Taking the White Christian Nationalist Symbols at the January 6 Insurrection Seriously
What I wrote on January 6, 2021: This seditious mob was motivated not just by loyalty to Trump, but by an unholy amalgamation of white supremacy and Christianity.
Dear #WhiteTooLong readers,
In just a few hours (8:00 p.m. ET), the inaugural public hearing of the House committee investigating the January 6 insurrection will air on stations nationwide. Ahead of that event, I’m sharing with you a column I wrote the evening of that disturbing day, which was published the following morning at Religion News Service and syndicated to the Washington Post.
I wasn’t down by the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. But PRRI’s offices are just blocks from the White House and two miles from the Capitol complex. I often see the Capitol building’s glowing dome on the horizon while driving south on one of the main arteries leading into the city, North Capitol Street. It was surreal watching the attacks on that familiar icon from my living room that afternoon. And it was frightening, and enraging, to see dozens of rowdy pro-Trump protesters, still defiantly holding their signs and flags, getting off the metro that evening, even out near my home in Maryland.
I remember calling my adult daughter, who at the time lived in an apartment near the Silver Spring metro, to confirm that she wasn’t going to venture out that night. And then I sat down to write. As the words flowed, I slowly realized that we had just witnessed the end of one of our nation’s greatest points of pride—our 44 consecutive peaceful transitions of presidential power over two centuries—and the greatest challenge to U.S. democracy in my lifetime. Moreover, I saw clearly that this seditious movement had been powerfully animated by a toxic cocktail of white supremacy and white Christianity.
As we watch the public hearings tonight, I’m hopeful that the committee does not overlook or downplay the role that a disfigured form of white Christianity played that day. If we don’t take those crosses, Bibles, shofars, patches, t-shirts, and flags seriously, we will not understand the current threat facing our democracy today.
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Taking the White Christian Nationalist Symbols at the January 6th Insurrection Seriously
Note: This article was originally published on January 7, 2021, the day after the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. I’m grateful to RNS for permission to repost it in full here exclusively for #WhiteTooLong substack readers.
If there was one thing of value to come out of the shameful chaos of yesterday’s attack on the U.S. Capitol, it’s that the horrific events made plain the powerful ideological and theological currents of American politics that often stay just under the surface. The emblems carried by the rioters — particularly the comfortable juxtaposition of Christian and white supremacist symbols — bear witness to these forces.
There were crosses, “Jesus Saves” signs and “Jesus 2020” flags that mimicked the design of the Trump flags.
Some of the participants, organized as part of a “Jericho March,” blew shofars — Jewish ritual horns — as they circled the Capitol, reenacting the siege of the city of Jericho by the Israelites described in the Book of Joshua in the Hebrew Bible. And one video showed the Christian flag — white, with a blue canton containing a red cross, used by many white evangelical churches — being paraded into an empty congressional chamber after the doors had been breached and members of Congress evacuated.
I recall that same flag standing behind the pulpit of my Mississippi Southern Baptist church, where as a child I was led in a pledge of allegiance to both the American and Christian flags.
The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg wrote that “the conflation of Trump and Jesus was a common theme at the rally” among people he interviewed. “It’s all in the Bible. Everything is predicted. Donald Trump is in the Bible. Get yourself ready,” one told him. “Give it up if you believe in Jesus!” said another, then “Give it up if you believe in Donald Trump!” — which elicited loud cheers from nearby rioters.
Comfortably intermingled with Christian rhetoric and these Christian icons were explicit symbols of white supremacy. Outside the Capitol, Trump supporters erected a large wooden gallows with a bright orange noose ominously dangling from the center. These Trump supporters managed to do something the Confederate army was never able to accomplish — fly the Confederate battle flag inside the U.S. Capitol. One widely shared image showed a rioter with the Confederate flag strolling past a portrait of William H. Seward, an anti-slavery advocate and Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of state, who was seriously wounded as part of the broad assassination plot in 1865 that killed Lincoln.
At least one protester sported a “Camp Auschwitz” hoodie, a reference to a concentration camp where over 1 million Jews were killed by the Nazis, even as others made outlandish comparisons between Christians as victims of American society and European Jews in the Third Reich.
Crowds also formed at state capitols in Ohio, Kansas and Michigan.
If we are to understand the events of yesterday, and the challenges ahead for us as a nation, we must take these symbols and this rhetoric seriously, not in isolation, but in combination and conversation with each other.
This seditious mob was motivated not just by loyalty to Trump, but by an unholy amalgamation of white supremacy and Christianity that has plagued our nation since its inception and is still with us today. As I show in my book “White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity,” there remains a disturbingly strong link between holding racist attitudes and identifying as a white Christian.
We should remember that this moment, and the divisions of the last four years, are set against the upheaval of religious and demographic change.
Since 2008, the country has moved from being a majority Christian nation to one that is no longer a majority Christian nation (from 54% white and Christian to 44% white and Christian). This change took place during the tenure of our first African American president. The dysfunction and violence we are seeing is in large part an attempt to preserve a vision of white Christian America that is passing from the scene.
The willingness among those in the crowd Wednesday to believe outlandish conspiracy theories and the unwillingness to accept the election results are born from the same source: a desperate desire by some white Christians to hang onto ownership of a diversifying country.
As many have rightly declared, the violent disregard for the rule of law we witnessed is not the best of who we are. But if we’re going to heal our nation, we need to confess that it remains, still today, a troubling part of America’s political and religious heritage.
Other Resources on White Christian Nationalism and the January 6th Insurrection
Read all of Religion News Service (RNS)’ coverage of January 6.
Read a comprehensive report on white Christian nationalism and the January 6 insurrection, published jointly by the Baptist Joint Committee and Freedom from Religion Foundation.
PRRI public opinion research related to the January 6 insurrection:
Related on #WhiteTooLong
I devoted the new Afterword to the paperback edition of my book, White Too Long, to further analysis of the aftermath of the January 6 insurrection. To get your copy of the paperback, or to purchase a copy for a friend, click the graphic below.