Religion Professor: Why It's Time to Stop Calling the January 6 Riots 'Religious Nationalism'

To remedy such a distortion, we are better off differentiating religious nationalism from religious populism.

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Christian symbols and messages were on full display during the January 6 insurrection: impromptu prayer and worship sessions, Christian flags (e.g., with the motto 'Jesus 2020'), wooden crosses. The rioters saw themselves as patriots restoring the U.S. to its rightful state as a Christian nation, claiming "Trump is president, Christ is King."

Media and experts too often take at face value what these actors say about themselves by taking the part for the whole. In other words, they see the rioters as agents of Christian nationalism, when in fact, they are expressing the most extreme and intolerant version of it. The underlying implication of this reduction of Christian nationalism to the white supremacists is to make all religious performances associated with the nation the major culprit of political intolerance and a rejection of democracy.

To remedy such a distortion, we are better off differentiating religious nationalism from religious populism. The rioters are better defined as an example of the latter rather than the former.

Religious Populism Is Not Religious Nationalism

Religious nationalism is not always exclusive since the symbols and themes of one or several religions can be part of the national narrative. At its inception, America was seen as the space for freedom of religion and has offered shelter to numerous prosecuted religious groups. At the same time, religion has often worked as the proverbial "double-edged sword." Catholics and later Jews struggled to be accepted, while the principle of religious freedom ultimately operated as a powerful tool for integration. In the same vein, Christianity has been used for both justifying and fighting slavery. The figure of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the overall dimension of the civil rights movement are other examples of the inclusive role of religion in American politics. By looking at the rioters as Christian nationalists and not Christian populists, we are obliterating this positive role of religion.

There's no doubt that some citizens adhere to an exclusive Christian conception of America. As a matter of fact, in a 2020 survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), 36% of the respondents said the U.S. is a Christian nation. That does not mean, however, that they aim to create a Christian-based political establishment, as is the case for the rioters. Defining America as a Christian nation does not automatically translate into mobilizations to religiously transform the elite.

In other words, the key difference between religious populists and nationalists is that the former promote not only an exclusive notion of the people based on religion but also, and most critically, a religious conception of the elite. That leads to policymaking and actions that are religiously motivated and therefore anti-democratic.

This religious perception of (and action against) the political establishment carried by the rioters has been ignored. However, it is this dimension that can explain believers' support for a president who, to say the least, is not a paragon of piety.

In the words of Robert Jeffress, the Senior Pastor of the First Baptist Church, "It is not the words of a creed we mouth that make us a Christian, but the faith in Christ we embrace...By his works, President Trump has become the most faith-friendly president in history."

The religious conception of the elite is associated with the moralization of politics that goes beyond rhetoric and is enacted in laws and policies influenced by religious norms and prescriptions. It has taken two main forms. First, some religious groups make an alliance with the populist leader to defend their beliefs not only in words but also in actions. Second, this religious policy translates into a moralization of the public space.

Case in point: the evangelical support of Trump was conditioned to his pro-life policies. Trump overturned the Obama administration's regulation that prevented states from defunding providers of abortion services and publicly spoke at the anti-abortion March for Life in January 2020. In many ways, Trump has been even more pro-life than President Bush, who is a devout evangelical. Another enactment was to appoint conservative judges to the Supreme Court. Franklin Graham stated: "I don't think evangelicals are united on every position the president takes or says, but they do recognize he is the most pro-life-friendly president in modern history...He has appointed conservative judges that will affect my children and grandchildren's lives, long after he's gone." Evangelical leaders have made the anti-abortion stand a bargaining chip in their support of Trump, hence leading to religiously inspired policies. The other significant aspect of these moral politics is undermining sexual minorities' rights.

Another indicator of the difference between religious nationalism and populism is the fact that "[t]he events on January 6 were as religiously plural as the United States itself," with a range of religions including Mormonism and Judaism. What unified them was not so much the Christian definition of the nation but the hope of toppling the "liberal establishment."

In sum, religion can define the history of the nation, and some of its symbols and rituals, without automatically eliminating religious diversity. The confusion between religious nationalism and populism creates a halo of suspicion and negativity around all expressions of religious nationalism. That runs contrary to the trend which, at least since the 1930s, has been to consider religion a non-divisive feature shared by all Americans. This confusion conveys a partial approach to religion that makes it side only with the intolerant and uncivil political forces. Taking at face value the claims of the white supremacists over the American nation leads to the vilification of all forms of religious nationalism and therefore accentuates the political divide that is the real reason for the current anti-democratic forces at play.

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