From Mexico, I have just finished watching and reading the U.S. commemoration/discussion of the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection. Having this distance provides a certain perspective. One thing noticeable by its absence is any mention at all of the role religion played in the Jan. 6 events, and leading up to those events.
All one has to do is Google a sampling of photos taken of the participants that day and one will find countless crosses, “Jesus saves” signs, Holy Bible T-shirts, “God bless America” signs, people blowing on rams’ horns (referencing the Book of Revelation), etc., and my personal favorite: a portrait of Jesus wearing a red MAGA hat.
Yes, we have to remember our democratic processes are under attack, voter suppression is in the works, the counting of votes is becoming a war zone, too many Republican voters and congressmen are still behind Trump, etc., etc. But where is this shift to the radical, angry right coming from, why is it so hard to calm it down, and why is it almost impossible to talk reasonably with the growing radical right?
I’m afraid the answer is because, for so many of them, this is a religious war, not just politics as usual. Living in this country where we had a horrible civil war over the issue of slavery, it is too easy for us to forget that a large number of civil wars around the world now and in the past have involved religious differences front and center. We could be headed for a religious civil war right now. On Jan. 4, Stephen Marche published a perceptive piece in The Guardian titled “The next U.S. civil war is already here — we just refuse to see it.”
I couldn’t agree more with the warnings being put forth that we have two years to save the U.S. from the threat of our government becoming a one-party autocratic rule system — losing our 200+-year-old (fragile) democracy. But so far I have not seen the warnings are recognizing the deepest and most dangerous origin of this threat. We have to address the root of the problem.
We now have a large voting block in the U.S. that is convinced our government should be/must be a specifically Protestant Christian form of government (a theocracy) and the Republican Party has decided to placate that mindset again and again to secure votes. It is a new type of Christian nationalism and Trump let that genie out of the bottle (not because he believes in it, but just because he wants votes).
The Democratic Party is not talking about the elephant in the middle of the room: a heretical form of Christianity that has become a political party more than a religion. If you don’t believe me, see Andrew Whitehead’s book of last year, “Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States,” which won the 2021 Distinguished Book Award from the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. Also see the “The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism” by Katherine Stewart, published in 2020. Reactionary Christian nationalism is probably the most serious problem facing our country right now.
If the Democrats want to win the battle, they have to be ready for it and be at the right battlefield. So far, they haven’t shown up and they haven’t even practiced. The Republican religious right is already on the battlefield and they consider it the most important battle in human history: For them, this is the first stage in preparation for the Battle of Armageddon — the ultimate battle between the forces of good and evil at the End of Days, which is to occur in northern Israel at Mount Megiddo (as in ‘Armageddon’) — in accordance with their idiosyncratic reading of the last book of the New Testament, The Book of Revelation (also called Apocalypse).
In this apocalyptic worldview, all the problems and immoralities the “liberal elite Democrats” have foisted upon America have been foretold in the Bible — and it is also foretold that these horrible, ungodly people will be destroyed. I am not making this stuff up. This is a real belief system, really held by millions of real voters in the U.S. It has become a major factor in our elections.
And yet hardly anybody is talking about it — except in thousands of fundamentalist American churches on Sunday mornings.
Democrats are now up against a party that is willing to see America become an autocracy and a theocracy. This is a whole new universe for American politics — like nothing before. And yet, so far, I haven’t heard a single Democrat call a spade a spade. Somebody, many somebodies, need to stand up and say loudly and repeatedly that this Republican religious nationalism is not OK, that it is a false religion, that it is the biblical wolf in sheep’s clothing. (By the way, here in Catholic Mexico, nobody gives a second thought to Armageddon and the End of Days — that’s a gringo and evangelical thing almost exclusively.)
I have been studying how the deep currents of religious belief systems influence everyday life and politics for my whole adult life. I never thought I would see the day when so many Christians in America would consider themselves a “persecuted minority.” And further, see themselves at the same time as “the elect” who alone have the truth and the Lord on their side. Because they “know” they have the truth and the Lord, they are 100% certain they are right, “righteous and justified.” On account of this conviction, they have no need or willingness to negotiate, compromise or cooperate about anything.
They have arrived at this position on account of how they have taken Martin Luther’s famous maxim “sola fides, sola scriptura” (by faith alone and scripture alone) to absurd lengths. The 21st-century Christian fundamentalists hold that, if you just have faith and apply your own reading skills to Holy Scripture, God will grace you personally with all the truth and understanding you need to make sense of the Bible and the world. There are no checks and balances, there is no need for assistance from scholars and priests and sacred tradition — in fact, those things just get in the way and cause serious trouble.
And vastly compounding the problem, these new kinds of Christians have now taken the above approach to reading the Bible with them when they read the internet — where they find all sorts of support and hidden truths and prophecies, which are discerned and shared only by the “elect” and the “enlightened.” Mind you, since they believe they have no need of scholarship and guidance, they proceed in this enterprise with neither biblical literacy or internet literacy. That is a frightening combination of ignorance and error — exactly the kind of ignorance and error that leads to blind faith in Trump, autocracy and theocracy.
This is what the Democratic Party is up against today. As Democrats, we haven’t liked, as a rule, to bring religion into political debate — but the rules have changed. The GOP and the radical religious right have injected a poisonous amount of Christian nationalism into our politics. If this is not called out and disarmed — firmly, loudly and often — it will destroy our democracy.
John Nassivera is a former professor who retains affiliation with Columbia University’s Society of Fellows in the Humanities. He lives in Vermont and part-time in Mexico.