was not caused by ‘Christian Nationalism.
The “Christian Nationalism” narrative can be described as a theory that seeks facts.
The shocking events that unfolded on January 6th were quickly viewed by the American public and other people around the world. Some academics, clergy, and pundits soon agreed that the attack on the Capitol was religiously motivated. According to the story, the main reason for the riot was “Christian nationalism.” Jemar Tisby, a popular Christian historian tweeted that “Don’t overlook the religious aspects of what is happening at Capitol.” They stated that ‘Critical Race Theory’ was the greatest threat.
Without even a single arrest or investigation, there was a flood of claims flooding magazines, newspapers and social media, alleging that Christian nationalism is to blame. The Capitol violence was condemned by several evangelicals in the weeks and months that followed.
In a follow-up podcast a couple weeks later, Tisby chafed at a request for evidence proving that Christian nationalism was behind the riot. He replied, “When you’re fish you don’t understand what water is.” It’s there, it’s right in your air. You’re so close that you can’t even see it. So to draw attention to white supremacist Christian nationalalism is, for many white Christians just plain old Christianity.” He did not appeal to any arrest records or legal documents nor to public statements.
Tisby believed that if one could not see the clearly displayed Christian nationalism at the Capitol then they were the problem. Asking for proof proves that you can’t. Tisby is talking about a story of white supremacist Christianity that he thinks still dominates Christianity today among American whites. Tisby, along with others, saw the Capitol as another example of this narrative.
The claim that Tisby and others have made is a causal one: This bigoted and nativist version of the Christian faith was the cause of the violence on January 6. This violence was more than political violence perpetrated by a mob. It was the evil fruit of perverted Christian beliefs. They call this “Christian nationalism,” a perversion that critics see as an expression of a group of theological convictions. These convictions include the fact that America was established as a Christian nation, and are favored by God. The nation must be guided by Christian morals and beliefs. Any attempt to undermine these core beliefs will not only be resisted by Christian nationalists, but also met with violence. January 6 fit perfectly into a long narrative of oppression and violence, and was immediately parlayed, to great effect, into a bludgeon with which to attack evangelicals and other groups alleged to subscribe to so-called Christian-nationalist beliefs.
Many Christians including prominent evangelicals were eager and primed to view this link. The Trump presidency drew a lot of condemnation from the evangelical establishment, while regular evangelicals supported him in unprecedented numbers. David French was a former conservative evangelical who had been a bit naive. He became a critic-in-chief for evangelical sins after his coreligionists embraced Trump. French, too believes that Tisby’s January 6 was motivated by deviant Christian nationalism. “We must be very clear on what actually happened in Washington D.C. January 6th. A violent Christian insurrection invaded and occupied the Capitol.”
After four years of criticizing evangelicals for supporting Trump’s continued support, critics quickly saw January 6 as not only a vindication of their critics but also a sign that the evangelicals were becoming the violent political zealots they had warned. The problem with January 6-as-Christian-nationalism claim, however, is that when one looks beyond the mere surface of the riot, there is a very different reality than the one critics present. In fact, the story they tell, which neatly fits Jan 6 into a long history of Christian nationalism, is just that: a story.
The facts of this case tell a very different story, and these critics have a hard time addressing them in depth. This is not a situation in which religion has a clear or minimal role. One in which the events of January 6 have little to do with Christianity except in the most superficial sense. The story that was compiled through federal investigations and painstaking journalism work bears very little, or no, resemblance with the Tisby/French version.
To be sure, there was a superficially Christian presence at the January 6 protest. However, the sleight of hand performed by critics has been to make that general empirical observation a causal one–cum hoc ergo propter hoc. They assumed that they knew from seeing flags bearing crosses and banners featuring Christian slogans (“Jesus Saves”), which were interwoven with Trump flags and political banners that violence would follow. The House of Representatives offered a prayer. The case is closed. Fire is where there’s smoke.
What is missing from these arguments are any sort of sifting and aggregation of facts and evidence that has arisen in the course of court trials and investigations over the last year and a half. Was the violence caused by the religion of the people who were present at the demonstration? It isn’t enough to have people of religious belief in the Capitol Building.
Tisby or French don’t bother to trace the roots of the riot and the people who sparked the violence. Or the evidence that slowly leaks out in court cases. To make their case convincingly, they would need to draw direct causal connections between religious motivations and the people who incited violence. Names of people would be required. These people will need to be identified. What were the reasons they engaged in violence? We can find out from public comments and court records what we can discern. Rather than answering those questions in the specific and painstaking detail required to make a causal connection between supposed Christian convictions and violence, they rely on weak inference.
