Jemar Tisby: White Christian nationalism fueled Jan. 6 attack

Perhaps the movement’s biggest draw is that it reconciles two seemingly contradictory notions: that our nation, a Christian nation, is the greatest on Earth and, at the same time, it is overrun with “alien” and evil forces.

Supporters of President Donald Trump riot at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021.
Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/TNS
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The House select committee’s hearings on the 2021 Capitol insurrection, which begin on June 9, should not neglect a key driver of the attack: white Christian nationalism.

White Christian nationalism is the belief that “America’s founding is based on Christian principles…and that Christianity should be the foundation of how the nation develops its laws, principles and policies,” as my co-author defined it in a report we wrote earlier this year for the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

This ideology played a crucial part in fomenting the insurrection, from the buildup and dry runs that occurred immediately following Election Day in November 2020 to the attack itself. “It was clear the terrorists perceived themselves to be Christians,” D.C. Metropolitan Police Officer Daniel Hodges testified before the House in July 2021.

Luke Mogelson — the New Yorker journalist who filmed the shocking video of the attack from inside the Capitol — similarly remarked: “The Christianity was one of the surprises to me in covering this stuff, and it has been hugely underestimated. That Christian nationalism you talk about is the driving force and also the unifying force of these disparate players. It’s really Christianity that ties it all together.”

The white Christian nationalist version of patriotism is racist, xenophobic, patriarchal and exclusionary. And it celebrates the use of violent force, as dramatically seen on Jan. 6, 2021.


But white Christian nationalism is not the only way Christians have understood the link between religious commitments and political activism. In contrast to those who preach white Christian nationalism, many Black Christian communities have historically embraced a different kind of patriotism, one that leads to an expansion of democratic processes, the inclusion of marginalized people and nonviolent calls for the nation to live up to its foundational ideals.

Historical leaders such as Fannie Lou Hamer, Ida B. Wells and Martin Luther King Jr., as well as contemporary leaders such as Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., civil rights activist and lawyer Bernice King, and LaTosha Brown of Black Voters Matter have been outspoken about their Christian faith as the foundation for their pursuit of a multiracial, participatory democracy.

And yet, despite Black Christians’ and other inclusive religious communities’ alternative visions of faith, white Christian nationalism remains the most dominant force of religion in U.S. politics and represents an urgent risk to democracy in the nation. Networks of power and money prop up white Christian nationalism and give it outsized influence in national civic life and discourse.

Its sway over political leaders depends largely on its ability to deliver significant numbers of votes in a consistent way. While there are several ways that white Christian nationalists mobilize voters, perhaps the movement’s biggest draw is that it reconciles two seemingly contradictory notions: that our nation, a Christian nation, is the greatest on Earth and, at the same time, it is overrun with “alien” and evil forces.

White Christian nationalism, for its role in the Jan. 6 insurrection alone, is a harmful and extremist belief system that deserves more public alarm. At present, it is the greatest threat to democracy and maintaining the peaceful transfer of power in the United States. We neglect this dangerous ideology at our own peril.

Jemar Tisby, Ph.D., is a New York Times bestselling author, national speaker, and public historian. He is the author of The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism and How to Fight Racism.

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