Column: Repeated belief crisis can be solved by helping neighbors
Are we repeating a theological crisis — one that constitutes a threat to divide us?
The U.S. Civil War was the result of an unresolved theological crisis. In his second inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln pointed out that people on both sides “prayed to the same God” and “read the same Bible.” Given those commonalities, it would seem like these people should have been able to resolve the question of slavery without resorting to arms. They could not.
On Jan. 6, we also saw a resorting to arms. Again, Americans killed fellow Americans. In my opinion, the storming of the Capitol and the invasion of the chambers of Congress in an attempt to stop the certification of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’s election was an act of domestic terrorism. Preceding this attack, President Trump rallied his supporters again on the false accusation that voter fraud had stolen the election. With his encouragement to stage “wild” protests, he incited seditious violence to retain his power.
Here is what deeply concerns me: Along with American and Confederate and Trump flags, the attackers carried crosses and signs quoting scripture and banners with the message “Jesus is my Savior; Trump is my President.” So I am asking: Are we repeating a similar theological crisis today — one that constitutes a threat to divide us?
“To those who see this as a Christian endeavor or something to be blessed in the name of Jesus, there is nothing Christian about what we are witnessing today. Nothing!” This is the opinion of the Right Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde, pastor of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., which stands across the street from the White House. Many other prominent Christian leaders across denominations were also quick to denounce the insurrectionists.
However, Andrew L. Whitehead, co-director of the Association of Religion Data Archives, asserts that to understand what motivated many of the demonstrators and rioters in Washington, it is essential to understand Christian nationalism. The following quotes from Whitehead and others are gleaned from a Jan. 6 article published by Sojourners, written by Gina Ciliberto and Stephanie Russell-Kraft. They are shared to help us gain understanding of Christian nationalism.
Whitehead states, “Christian nationalism at its core is this desire to see Christianity be privileged in the public sphere.” He explains that is typically white supremacist, nativist and authoritarian. “In many ways, Christian nationalism is a threat to a pluralistic democracy where we have norms like the peaceful transfer of power.” He and his colleagues previously found that adherence to a Christian nationalist ideology was one of the strongest predictors of a Trump vote.
The notion of restoring American greatness was prevalent in evangelical circles long before Trump arrived on the scene. This is the observation of historian Kristin Kobes Du Mes, author of “Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation.” “The idea that America was founded as a Christian nation has long been promoted in evangelical circles,” says Du Mes. “And so when Trump came along and that was his slogan … he was actually building on rhetoric that was common within evangelical circles.”
Christian nationalism has also been deeply intertwined with white supremacy throughout American history, according to Kelly J. Baker, an American religious historian. He is the author of “Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930.” Like members of the KKK once did, many Trump supporters seek to return to a nation in which white Christians maintained power and privilege. Baker states, “Many people want to say these movements that are nationalist or white supremacist are not Christian movements. But they very much are.”
John Fea, historian and author of “Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump,” believes the mob in Washington was motivated by fear of social and demographic change, the pursuit of power and nostalgia. “Nostalgia is definitely at work here,” says Fea, “it’s tied into the fear that the nostalgic view of America as being largely white and largely Christian is now disappearing.” This fear was expressed in the rage of those who attacked the Capitol. It is a fear that creates insecurity and instability for all of us.
My sharing of these quotes is a rather academic approach. But my hope is that they clarify an understanding that needs to shape our faith stances. Those stances direct what we teach our children, guide our choices and determine our actions. I believe the theology that justified slavery was distorted and evil. I believe the theology that uses lies to exclude some citizens from participating in our democracy to promote the privileged power of some is also distorted and evil. We are again facing an unresolved theological crisis that divides us.
The resolution of this repeated crisis, however, can be advanced by followers of Jesus who love all of their neighbors, tell the truth and work for reconciliation.