Facing up to White Christianity’s Role in the US Capitol Assault on January 6th
An excerpt from the Afterword of the new paperback edition of White Too Long
Dear White Too Long community,
I couldn’t think of a more appropriate first issue of the newsletter than an excerpt from the recently-published (dropped last month) new paperback edition of my book, White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. For the new edition, I had the opportunity to reflect on the 2020 election and the January 6th violent insurrection at the US Capitol.
The full piece was carried in both The Washington Post and at Religion News Service (RNS) and can be read here. If you like this piece, please help me spread the word about the newsletter and consider buying the book.
On Jan. 20, 2021, President Joe Biden became the first commander in chief to use the words “white supremacy” in an inaugural address.
Naming “the cry of racial justice four hundred years in the making” and its corollary, “a rise in political extremism,” he called out white supremacy as a “domestic terrorism that we must confront, and we will defeat.”
The backdrop of the U.S. Capitol Building on that sunny, crisp winter day was as poignant as it has been since Abraham Lincoln gave his first inaugural address in front of its unfinished dome in 1861. Devoid of the usual inaugural crowds due to the pandemic, the Capitol’s windows and doors had also been hastily repaired following the damage done by Trump supporters who, encouraged by the outgoing president, staged a violent insurrection on Jan. 6 attempting to prevent the certification of the electoral college vote.
The building’s gleaming white exterior, neatly trimmed with American flags and red, white and blue bunting, and the symmetry of the sparse, socially distanced chairs, presented a surreal contrast to the chaos just two weeks prior.
On Jan. 6, an undulating sea of rioters revealed, with their flags and signs and totems, that this attack on our democracy was animated not just by fealty to a single leader but also by deeper allegiances to both white supremacy and Christianity. Antisemitic tropes and groups were prevalent, including at least one protester who sported a “Camp Auschwitz” hoodie. Wide camera shots of the mob showed large Confederate battle flags.
Shamefully, these 21st-century insurrectionists managed to do something the Confederate Army was never able to accomplish during the Civil War: fly the Confederate battle flag inside the Capitol. One widely shared image showed a rioter with the flag strolling by a portrait of William H. Seward, an anti-slavery advocate and Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of state, who was seriously wounded in the assassination plot that killed Lincoln in 1865.
Comfortably intermingled with these tributes to white supremacy were Christian symbols and rhetoric. There were numerous Bibles, crosses, “Jesus Saves” signs and “Jesus 2020” flags that mirrored the design of the Trump campaign flag.
Some Christian participants had organized as part of a “Jericho March” in the days before the attack, blowing shofars as they encircled the Capitol, imitating the siege of the city of Jericho by the Israelites described in the book of Joshua in the Old Testament. One video depicted the Christian flag — white with a red Latin cross inside a blue canton, officially adopted by the Federal Council of Churches in 1942 — being paraded into the congressional chamber through breached doors just minutes after members of Congress had been evacuated through underground tunnels.
That flag was familiar to me, as it would have been to many from my church, where it flanked the pulpit along with the American flag, and where, as a child in vacation Bible school, I remember being led in a pledge of allegiance to both flags.
The US Capitol riot was a stain on U.S. history, ending more than two centuries of pride in an American democracy that had provided 44 consecutive peaceful transitions of power. But these awful events had one value: They put on plain display the unholy amalgamation of white supremacy and American Christianity that lives among us today.
[Examples of some hopeful change in Richmond, Virginia, and in my home state of Mississippi are in the full article. Here’s where it concludes.]
The tumultuous events of 2020 have called the question about where we white Christians stand on white supremacy. History is recording a roll call vote that requires us to declare our position.
At this time of reckoning, we can remain loyal to our heritage and ancestors through defensiveness and inaction. Or we can rededicate ourselves to the work of handing down a healthier faith and country to our children and our children’s children. But we can’t do both.
My hope is that enough of us will awaken from the fevered nightmare of white supremacy and finally choose a future in which we work shoulder to shoulder with our Black and brown brothers and sisters to achieve the promise of a multiracial, multireligious America.