One Year After 1/6, Media Still Refuse to Recognize Authoritarian Christianity

Two women pray at the January 6 Capitol riot. Image: Blink O'fanaye/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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 out from a violent right-wing insurrection aimed at overturning a legitimate presidential election—and I just don’t see much reason to be optimistic about the immediate future of American democracy.

As Susannah Crockford recently concluded here at RD, “Whether the first anniversary of Jan 6 will bring further violence is unknown, but what is knowable is that without accountability, there will be no peace.” By contrasting the charges filed against, and sentences meted out to, individual 1/6 rioters with the lack of consequences for the architects of the insurrection—not least Donald Trump himself—Crockford shows that America 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 like Trump, Steve Bannon, and Roger Stone accountable for inciting a mob to disrupt what should have been a routine peaceful transfer of power. We as a society are also failing to fully investigate and confront the root causes of America’s epidemic of political and religious violence, of which the January 6 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 January 6, which took place several weeks after a “Jericho March” that involved many of the same actors invoking the notion of divinely-ordained conquest in their efforts to “stop the steal” (or, in non-gaslighting prose, to prevent a peaceful transfer of power grounded in valid election results). 

But where journalists and commentators are failing us, particularly in the legacy media, is in their refusal to push past their Christian supremacist biases enough to take these political actions seriously as Christianity. Not as a perversion of Christianity, but as one very real and powerful broad expression of the faith with deep historical roots that’s been present in one form or another at least since the fourth century, when Christianity became deeply entangled with Roman imperial power. 

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 a less authentic form of the faith than turn-the-other-cheek Christianity just because we may find it less congenial.

As I’ve 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 imaginary, an equation we don’t make for members of any other religious or non-religious demographic. For example, Muslims are often demonized, and atheists face social stigma in vast swaths of the United States. It is important to note, however, that sometimes commentators refer to an undifferentiated “religion” or “religious values,” which may come across as (and indeed may be) an effort to be inclusive; under conditions of Christian hegemony, however, this essentially reduces to a vague Christianity.

In equating “Christian” with “good,” commentators elide the real issue—that Christian supremacy and privilege are every bit as real as white and male privilege, for example, and are part of the unjust social hierarchies that need to be dismantled in order for equity to be achieved in our society. To be sure, Christian privilege isn’t distributed evenly among all Christians. Those who benefit most are white Protestants, and, unsurprisingly, it’s white Protestants—above all evangelicals—who make up the backbone of America’s Christian nationalist extremist movement. (If you have any doubts, take a look at Robert P. Jones’ data correlating vote choice, racism and religious affiliation.) 

Hard truths that are repressed will only fester and reemerge in yet more virulent forms, and that is why facing them head on is crucial. In that connection, media framing matters a great deal. To illustrate the current prevailing framing and what’s wrong with it, take Jennifer Rubin’s recent column in The Washington Post, “Trump Idolatry has Undermined Religious Faith” in which she laments “the damage the MAGA movement has wrought to religious values” (emphasis in original). By contrasting the two, Rubin thus relegates authoritarian attitudes and behaviors, as well as racist and anti-immigrant sentiment, to a position outside the category of “religious values,” even though she has already (correctly) referred to Trump’s Christian nationalist base as having been moved by an “apocalyptic vision.”

Later Rubin doubles down, referring to “the MAGA crowd’s very unreligious cruelty toward immigrants,” as if religion were always pro-social, pro-immigrant, and pro-democracy. In fact, there are no such things as universal “religious values”—nor can we reasonably call 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 similar conservative Christians) value is the power to implement their theocratic agenda. Christianity can be (and often is) anti-pluralist.

It’s also true that different religious values within the same religious community may become operationalized in different circumstances, and that they may be in conflict with one another. For example, Rubin spends much time agreeing with Peter Wehner’s commentary on Donald Trump, Jr.’s statement that turning the other cheek has “gotten us nothing,” which Wehner and Rubin disingenuously interpret as a total rejection of “the teachings of Jesus” by Trump supporters. 

Putting aside the fact that the teachings of Jesus are always subject to communally mediated interpretation, the Bible—including what Christians refer to as “the New Testament” itself—leaves plenty of room for apocalyptic judgment and violence, for a time to come 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 recognize 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’re headed for a country unmoored from democratic principles, but to equate those principles with the meaninglessly broad category of “religious values,” or to hold those categories up alongside one another as two essential pillars of American democracy, as Rubin seems to be doing, is pernicious nonsense. And if America’s elite pundits and media gatekeepers continue to refuse to see that sometimes, some religious values are a problem for democracy, instead of helping to make things better, they’ll be doing their part to keep America on the road to an authoritarian future.