Commentators have dubbed Christian supporters of Donald Trump who entered into the Capitol building Christian Nationalists. The term is slippery, however. And as far as I can see, no organized, identifiable entity can be described as Christian Nationalist. That does not mean that Christians have not mixed their faith into nationalistic hopes. That does happen. So whatever else may be true, Christians have tied their religious aspirations into some sort of political entity.
Here, I want to note a few pieces of evidence for my assertion before turning to some of the possible ways to understand the phenomenon.
Christians and nationalism
Leo Kelly travelled to the Capitol on his own. After listening to the president’s speech at the White House he walked to the Capitol building. In his video interview, he speaks about this time in history as being massively important. Crimes have been committed. No institutions will stop the criminal activity. So he breached the Capitol building with the crowd. During his time in the building, he participated in a prayer where he says they “consecrated it to Jesus.” He talks further about appealing to heaven, and he seems to tie Christianity to his political identity. The video-interview at the appropriate time-stamp can be found here. He says that he has been betrayed by layers of the government and asks, “What are we supposed to do?”
The New Yorker recorded a religious prayer in the Capitol building as well as various groups of people who entered the building. No one can claim that only Christians entered the building. The video evinces numerous groups of people. Yet once again, it shows Christian activity inside—a prayer in which the speaker says he loves Christ and continues to mix Christian metaphors with political notions and an America-centered point of view.
More could be said, but minimally we can say that people entered the building who felt betrayed by their government and who also tied what they were doing to Christianity in some way. Christian nationalism seems too inaccurate and simplistic to use here. But these persons seem to represent the boldest wing of Christianity that ties its religious hopes into the nation of the USA.
Such a mixture of faith and politics is not new. First Baptist Church of Dallas sang a MAGA hymn in 2017. Mike Pence replaced “Old Glory” with Jesus in a citation of Hebrews. Sean Spicer used Christian language for political advantage publically. Jake Meador organized these examples and provides more context in an article that can be found here. The point is: Christians in the USA (and elsewhere!) have wrapped their political ideals with Christian language for years. The Capitol breach was simply a bold example of it.
So what is happening?
Here, I cannot give the answer since it likely doesn’t exist. As Duns Scotus says, “One should not seek a reason for things for which no reason can be given.” But here I would like to suggest a few lines of thought.
First, Americans tend to view themselves as a Christian nation. And given the rapid transition of our culture in the last decades, the transformation of American culture feels like a loss of Christianity.
Second, many Americans feel ignored or unheard. So using Christian language and following Trump who promises to Make America Great Again allows for a pressure release. It is a sort hope that what was lost might be restored again.
Third, the age of misinformation has made it so that we have become cynical and lack trust in all institutions. On top of this, certain groups have tied suspicion of authority to Christianity, QAnon being one such example. Christian Senator Ben Sasse has even written on how QAnon threatens to destroy the republican party. Connected to this, of course, is the idea that the Democrats stole the vote or perpetuated great fraud. But Republicans such as Ben Sasse have shown that while fraud likely happened, insufficient evidence can prove wide-scale fraud on the level that would reverse the election’s course.
Mitch McConnell and other prominent Republicans concur. Interestingly, Trump turned on Mike Pence on Twitter (before his ban) saying that he lacked courage. Rumours seem to report that this division has not yet healed. Whatever the matter, Mike Pence (another Christian leader) does not seem to back President Trump’s claim on voter fraud (or does not view it as a high-level criminal conspiracy). Yet that has not stopped people from believing massive fraud occurred. There simply is a lack of trust in American institutions.
These preliminary reasons say very little but enough to tease out the point. Christian nationalism is not the single answer here. It may play a role here and there (if it even exists as a definable entity), but it is not the thing.
David French (a Christian) called what happened on January 6th a Christian insurrection. Well, Christians were there. So it is hard to deny that is partially true. Evangelicals in the USA have overwhelmingly supported Trump. And they showed up on January 6th in support. At the same time, the fact that some Christians showed up probably means that Christian participated in a larger movement of nationalist fervour, not a distinct Christian nationalism.
As a Christian, I am not sure defining these things matters exactly. I find Russell Moore’s words helpful: “Countries can fall. I hope this one doesn’t. But, either way, let’s not fall with it.” Here, Moore implies the common-sense point that a country does not equal Christianity. The USA, I hope, remains strong and thrives. But the destiny of a single country in this massive globe we live on matters less than we think.
Let us say the worst happens. The USA falls. Another country takes over. Does the Gospel of the kingdom fall? Did it Fall during the early 20th century in Russia during its revolution? Did it Fall when Rome fell? No. The kingdom reordered, grew, and continued.
Do not get me wrong. Temporal powers matter. I am only illustrating the point. I hope the USA does well. I hope for the best. But from a Christian point of view, civil politics should take second fiddle to our primary identity. And that means that any Christian who places their religious hope in a political entity (like a country or its culture) has misguided desires.