Taking the White Christian Nationalist Symbols at The Capitol Riot Seriously

eople listen as President Donald Trump speaks during a rally Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

(RNS) — If there was one thing of value to come out of the shameful chaos of Wednesday's attack on the U.S. Capitol, it's that the horrific events made plain the powerful ideological and theological currents of American politics that often stay just under the surface. The emblems carried by the rioters — particularly the comfortable juxtaposition of Christian and white supremacist symbols — bear witness to these forces.

There were crosses, “Jesus Saves” signs, and “Jesus 2020” flags that mimicked the design of the Trump flags.

Some of the participants, organized as part of a “Jericho March,” blew shofars — Jewish ritual horns — as they circled the Capitol, reenacting the siege of the city of Jericho by the Israelites described in the Book of Joshua in the Hebrew Bible. And one video showed the Christian flag — white, with a blue canton containing a red cross, used by many white evangelical churches — being paraded into an empty congressional chamber after the doors had been breached and members of Congress evacuated.

I recall that same flag standing behind the pulpit of my Mississippi Southern Baptist church, whereas a child I was led in a pledge of allegiance to both the American and Christian flags.

The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg wrote that “the conflation of Trump and Jesus was a common theme at the rally” among people he interviewed. “It’s all in the Bible. Everything is predicted. Donald Trump is in the Bible. Get yourself ready,” one told him. “Give it up if you believe in Jesus!” said another, then “Give it up if you believe in Donald Trump!” — which elicited loud cheers from nearby rioters.

Comfortably intermingled with Christian rhetoric and these Christian icons were explicit symbols of white supremacy. Outside the Capitol, Trump supporters erected a large wooden gallows with a bright orange noose ominously dangling from the center. These Trump supporters managed to do something the Confederate army was never able to accomplish — fly the Confederate battle flag inside the U.S. Capitol. One widely shared image showed a rioter with the Confederate flag strolling past a portrait of William H. Seward, an anti-slavery advocate and Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of state, who was seriously wounded as part of the broad assassination plot in 1865 that killed Lincoln.

At least one protester sported a “Camp Auschwitz” hoodie, a reference to a concentration camp where over 1 million Jews were killed by the Nazis, even as others made outlandish comparisons between Christians as victims of American society and European Jews in the Third Reich.

Crowds also formed at state capitols in Ohio, Kansas, and Michigan. 

If we are to understand the events of yesterday and the challenges ahead for us as a nation, we must take these symbols and this rhetoric seriously, not in isolation, but in combination and conversation with each other.

This seditious mob was motivated not just by loyalty to Trump, but by an unholy amalgamation of white supremacy and Christianity that has plagued our nation since its inception and is still with us today. As I show in my book " White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity," there remains a disturbingly strong link between holding racist attitudes and identifying as a white Christian.

We should remember that this moment, and the divisions of the last four years, are set against the upheaval of religious and demographic change.

Since 2008, the country has moved from being a majority Christian nation to one that is no longer a majority Christian nation (from 54% white and Christian to 44% white and Christian). This change took place during the tenure of our first African American president. The dysfunction and violence we are seeing is in large part an attempt to preserve a vision of white Christian America that is passing from the scene.

The willingness among those in the crowd Wednesday to believe outlandish conspiracy theories and the unwillingness to accept the election results are born from the same source: a desperate desire by some white Christians to hang onto ownership of a diversifying country.

As many have rightly declared, the violent disregard for the rule of law we witnessed is not the best of who we are. But if we’re going to heal our nation, we need to confess that it remains, still today, a troubling part of America’s political and religious heritage.

(Robert P. Jones is the CEO and founder of PRRI and the author of " White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity " and " The End of White Christian America." The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

If you are looking for a way to become an interfaith leader, work for racial equity and build bridges, please check out our free curriculum "We Are Each Other's" and start your interfaith leadership today

more from IFYC

To explore what American clergy are doing to support the vaccine effort, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld interviewed a series of faith leaders about their tradition's views on public health & vaccination & asked what they are doing in the vaccination effort.
His message was clear: For the future to have a chance at all, parts of the past had to be left behind, and all of us have to convene around common symbols.
A survey released by PRRI (Public Religion Research Institute) found that the American public sentiment, across most religious groups, is much closer to the policies the Biden administration is proposing than those put in place by Trump.
The Conversation U.S. asked six education experts how teachers—and parents—can help young people comprehend, analyze, and process what happened on January 6.
"It was an appropriately spiritual beginning to a faith-infused day and what is shaping up to be an unapologetically religious presidential term for Biden, the second Catholic president in U.S. history."
Large majorities of today’s young adults understandably lack confidence in institutions and are inclined toward distrust of others. Yet they exhibit a knack for recasting challenges as adventures and they set out to conquer them.
My cousin and I are Christian, Cuban women imploring for conversation in an effort to present different perspectives, in order to develop our own identities in a society that only seems to value polarization and tribalism.
As a Christian who is also a minister, I live between the Great Commission (sharing the Gospel) and the Greatest Commandment (loving God and my neighbor).
Five Bridgebuilding field leaders--Rev. Jen Bailey, Kalia Abiade, Mandisa Thomas, Simran Jeet Singh, and Branden Polk--came together to discuss the decisive need for action, not empty commitments to change, and how we can impart these principles.
"This moment thus necessitates moral clarity and courage concerning the trajectory of this nation. Too many have followed the path of cynicism and opportunism away from any shared commitment to a common good."
"Both the suffering and the pursuit of justice stand true at the same time. We must hold and be responsive to both."
It is new every year. Watching my students move from multifaith to interfaith. Daring to tear down walls and build bridges to faith traditions and spiritual expressions different from their own.
It is reasonable to believe that King would support holding people accountable for crimes committed, but King also held a higher hope for at least some of those who were part of the mob.
Having recently completed a monograph on the rhetoric of divine wrath, a year ago I led an honors seminar on the way in which an angry deity is presented in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It was the most successful course I’ve ever taught.
The four officially wrapped up their fellowship on Sunday (Jan. 10) with a virtual graduation where they shared the lessons they learned from one another during the tumultuous year.
...But if you follow the evidence from the very start and all throughout, President Trump has thrived in generating chaos and stirring up doubt. Was this a premeditated effort that was designed to create some larger future momentum?
A Biden transition official noted there was significant energy at the meeting created by Biden's promise to overturn President Donald Trump's travel ban, which advocates characterize as a "Muslim ban."
The presence of anti-Semitic symbols and sentiment at the Capitol riot raised alarms among Jewish Americans and experts who track discrimination and see it as part of an ongoing, disturbing trend.
And so this Administration gives me hope that we can rebuild. Or, to use the President-elect’s own transition team slogan, that we can “build back better.”
In too many cases, religious beliefs and commitments have been overshadowed, and even dominated by political and racial cleavages.
To achieve full religious diversity, equity, and inclusion, it is important for the new Presidential administration to establish more interfaith dialogue and opportunities to work together.

The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.