How We Can Confront the Myths of January 6 and Intensifying Christian Nationalism

Former President Trump’s third campaign for the Presidency is promising retribution against domestic enemies, while also holding double digit leads in key primary states. But the two are related. As the nation marks the third anniversary of the January 6 attacks, new research suggests Trump’s increasingly brazen authoritarianism is in step with intensifying Christian nationalism among parts of the American public.

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Recent survey data of the American public highlights the intensification of key elements associated with Christian nationalism—a political theology that idealizes and advocates for a fusion of a particular expression of Christianity with American civic life. Specifically, studies find Americans who embrace Christian nationalism post-January 6 support the use of political violence in order to “save our country,” support political leaders who are willing to “break some rules if that’s what it takes to set things right,” support for the false claim that the 2020 election was “rigged,” and a decreasing desire to prosecute rioters at the Capitol on January 6th.

These findings highlight the strength of support for Trump’s campaign of retribution with a Christian nationalist audience, and underscores the pressing need for accountable politics and a reckoning for Christian civic presence. Both enable us to resist emerging threats created by egregious myth-making taking place post-January 6.

These post-January 6 myths are not new. They began on January 6, 2021. Like Sen. Josh Hawley, photographed with fist raised towards the mob, or later that evening, Sen. Matt Gaetz arguing baseless conspiracy theories on the House floor claiming that AntiFa was to blame. Though the Presidential election was ultimately certified on January 6, democracy in its aftermath has largely failed to halt the spread and intensification of this ideology.

Today, the present Speaker of the House of Representatives, self-identified evangelical and Republican Mike Johnson, supported several different election fraud schemes and continues to advance propagandizing rhetoric, referring to perpetrators of January 6 as “political prisoners.” This rhetoric valorizes those convicted over their roles in January 6, like the “Q-Anon Shaman” Jacob Chansley who is now running for Congress. Speaker Johnson’s propaganda turns Chansley and others into martyrs in the January 6 myth, and allies in Trump’s cause of retribution.

Similarly, the Speaker’s office plans to release 40,000 hours of security footage of January 6, with the faces of participants blurred out. He defends this decision by appealing to freedom, arguing he is letting the American people decide. But the American people and our politicians are not ignorant of the ways digital algorithms on TikTok or X alter, distort, and amplify conspiracy theory and propaganda—like election fraud claims or, in this case, fragmented clips of January 6. Many of us can point to close family and friends whose conversion to conspiracy theory has fractured previously close relationships.

How can Americans resist these currents of disinformation and retribution being sown and masked by the mythmaking taking place around January 6th? We believe accountable politics and responsible Christian presence are two possible paths forward.

Accountable Politics

A key element will be the continued work of scholars to historically document January 6. Facts and truth must counter propaganda and myth.

We believe accountable politics means beginning with all Americans. Where everyday citizens choose to recognize and resist the spirit of retribution and vengeance, in themselves and others. If there is a crisis of democracy, it concerns all of us. But no common ground is possible without recognizing common humanity.

These ideals make for good speeches, but the legacies of Douglass, Baldwin, and King teach us the worth of great ideals is weighed in the hands of citizens who translate them into responsible and creative action, not without consequences. Part of this responsibility, we think, involves a common, local refusal to hand power to those like Trump, who campaign on retribution, from school boards to the halls of Congress.

We can’t forget accountable politics is material politics. Perhaps nothing could diffuse the fear that drives voters into the arms of a strongman like economic relief. And for all the ways to stabilize democracy—like elevating bipartisan leaders through the power of the vote—we shouldn’t forget that democracy is only as strong as our willingness to promote dialogue that rejects demonization. After all, the cause of retribution only works in a division of “us” versus “them.”

But too often, demonization is just what our politics and our algorithms reward. And creating division like this has often curated power for Christians in America. It’s a “culture war Christianity” buried within the ideology of Christian nationalism, a toxic mixture of moral anxiety with a self-justifying moral authority.

No matter how accountable our politics, we cannot stop the intensity of Christian nationalism by ignoring these “Christian” elements. Democracy can do everything in its power to protect itself from this ideology. But at best, it will always leave the distinctively Christian elements untouched. Here, there remains a crisis to be resolved by those Christians unafraid and free to implicate themselves by publicly admitting the ways Christian beliefs fueled a national tragedy.

The testimony of a Capitol Police Officer before Congress, “It was clear the terrorists perceived themselves to be Christian,” is perhaps best reserved for Christians in America.

Responsible Christian Presence

All Americans, both Christian and non-Christian alike, saw the “Jesus Saves” signs and crosses at the Capitol. And yet, in the aftermath of January 6, many Christians in America opted to distance themselves from this obvious Christian influence in various ways. But no sanitizing of January 6 can erase a simple, unavoidable fact: people were praying. They prayed while the spectacle of violence raged. Those prayers and the spectacle must be held together. And it should draw attentive reflection and contrition from Christians, not denial dressed up in calculated, political expediency.

Only contrition from Christians over January 6 will lead us to resist retribution as a political cause. As practicing Christians, one of us an ethicist and the other a sociologist, we don’t fault our fellow non-Christian Americans who are skeptical of a Christian public presence, who might tend to reject conversations about what Christians can offer American society. We believe such skepticism is often valid. It comes from observing in Christians a political will to dominate, rather than a commitment to cultivate a world where all people can flourish and where the rights of each person to engage with the political system are defended.

The renewal of Christian civic presence in a pluralistic society begins with a reckoning. One where Christians stop confusing the power to crucify with the power of the Crucified One. This power is what David Bentley Hart calls the “anarchy of charity” — the opposite of domination. To our fellow Christians in America, we cannot sanitize or mythologize January 6. These myths do nothing but protect the power of a fast-regrouping Christian civic machine looking to install a certain vision of Christian morality through coercive force. We cannot be a reconciling presence championing the cause of retribution.

But the incentive to forget an event like January 6 always arises from the will to power. For every “remembering” in American history there is also a “forgetting,” for every Fort Sumter, Pearl Harbor, and 9/11, there is the Stono rebellion or Osage murders. The Lost Cause myth sustained the cultural white supremacy of Southern States in the wake of their defeat in the Civil War. It aided in the construction of Jim Crow.

The Christian Nationalist myth of January 6 leads us down similar paths, towards more violence and retribution, in denial of the Jesus some Americans claim to follow. These myths, today, mask the intensifying of Christian Nationalist ideology, threatening our political system, and damaging a civil sphere that we hope can yet become a common ground. Reckoning with and resisting these myths through accountable politics and a more responsible Christian presence are part of the way forward.

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