A New York Times op-ed by Thomas Edsall titled, “The Capitol Insurrection Was as Christian Nationalist as It Gets,” was published a couple of weeks after the riot and is emblematic of this sort of argument. A veritable “who’s who” of Christian-nationalist critics joined together into a single chorus assigning the violence of January 6 to Christian nationalism. While these critics argued vigorously about the perceived dangers of Christian nationalism they spent very little time discussing the facts at Capitol.
Those who blame Christian nationalism in January 6’s events are relying on inferences drawn from their research and not engaging in empirical investigation of arrest records, court papers, or statements of defendants or prosecutors. In a recent article, Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry, both sociologists and authors of an influential book on Christian nationalism, assert: “We are forgetting that January 6th was very much a religious event–white Christian nationalism on display. It is important to remember this fact.” This statement seems odd given the evidence they have, which includes sociological surveys and television footage from people not involved in protests and violence.
In Perry and Whitehead’s article, they don’t mention any single person arrested by the government or any group on which prosecutors are focused. They don’t spend much time looking into the investigative reports done about the perpetrators of violence at Capitol. They have an entire narrative, and a body of scholarship which is not connected to this event. Even if we were to grant that the phenomenon of Christian nationalism is what they say it is, that does not mean these people at this specific event are those Christian nationalists. The answer to “How do I know?” does not include detailed analysis of the evidence or a list of facts, but rather surveys and historical narratives.
The common theme among critics of this case is the failure to engage directly with the facts. It was understandable that they didn’t directly engage with the facts of the case at the time. Why do they make these confident statements and speculate? Critics are determined to make this story true regardless of the factual facts.
The rather consistent portrayal of January 6th rioters being religiously motivated is in sharp contrast to the evolving picture of who was actually behind the violence at Capitol. Professor Robert Pape of the University of Chicago and the Chicago Project on Security and Threats (CPOST) has been compiling and analyzing data as it is made available. Pape is working with his team to try to figure out the motives of those involved. None of the proponents of the Christian-nationalism thesis have cited Pape’s work.
A number of Pape’s findings present a very different picture of the make-up and motives of rioters than the one presented by the Christian-nationalist critics. Roger Parloff, a journalist and senior editor at Lawfare, is performing an ongoing deep dive into the cases of those arrested and charged in the wake of January 6. His detailed analysis of the persons charged and brought before the D.C. District Court has also painted a rather different picture than the Christian-nationalism narrative.
Let me briefly touch upon some of the key findings. The core claim of Christians who believe that Christian nationalism drove the January 6 violence was that these events were an extension and practice of white evangelicalism in the Bible Belt. The CPOST report presents a contrastive picture regarding the geographic origins of the arrested. From January 6, the states with the highest absolute number of individuals arrested are Florida, Pennsylvania Texas, New York and California.
Perhaps Texas is more surprising than Pennsylvania, New York and Florida. However, California, New York and Florida don’t fit the story of “God and Country” evangelicals in the Bible Belt who ingrained theological beliefs that prompted violent protest. It’s quite the contrary. In fact, one of the more surprising findings of the CPOST study is that the more rural a county, the less likely that county was to have sent someone to the Capitol who would later be arrested. This is despite the fact the the county was more rural, the higher the chance that it would have voted Trump. It was the exact opposite of what critics had claimed. Even more shocking is the fact that the greater a county’s vote for Trump, it has a lower chance of sending someone to Washington to be charged with activities related to January 6. Contrary to the belief that violent Christian nationalism was a breeding ground for deep-red Trump county counties, our findings show that violent protestors are less likely to originate from those areas.
The study addresses the assumption that many on the political left hold, including critics of Christian nationalism, that the rioters hailed from deep-red America: “A common narrative amongst the political left maintains that insurrectionists come from places where Trump is the most politically dominant – rural, almost completely white, and with high unemployment – not Biden strongholds … But we find that this is not the case. The January 6 insurrectionists, although they are all pro Trump activists, do not come from the country’s reddest .
What then is the composition of the countries from which the rioters are more likely to have arrived? These findings again are contradictory. Violent rioters were much more likely to come from urban rather than rural counties: 28 percent came from large central metro areas; 28 percent came from the fringe of those large metros; and 22 percent came from medium-sized metros. This all leads us to conclude that January 6 was more urban than rural. Moreover, protestors who were violently motivated came from more counties where Biden was elected than Trump’s. However, most protestors came from the Bible Belt or the South’s contested counties (purple). The protesters that became violent were not from areas of ideological unity, but rather came from the most divided regions.
Roger Parloff’s investigation of recent indictments presents us with even more contrary evidence to the Christian-nationalism thesis. Parloff examines the causes of violence at Capitol and attempts to determine the timeline and names of those who set it off. Drawing upon earlier work done by the Wall Street Journal and the claims found in recent government indictments, Parloff came to the conclusion that two right-wing groups–the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers–played the central role in fomenting the violence that occurred on January 6.
