To Defend Democracy, We Must Confront Christian Nationalism

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Reflections by Rabbi Jack Moline, president of Interfaith Alliance:

It is now a year since the participants in the insurrection in Washington, D.C. sought to overthrow the rule of law and return Donald Trump to a presidency he had lost. Both the popular vote (which, in each state, chose electors) and the electoral college (the constitutionally designated institution that actually chooses the president) gave decisive victories to Joe Biden. Unwilling to accept the result and encouraged by the words of President Trump, demonstrators stormed the Capitol and chased congresspeople of both parties and the Vice President from the chambers where the business of the nation was lawfully underway. Who can forget?

Apparently, a lot of people can forget. But we must not overlook what was at stake.

At the root of the attempted coup is Christian nationalism, the notion that the United States is by intention and right a country ordained to be established and governed by a certain interpretation of the Christian faith. Laying claim to vague interpretations of sections of the Bible as they read it, the most recent iteration of militant evangelicals insist that the will of God is expressed by the political activities of the Republican Party as determined by Donald Trump. Any attempt to subvert the will of God must, by definition, be illegitimate and on the wrong side of faithful righteousness. And, therefore, patriotic Americans must be willing to overturn the manipulated results of any election that does not affirm the rule of Donald Trump.

As pointed out by religion scholars Samuel L. Perry and Andrew Whitehead, the events of January 6 were rife with Christian nationalist symbolism, including “Christian banners and flags, the wooden crosses, the impromptu praise and worship sessions, the “Jesus Saves” signs, the Christian t-shirts, and the infamous corporate prayer in Jesus name in the Senate Chamber.”

To be sure, there were participants in the violence who did not profess the specific tenets of Christian nationalism. But their actions were meant to advance the cause of white supremacy, voter suppression, and delegitimizing authorized governmental officials. In and of themselves, these goals are frightening.  But as a challenge to the Constitution, it would not be extreme to suggest they were treasonous.

Understanding the events of January 6 also requires we recognize the events as the effect of unfettered religious extremism, often peddled by the former president himself. On the campaign trail, then-Republican frontrunner Donald Trump promised supporters that under his presidency, “Christianity will have power.” His administration would go on to further a vision of religious freedom that prioritized a subsect of Christians who sought to make their views law.  

The Constitution makes clear that there is to be no religious test for office. The suggestion that a candidate designated by divine fiat has a claim to elected office runs counter to the founding notion of our independence. Perhaps more important, the suggestion that the first freedoms enumerated in the Bill of Rights can be canceled by the losing party to an election negates the very basis of the society we have built for close to 250 years.

Every citizen has the absolute right to choose, as a matter of conscience, their faith or philosophy. The “free exercise of religion” is not something tolerated by sufferance by a particular privileged group. It is an essential aspect of what it means to be an American citizen. In the same breath, the government is prohibited from establishing religion – not merely a particular religion, but religion in general – as determinative in matters of law and public policy. It makes no difference whether the religion in question is professed by the overwhelming majority or by a negligible minority, the affirmation of a religious creed must be outside of the government’s business.

If we are to build a more inclusive democracy, then highlighting the threat of Christian nationalism is an important first step, but it cannot be the only one. Across the country, defenders of religious freedom and democracy – including our own Interfaith Alliance – have ramped up our advocacy against such extremism. We’ve gathered scholars and activists to discuss how we can combat Christian nationalism and religious extremism. Our partners at the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty launched the Christians Against Christian Nationalism campaign. And religious and secular leaders alike are speaking out against those who misuse faith as a license to discriminate. 

Those of us who dissent from the criminal acts of January 6, 2021 – and that is most of the citizenry – must remember that the efforts to overturn the election and establish a Christian nationalist state pose a threat not only to the rule of law that has been the hallmark of the United States but to the basic rights and freedoms that are central to the blessings of being a citizen of the United States.

Learn more about Interfaith Alliance’s efforts to protect true religious freedom.