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'A Certain Story About America': Yale Expert On Religious Imagery During Capitol Riot

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John Minchillo
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AP Photo
Trump supporters gather outside the Capitol, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington.

Images of the mob that attacked the Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6 show a dizzying array of political and religious symbols among the crowd. There were flags, logos, sweatshirts and tattoos. Philip Gorski is a professor of sociology and religious studies at Yale University and author of American Babylon: Christianity and Democracy Before and After Trump. He spoke recently with Connecticut Public Radio’s Diane Orson.

Diane Orson: As you watched the scene unfold at the Capitol there were a multitude of religious images. What jumped out at you and why?

Philip Gorski: Well, I guess the thing that really struck me was that at first glance it really seemed like apples and oranges. You had somebody put up a gallows. Somebody else put up a cross. You had somebody wearing a Camp Auschwitz sweatshirt and somebody else waving a “Jesus Saves” flag.

But as you look a little bit more closely, things tend to blur, mix together. You learn that the Proud Boys, the radical right militia group, actually prayed before they stormed the Capitol. You see evangelical Christians waving Trump flags and somebody dressed up as a kind of cosplay crusader clutching a large leather Bible with skeleton gloves on. So, what I really took away from the imagery was that it’s not apples and oranges. It’s a fruit cocktail -- a cocktail that I would call white Christian nationalism.

What is white Christian nationalism?

I think the best way of explaining it is that it’s a certain story about America. It says America was founded as a Christian nation by white Christians. It was brought to power and prosperity by white Christians. It’s based on biblical principles, which is to say Protestant principles. And it’s been entrusted with a certain mission -- a mission to bring freedom, prosperity, or capitalism to the rest of the world, if necessary by force. And that mission is threatened by the growing numbers of non-whites and non-Christians and non-Americans on American soil. This means that white Christians have to take America back again if America is going to be great again.

So how does this intersect with democracy in the age of Donald Trump?

I think one of the most worrisome things about the spread of white Christian nationalism and the radicalization of white Christian nationalists is that they have increasingly come to see democracy as a barrier to taking the country back again, which is to say that many are moving in an increasingly anti-Democratic and authoritarian direction. And the people who gathered around the Capitol were just the most radical and radicalized of those people. As we know from opinion polls that have been done in the days following the Jan. 6 insurrection, they have still enormous degrees of support, not least amongst conservative white Christians in the United States.

And yet, it's notable that the insurrection took place on the same day that a Black Baptist preacher was confirmed as the winner in the Georgia Senate race. Where does all of this leave Christian leaders right now?

I think it leaves some Christian leaders in a very difficult position, in particular some very influential white evangelical leaders. But I think it’s important to recognize that there are other currents within American Christianity, and Rev. [Raphael] Warnock is a very good representative of the tradition that speaks in the name of cultural inclusion and social justice. Today it is really the Black church, more than any other institution, which carries that current of Christianity forth. So as you say, [it was] a very complicated day in the history of American Christianity.

What happens next?

I have been saying for a long time that the Trump presidency is deepening divisions within the white Christian community and especially amongst white evangelicals and Pentecostals to such a degree that schisms and splits become possible.

I think those splits up until now have been mostly on the individual level. So there is a hashtag -- ex-vangelical. I think, though, that those divisions along lines of generation, along lines of race, along lines of gender, along lines of region, may in fact give rise to organizational splits in the coming days.

Diane Orson is a special correspondent with Connecticut Public. She is a longtime reporter and contributor to National Public Radio. Her stories have been heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition and Here And Now. Diane spent seven years as CT Public Radio's local host for Morning Edition.
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