Christian nationalism is a threat, and not just from Capitol attackers invoking Jesus

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After a portion of the mob entered the Senate chamber on Jan. 6, a handful of men mounted the podium. One of them lifted his hands and cried out, “Jesus Christ, we invoke your name. Amen.” Then Jacob Chansley, sometimes called the "QAnon Shaman," took his bullhorn and announced gratitude to God for being able to “send a message to all the tyrants, the communists, and the globalists that this is our nation, not theirs.” Bare-chested to expose his white supremacist tattoos, he had paused briefly to remove his Viking-inspired horned headdress and cap — presumably to assume a properly humble posture as he claimed the United States for himself and his fellow-believers.

The violence was roundly condemned, if a bit mealy-mouthed in certain quarters. People spoke of the criminal threat against members of Congress, staffers and police. They lamented the violation of sacred civic space and democratic norms (the few we have left). Many were especially dismayed to find police, veterans and elected officials among the rioters — individuals who had taken oaths to serve and protect the nation.

Hawley wants all to live by his values

It is easy to protest when white Christian nationalism turns violent. Within the chorus of critics, however, are a substantial number of Christians who plan to take the country for Jesus another way. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, a leader of the misinformation campaign that led people to believe (falsely) that the presidential election was stolen, is among them.

Speaking in his official capacity as attorney general of Missouri in 2017, he proclaimed at a “Pastors and Pews” meeting that their charge is to “take the lordship of Christ, that message, into the public realm and to seek the obedience of the nations — of our nation… to influence our society, and even more than that, to transform our society to reflect the gospel truth and lordship of Jesus Christ.”

Hawley is aware that not everyone will become Christian, but believes we should all live by his interpretation of Christian values. The lieutenant governor of Texas, Dan Patrick, asserts that elected officials should look to Scripture when making policy, “because every problem we have in America has a solution in the Bible.”

Protesters on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington, D.C.
Protesters on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington, D.C.

In "Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States," Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry define Christian nationalism as “a collection of myths, traditions, symbols, narratives, and value systems — that idealizes and advocates a fusion of Christianity with American civic life…. It includes assumptions of nativism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and heteronormativity, along with divine sanction for authoritarian control and militarism. It is as ethnic and political as it is religious.”

The agenda is not always explicit. When Sen. Ted Cruz talks of “restoring” America, he means to recover what he believes is its original identity as a Christian nation. Historian John Fea argues that Cruz’s outlook reflects the Seven Mountains Dominionism of his father — a conviction that Christians are called by God to exercise dominion over every aspect of society by taking control of political and cultural institutions (religion, family, education, government, media, arts and entertainment, and business). While Cruz is too politically savvy to endorse dominion theology outright, he uses code words like “religious liberty” to sustain Christian privilege and cultural authority.

Supporters of then-President Donald Trump pray outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington, DC.
Supporters of then-President Donald Trump pray outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington, DC.

It is a long-term strategy articulated decades ago by a leader in the Christian Reconstructionist movement, Gary North. He argued that Christians must use the doctrine of religious liberty to advance their agenda, hoping to raise up children “who know that there is no religious neutrality, no neutral law, no neutral education, and no neutral civil government. Then they will get busy in constructing a Bible-based social, political and religious order which finally denies the religious liberty of the enemies of God.” The Christian right has embraced this approach in multiple court cases and bills, distorting the very meaning of religious freedom.

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I do not wish to emulate QAnon enthusiasts in projecting a deep-state conspiracy, but there are Christian nationalists embedded throughout our governing institutions — courts, military, legislatures, agencies, police. Many are regular figures at the Capitol and in the halls of power. Distracted by those ready to bring on the apocalypse, we have not adequately exposed this more resilient threat to religious pluralism in the United States.

Religion is a dangerous business

Most people have never heard of Project Blitz, for example, but it was responsible for at least 75 bills in 2018 that advance Christian nationalism. They have a playbook developed by the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation with “model legislation” designed to privilege “traditional Judeo-Christian religious values and beliefs in the public square.” The term Judeo-Christian here is a perverse appropriation of Judaism, deployed as a cover for Christian exclusivism.

The playbook advises beginning with bills that require schools to teach Bible courses or offer release time, and to display “In God We Trust” banners. (Their parallel project to set the motto in license plates has been linked to corrupt fundraising practices.) Second-tier proposals include Christian Heritage Week and Year of the Bible, to reinforce the idea that America was and always will be a Christian nation. The third tier focuses largely on religious liberty as a tool for exempting religious individuals and organizations from laws they do not like, especially laws that prohibit discrimination or protect women. If officials object, the spin machine can go after them as anti-faith.

Ripe for change: We have prime opportunity now to protect American democracy

Yet faithful Christians are among those mobilizing to stop a Christian takeover of the nation. In July 2019, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty launched Christians Against Christian Nationalism, identifying it as “a distortion of the gospel of Jesus and a threat to American democracy.” Given their early persecution in this country, Baptists recognize that religion is a dangerous business, especially when coupled with state power.

The difference between them and their Southern Baptist counterparts, many of whom are involved in the Christian nationalist movement, is consciousness of the vital self-critical dimensions of faith. Whatever one’s spiritual life stance, we are choosing in every moment whether its power will be wielded for harm or for blessing.

Rachel S. Mikva is the Herman Schaalman Professor in Jewish Studies and Senior Faculty Fellow of the InterReligious Institute at Chicago Theological Seminary. Her most recent book is "Dangerous Religious Ideas: The Deep Roots of Self-Critical Faith in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam." Twitter: @RMikva

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Christian nationalists like Hawley and Cruz are embedded in US government