In a follow-up discussion of his article, Parloff came to a somewhat surprising conclusion: without the instigation of the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, the violence at the Capitol probably would not have happened. Parloff was asked point blank: “If the Proud Boys were not at the Capitol on Jan 6th, would the violent insurrection have happened?” To which he replied: “It seems conceivable. It’s possible. It seems strange to me. The Proud Boys are only a small percentage of the rioters ….. It is possible, however, that they played the crucial role .”
The most serious charge–seditious conspiracies–have been filed against Henry “Enrique”, the leader of Proud Boys. He was joined by four others, as well as Stewart Rhodes (founder and leader) of Oath Keepers. Ten other members were also charged. Proud Boys is not considered to be a religious group. Christian-nationalist critics never mention the Proud Boys or Oath Keepers as Christian-nationalist groups, and for good reason. These groups’ goals, while they might be connected to some form of culture Christianity, do not have any real relationship to Christian theology or religion. It isn’t Bible Belt Christians that the government has charged with inciting the violence.
If we want to understand the motivations of Oath Keepers and Proud Boys, Parloff notes the belief in the theft of the election (“the Big Lie”) as well as the belief Biden was a communist seeking socialism. Pape’s CPOST report concludes that January 6th was a day when people were arrested for believing that the election had been stolen. They also believe that “the great substitute” is the theory that minorities are displacing white Americans. Parloff and the CPOST studies do not mention any religious motives, or theological belief about America as a Christian country. The studies don’t show any religious motives, and if they do they are only ancillary of the actors responsible for inciting the violence.
The CPOST research and Parloff’s study don’t provide any evidence of Christian beliefs as a cause for the violence. Critics could only claim that Christian beliefs played a role in the violence on January 6, but this would not be supported by any measurable evidence. Critics present a neat narrative that does not reflect the facts. It is difficult to prove a negative, but evidence does not support the broad claims made by those who blame Jan 6. for Christian nationalism.
More strongly, we may conclude that the findings of these studies undermine the Christian-nationalism thesis in important ways. This violence did not originate from religion, nor was it inspired by the Bible Belt and other areas of the country who voted for Trump overwhelmingly. This phenomenon is much more complex than critics would have us believe. The CPOST study concluded that violence at Capitol was a new political movement, and not a continuation of a past movement.
We are left to ask a question. Why is it that those who promote the link between Christian nationalism, January 6, and the Bible seem so disinterested by the evidence? What I have been interested in the past year and a half are the claims made by Christian-nationalist critics in the wake of January 6. The real question regarding January 6 is whether Christian groups or convictions were the cause (or even a cause) in bringing about the violence that erupted on that day. This is what I am focusing on. There is a significant gap between what critics claim and the facts that have been presented.
As with so many other events in the polarized contemporary U.S. culture, January 6 appears to be a Rorschach test. It is easy to spot something. Many believed that the attacks on Capitol were primarily motivated by Christian nationalism. They “knew” from the beginning what was happening. No amount of evidence was going to change their minds. It is a great irony that a group critics pride themselves in making data-supported claims.
Hannah Arendt was a great political theorist, public intellectual and politician. He once said that philosophers can see the same ideas in all things. This seems to be the reason for all the hatred of Christian nationalism. It was easy to find a ready-made explanation for the entire event. Devotees would double down if the facts did not match their theory.
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The early claims of scholars made in the wake of violence have obscured, rather than illuminated those events. It looks more and more like the thesis of Christian-nationalist-motivated violence is a narrative in search of facts, a conclusion lacking evidence. Psychologists call this motivated reasoning. When we analyze events, we are often motivated by our assumptions and the outcomes we want to see. Our biases shape how we interpret events. Because we are “premed” to see events in a particular way, and have made underlying commitments to do so, unconsciously, our biases influence how events are interpreted. The critics in this instance were influenced by the evidence to conclude that the event was fueled by religious nationalism. The partisan narrative which reflexively blames evangelical Christians is what drove them.
In the forward to a recent book on Christian nationalism, Tisby insists that “white Christian nationalism is the greatest threat to the witness of the church in the United States today.” If we are looking for motivated reasoning, then this is about as clear an instance as one could find. This neat narrative has a problem. What one gains in coherence and simplicity, one loses accuracy and precision. It is easy to assume that January 6, was part of an extended history of white Christian nationalism. This rejects any investigation into the motives for the event.
To be certain, it may seem like religious fanatics were behind the violence, but this is far from what critics claim. They want to believe that a deeply rooted form of religious nationalism was the real motivation for the rioters. Perhaps there’s a deeper connection to Christian nationalism. We may discover connections between violence and religion as we continue to analyze the evidence. Perhaps. The link is currently not available.