At the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, as an angry throng of Trump supporters, with violence on its mind, surged toward a barricade manned by a handful of police, a white flag appeared above the masses, flapping in the wind. It featured an ichthys — also known as the Jesus fish — painted red, white and blue. Above the religious symbol were the words, “Proud American Christian.” And it was just one of several prominent examples of religious expression that occurred in and around the storming of the Capitol which left five people dead and several seriously injured.
The now famous — or infamous — realtor from Texas, Jenna Ryan, livestreamed herself entering the Capitol with other insurrectionists. As she crosses the threshold, she can be heard declaring, “Here we are in the name of Jesus! In the name above all names!” In the name of Jesus … people killed, beaten and injured; in the name of Jesus … other people threatened, terrorized, and a gallows constructed on Capitol grounds. If this is Christianity, who needs it? And I say that as someone who has been a Christian pastor for 43 years.
Make no mistake, what was on display in Washington D.C., that day was nothing less than a corrupted and rather frightening form Christianity or, better yet, Christian nationalism; a dark and dangerous fusion of God, country and Trump that the Jesus of the New Testament would never recognize and certainly never embrace. So many of the “Christian” rioters seemed convinced that following Jesus and following Trump are really the same thing. And for those who didn’t agree … well, they did bring along that gallows.
In the words of pastor, Peter Marty, “When an armed mob of Americans overtook the U.S. Capitol last month, we were forced to reckon collectively with how the misuse of Christianity and the abuse of the American flag can easily legitimate such evil. Moral values and national virtues are not self-enforcing. They require people willing to stand up for them, a citizenry convinced that integrity, honesty and civility are essential to American life.” Malignant narcissism and authoritarian behavior, when coupled with an intolerant and mean-spirited expression of religious faith, become downright evil.
This is a moment when people of faith and good will really do need to make a distinction between good religion and bad religion. All religion is not all the same. Good religion will appeal to the higher human instincts, not the lower. It will not wallow in the mud of name-calling, race-baiting and divisiveness. It will not resort to violence. Rather it points beyond itself, lifts itself above partisan politics and political ideology and makes itself a servant of human compassion and need. It remains concerned for the human condition everywhere and tries to do something about it. It is inclusive, wrapping its arms around others instead of pushing them aside. In the face of a corrupted Christianity that preaches hatred and violence, silence is not an option. In the words of that famous theologian, W.C. Fields, “Wouldn’t it be terrible if I quoted some reliable statistics which prove that more people are driven insane through religious hysteria than by drinking alcohol?” After viewing the zealots on January 6th, I believe he had a point. Cabernet, anyone?
During the Civil War, Secretary of State William Seward said this: “There was always just enough virtue in this republic to save it; sometimes none to spare.” We have now learned what “none to spare” looks like. Now is the time for people of faith to step forward and proclaim a faith, not that divides and tears down, but rather builds a more just and humane country where we value a diverse, democratic society and are concerned for the welfare and wellbeing of our entire human community. Is “freedom and justice for all” really too much to ask?