least Donald Trump himself – shows how the US is failing on the issue of accountability.
But it’s not just that we’re failing to hold wealthy, powerful and politically well-connected criminals (such as Trump, Steve Bannon and Roger Stone) accountable for inciting a mob to disrupt what should have been a routine peaceful transfer of power. As a society, we are also failing to fully investigate and confront the root causes of the epidemic of both political and religious violence, of which the 6 January insurrection is the most disturbing expression to date.
To be sure, many commentators have noted the prevalence of Christian prayers, symbols, songs and rhetoric in the events of 6 January. These took place after a Jericho March event, where many of the same actors invoked the notion of divinely ordained conquest in their efforts to “stop the steal”.
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But journalists and commentators, particularly in the legacy media, are failing us in their refusal to push past their pro-Christian biases and take these political actions seriously as Christianity. Not as a perversion of Christianity, but as a very real, powerful and broad expression of the faith, with deep historical roots, which has been present in one form or another since at least the fourth century, when Christianity became deeply entangled with Roman imperial power.
This is the Christianity of divine authority and violent apocalyptic ‘justice’ […] of European colonialism and American white supremacy
This is the Christianity of divine authority and violent apocalyptic ‘justice’, of Christ as ruler, of European colonialism and American white supremacy. And this Christianity is not less authentic than turn-the-other-cheek Christianity just because we find it less congenial.
As I have argued many times, the dismissal of authoritarian Christianity as ‘fake’ Christianity only serves to reinforce Christian hegemony by perpetuating the equation of ‘Christian’ with ‘good’ in the common imagination, an equation we don’t make for members of any other religious or non-religious demographic. Muslims, for example, are often demonised, while atheists face social stigma in vast swathes of the US.
In equating ‘Christian’ with ‘good’, commentators elide the real issue: that Christian supremacy and privilege are every bit as real as (for instance) white privilege and male privilege, and are part of the unjust social hierarchies that still pervade our society and need to be dismantled for equity to be achieved.
To be sure, Christian privilege isn’t distributed evenly among all Christians. Those who benefit most are white Protestants, and, unsurprisingly, it is white Protestants – above all, evangelicals – who make up the backbone of the Christian nationalist extremist movement in the States.
Hard truths that are repressed will only fester and re-emerge in yet more virulent forms, and that is why facing them head on is crucial. Which means that media framing matters a great deal.
So-called ‘religious values’
To illustrate the current prevailing framing – and what’s wrong with it – take Jennifer Rubin’s recent Washington Post column, entitled ‘Trump idolatry has undermined religious faith’. In it, Rubin laments “the damage the MAGA movement has wrought to religious values” (italics in original).
In other words, she relegates authoritarian attitudes, racist and anti-immigrant sentiment and a willingness to destroy democracy in order to hold on to power, to a position outside the category of “religious values” – even though she has already (correctly) referred to Trump’s Christian nationalist base as moved by an “apocalyptic vision”.
Later in the piece, she doubles down, referring to “the MAGA crowd’s very unreligious cruelty toward immigrants”, as if religion was always pro-social, pro-immigrant and pro-democracy. In fact, there are no such things as universal “religious values” – nor are the “traditional religious values” she refers to later in the same paragraph universal.
The category of ‘religious values’ must always be understood contextually, and what the vast majority of white evangelicals (and other conservative Christians) value is the power to implement their theocratic agenda. Christianity can be (and often is) anti-pluralist.
It is also true that different religious values within the same religious community may become operationalised in different circumstances, and that they may be in conflict with one another. Rubin disingenuously interprets Donald Trump Jr’s statement that turning the other cheek has “gotten us nothing” as a total rejection of “the teachings of Jesus” by Trump supporters.
But the Bible – including the New Testament – leaves plenty of room for apocalyptic judgement and violence, for a future time when the ‘enemies of God’ receive their punishment. That cruel, punitive vision of ‘divine justice’ is also a ‘religious value’ – a specifically Christian value that one must recognise, alongside turning the other cheek.
Rubin worries that if our current trajectory continues, “we will wind up with a country rooted in neither democratic principles nor religious values. That would be a mean, violent and intolerant future few of us would want to experience.”
I agree that we are headed for a country unmoored from democratic principles, but to equate those principles with the meaninglessly broad category of ‘religious values’, or to see the latter as an essential pillar of American democracy, is pernicious nonsense.
And if the US’s elite pundits and media gatekeepers refuse to see that some religious values, rather than helping to make things better, can actually be a problem for democracy, they’ll be doing their part to keep the country on the road to an authoritarian future.
This column, originally published in Religion Dispatches, has been edited for length.
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