What happened in Washington on January 6 was a clash between two idealisms. On the one hand, Evangelical Christianity1 formed an unholy alliance with a self-aggrandizing presidential candidate in hopes, among other considerations, he would appoint conservative judges who would favor evangelical agendas, such as repealing Roe v. Wade. As an ideal, Evangelical Christianity believes that all of life should be brought under the “Banner of the Cross,” and reflect Christian values and ideals, as evangelicals understand them. On the other hand, American Democracy has a different vision, calling for a diverse and pluralistic society:
"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"2
In other words, America from its beginning has been comprised of different races and religions all of which are considered equal under the U. S Constitution. Each foreign group, as naturalized citizens, can pursue “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in their own way, worship their own Gods, and raise their children, as they choose, under the law. One goal of democracy is to allow every citizen as much freedom and accommodation to as many of their values and mores as is possible under the law. It is a grand ideal that regularly has been stressed and battered, especially in recent years.
Tragically, an attempt to displace American Democracy, as we know it, occurred in Washington, DC on January 6. Security at the Capitol Building was breached while congress was in session, which led to a temporary occupation of the Capitol, the concealment of the members of congress, the death of a police officer3 and several insurgents, while several representatives and two United States Senators4 were attempting to interrupt the Electoral College process by challenging the certified results of the 2020 presidential election.
Just before the assault, at a rally in Washington, Mr. Trump turned his supporters into insurgents by verbally inciting their march on, and takeover of, the Capitol. Among the zealous supporters in Mr. Trump’s political base are Evangelical Christians5 and paramilitary groups, such as the Proud Boys,6 strange bedfellows and a marriage that, to say the least, was not made in heaven. Most of us recall Mr. Trump commenting on his popularity with his base by saying that he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and not lose any voters. On January 13, however, Mr. Trump did suffer consequences for sparking the insurrection when the U. S. House of Representatives impeached him a second time; he is the only American president to have ever been impeached twice. The impeachment was the direct result of Mr. Trump’s incentivizing the mob to storm the Capitol Building—so I assume he now knows that he cannot stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot anyone with impunity!
What troubles me about this whole debacle has been the role of Evangelical Christianity in facilitating Mr. Trump’s rise to the highest office in the land. One would have imagined that evangelical leaders could have read the signals in Mr. Trump’s generally unacceptable behavior and consider that things might not end well. Their persistent support for Mr. Trump’s policies, however, blinded them to these signals as they considered the quid pro quo they hoped to receive.
Christianity has always been a “big tent” religion even from the earliest time as is attested by the early sources.7 Hence, it is not unusual to find Christian groups involved, however tangentially, in violent acts; for in its long history Christianity has been stained with violence in the name of God (the obvious examples are the crusades and the inquisition but there are many others). The last four years appear to have witnessed another one of those instances. Without the support of evangelical Christianity Mr. Trump would have been hard pressed to put together the coalition that led inevitably to the insurrection on January 6. Hence, evangelical Christians share the responsibility for enabling the insurrection. Some self-proclaimed evangelical Christians were even part of the mob that stormed the Capitol Building on Jan 6.
Through history there have been many versions of what it means to be Christian. It is embarrassing to the Christian brand that any one group should think of itself as the gold standard for religious faith to the extent that it would undemocratically aim to impose its self-understanding on others in a democratic and pluralistic society by bending the political system to its will.
Missouri State University
1Evangelicalism is a worldwide trans-denominational movement within protestant Christianity: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evangelicalism
2Emma Lazarus, The New Colossus, Nov 2, 1883.
3U. S. Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick.
4The two are Josh Hawley (Missouri) and Ted Cruz (Texas). On Hawley see Katherine Stewart, “The Roots of Josh Hawley’s Rage,” The New York Times, Jan 11, 2021: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/11/opinion/josh-hawley-religion-democracy.html?smid=em-share
5Elizabeth Dias and Ruth Graham. “How White Evangelical Christians Fused with Trump Extremism,” The New York Times, Jan 11, 2021: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/11/us/how-white-evangelical-christians-fused-with-trump-extremism.html
7There are several distinct types of “Christianity” in the first 400 years of our era: for example, Synoptic, Johannine, Pauline, Gnostic, early Orthodoxy, creedal Christianity.