Civil Religion vs. White Nationalism: Which Role for Christianity in American Politics?

By: Tobias Cremer

January 22, 2021

Faith and the American Insurrection

The contrast between what happened on Capitol Hill on inauguration day this Wednesday compared to what happened there just two weeks ago could not have been starker. In an inauguration ceremony full of religious symbolism, and after a campaign that had made faith and morality a centerpiece of his appeal, Joe Biden was sworn into office on a family bible that is over a century old. He then went on conjuring America’s civil religious tradition, praising the healing power of faith for a divided nation, citing Augustine, appealing to Americans to hold true to the nation’s higher ideals, and leading the nation in silent prayer.

By contrast, the violent mob which ransacked the Capitol just two weeks earlier to prevent the confirmation of Biden’s victory seemed to have no interest in religion as a source of reconciliation or prophetic criticism. To be sure, they too displayed numerous religious symbols: Observers rightly pointed out the prominent presence of Christian crosses, flags, and prayer marches at the protests. However, the combination of such Christian imagery with open violence and disrespect for the sacred grounds of the Capitol on the one hand, and with the equally prominent display of Viking veneer, neo-pagan imagery, and QAnon shamans on the other, suggested a different approach to religion. Rather than a faith-driven Christian insurrection, the riots seemed to exhibit the triumph of a toxic and violent post-religious right, whose identitarian use of Christian symbols threatens not only America’s democratic norms but also its civil religious tradition.

The riots seemed to exhibit the triumph of a toxic and violent post-religious right, whose identitarian use of Christian symbols threatens not only America’s democratic norms but also its civil religious tradition.

Let me unpack this a bit. First what do I mean by America’s civil religious tradition? Civil religion, which was so strongly on display during Joe Biden’s inauguration, denotes the idea that American politics and identity are based on a religiously inspired but non-sectarian creed of common values and symbols. These include a ceremonial deism as expressed for instance through references to God on the U.S. dollar, in the pledge of allegiance, or in political speeches. It includes an emphasis of pan-religious themes, such as that the United States has a higher moral calling or that political and personal virtues should be inseparable. And it includes the quasi-sacralization of documents, personalities, and buildings such as the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the Founding Fathers and, indeed, the Capitol.

Biden’s inauguration ceremony exhibited civil religion’s two key functions in American politics. First to serve as an integrative force for a religiously, politically, and racially diverse nation. Second to serve as a source of prophetic criticism, which holds the nation accountable to its own higher principles and self-perception as a divinely chosen “city upon the hill.” This prophetic role has historically been evident during the anti-slavery movement or the women’s suffrage movement and perhaps most importantly in the Civil Rights Movement. Yale sociologist Phil Gorski for instance emphasizes the role of Martin Luther King’s civil religious rhetoric in bringing “together a diverse coalition of social reformers that bridged long‐standing divides of race and religion, as well as the growing chasm between religious and secular worldviews.” President Biden’s speech clearly places him squarely in this tradition and shows his willingness to rely on civil religion’s inclusive and prophetic potential, at a junction when political and racial polarization once again threatens to divide the nation. 

However, the riots at the Capitol two weeks earlier have demonstrated the strains civil religion has come under during the Trump presidency. This is not only because the rioters’ hero, Donald Trump, has blatantly disregarded civil religious norms and conventions throughout his presidency; or because by storming and vandalizing the Capitol the rioters themselves “defiled” and “desecrated” the “temple of Democracy,” as Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) put it. Instead, the greatest threat to civil religion emerges from the new right’s own use of religious symbols as means of exclusion and white identity politics.

The greatest threat to civil religion emerges from the new right’s own use of religious symbols as means of exclusion and white identity politics.

To be sure, it is nothing new that Christian nationalism has been used in American politics to exclude and polarize. Yet, the new radical right, which drove the riots, is of another quality. Indeed, as I discussed during a lecture at the Berkley Center earlier last year, it appears to be part of broader identitarian and post-religious right that has emerged on both sides of the Atlantic. This movement is different from traditional movements in American conservatism, in that it is neither conservative nor faith-driven, but radical and race-driven. It is less to be found in country clubs or church hall meetings than on QAnon online fora, or the networks of proud boys. It does not seek to defend the interests of business against an overreaching state; nor those of suburban moms concerned about public prayer at school or the moral standards in Washington, DC. Instead, what unites this movement is a hatred of the establishment, as well as a new brand of “white identity politics,” which like the identity politics of the left is primarily concerned with pre-defined traits such as race, culture, sexuality, or gender, but reverses it by claiming to defend the interest of white males rather than that of minorities. 

Of course, not all pro-Trump demonstrators who turned out on January 6 were part of this movement or shared all of its views. As observers like Mark Melton, Emma Green, or David French rightly point out, many demonstrators were mainstream Republicans and serious Christians, some of whom were genuinely worried about the president’s (unfounded) claims of election fraud or about the direction the country might take under Democratic leadership. Suggesting that all demonstrators were white supremacists, as some on the political left have done, risks to push such individuals further towards radicalization and thus plays into the hands of extremists. 

Still, these demonstrators—especially the Christians among them—must ask themselves serious questions about what brand of right-wing extremist groups they are allowing into the mainstream by marching side-by-side with them. They must ask themselves what harm this may do not only to their own personal faith, but also the role of religion in society writ large.

For the riots have clearly shown that QAnon, proud boys, and the like seek to repurpose Christianity as a cultural identity marker of white America. They parade Christian crosses at rallies, use Crusader imagery in their memes, and might even seek alliances with conservative Christian groups. But such references are not about the living, vibrant, universal, and increasingly diverse faith in Jesus Christ that is practiced in the overwhelming majority of America’s churches today. Instead, in white identity, politics Christianity is largely turned into a secularized “Christianism”: a cultural identity-marker and symbol of whiteness that is interchangeable with the Viking-veneer, the confederate flag, or neo-pagan symbols. 

In white identity politics, Christianity is largely turned into a cultural identity-marker and symbol of whiteness that is interchangeable with the Viking-veneer, the confederate flag, or neo-pagan symbols.

This undifferentiated—and some might say idolatrous—use of Christian symbols demonstrates a fundamental shift: not only from the old religious right to the new identitarian right, but also from the inclusive and prophetic ideals of civil religion to a culturalized vision of Christianism as vehicle for exclusion and nationalist violence.

A look at Europe, where the post-religious right has similarly sought to “hijack” Christianity in such ways, suggests that only Christian leaders and voters themselves can authentically reclaim Christianity. In Germany or France, for instance, churches were loud and unison in their condemnation of the use of Christian symbols by far-right movements like PEGIDA, AfD, or the Rassemblement National. Meanwhile Christian voters disproportionately rejected such movements at the ballot box. In the United States, by contrast, Christian leaders and voters have hitherto often justified their tolerance or support of Trump and of the far-right specters and conspiracy theories he has encouraged, with the argument that the Democratic Party would do even more harm to religion. 

On January 20, and during his campaign, Joe Biden has shown what brand of civil religion he is committed to. One might disagree about Biden’s ability to deliver on his promises of hope and reconciliation, as well as about the policy preferences of his party’s left wing. Yet the contrast between the inclusive and prophetic display of American civil religion at the Capitol on January 20, and the way religious symbols were used at the same place just two weeks earlier, provides American Christians with a clear choice. It will be up to them to look in their hearts and to discern which approach is more truthful to the American creed and to their own faith.

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