'Christian Nationalism' Didn't Cause January 6
The “Christian nationalism” narrative is a theory in search of facts.
As the American public, and the broader world, watched the shocking events of January 6 unfold on television and social media, a consensus quickly emerged among some academics, pundits, and clergy that the attack at the Capitol was religiously inspired. “Christian nationalism,” the narrative went, was the driving force behind the riot. Popular Christian historian Jemar Tisby tweeted: “Don't miss the religious elements of what's happening at the Capitol. They said, ‘Critical Race Theory is the biggest threat.’ What they're showing us is that Christian nationalism is and has been the biggest threat not only to Christianity in the US but to democracy as well.”
Without so much as a single arrest record or investigation having been conducted, a ground swell of assertions flooded magazines, journals, newspapers, and social media claiming that Christian nationalism was to blame for the events on January 6. In the subsequent weeks and months, several evangelicals would join this chorus, publicly denouncing Christian nationalism as responsible for the violence at the Capitol.
In a follow-up podcast a couple weeks later, Tisby chafed at a request for evidence proving that Christian nationalism was behind the riot. “The fundamental problem is when you’re a fish you don’t know what water is,” he retorted. “It’s in the air, you’re so close to it, you’re so steeped in it that it seems normal. And so to call out white supremacist Christian nationalism is, to many white Christians, just plain old Christianity.” In his response he made no appeal to arrest records, legal documents, or public statements.
Tisby assumed that if you could not “see” the obvious Christian nationalism on display at the Capitol, then you are the problem; asking for evidence shows that you don't get it. The narrative that Tisby was referring to is a history of white supremacist Christianity he believes still predominates Christianity among white people in America today. What happened at the Capitol, for Tisby and others, was just another instance of that narrative continuing to play out.
The claim that Tisby and others have made is a causal one: This bigoted and nativist version of the Christian faith was the cause of the violence on January 6. The violence that day was not merely political violence by a mob, but the wicked fruit of a perverted Christian faith. This perversion they label “Christian nationalism,” which these critics understand as a set of theological convictions: that America was founded as a white Christian nation; it is a nation specially favored by God; and the nation should be ruled by specifically Christian beliefs and morals. Anything that threatens those core beliefs is not only opposed by the Christian nationalist but will be met with violence. January 6 fit perfectly into a long narrative of oppression and violence, and was immediately parlayed, to great effect, into a bludgeon with which to attack evangelicals and other groups alleged to subscribe to so-called Christian-nationalist beliefs.
Many Christians, including some prominent evangelicals, were primed and eager to see this link. The Trump presidency produced a ground swell of criticism from evangelical establishment figures, even as run-of-the-mill evangelicals voted for him in record numbers. David French, formerly a rather milquetoast conservative evangelical, was radicalized by his coreligionists’ embrace of Trump, morphing into his current persona as the critic-in-chief of evangelical sins. Like Tisby, French too sees January 6 as having been motivated by a deviant Christian nationalism: “We have to be clear about what happened in Washington D.C. on January 6th. A violent Christian insurrection invaded and occupied the Capitol.”
After four years of chastising evangelicals for their continued support of Trump, evangelical critics were quick to see January 6 as not only vindication of their criticisms of Trump but proof that evangelicals were turning into the kind of violent political zealots about which the critics had warned. The problem with January 6-as-Christian-nationalism claim, however, is that when one looks beyond the mere surface of the riot, there is a very different reality than the one critics present. In fact, the story they tell, which neatly fits Jan 6 into a long history of Christian nationalism, is just that: a story.
The facts of the case, which these critics are incurious to address in detail, tell quite a different story. It is a reality in which religion plays little to no clear role. One in which the events of January 6 have little to do with Christianity except in the most superficial sense. In the end, the story being pieced together through federal investigations and the painstaking work of journalists bears little, if any, resemblance to the one told by Tisby and French.
To be sure, there was a superficially Christian presence at the January 6 protest. However, the sleight of hand performed by critics has been to make that general empirical observation a causal one—cum hoc ergo propter hoc. These critics generally assumed they could divine from the spectacle of flags with crosses and banners with Christian slogans (“Jesus Saves”) intermixed with political banners and Trump flags that the subsequent violence was religiously motivated. A prayer was offered on the floor of the House of Representatives? Case closed. Where there is smoke, there is fire.
What is lacking from these arguments is any sifting of evidence and facts that have arisen over the past year and half of investigations and court cases. Did the religious beliefs of those present at the protest lead to the violence? The mere presence of people with religious beliefs in the Capitol building is not dispositive.
Tisby and French do not bother to reconstruct in detail the origins of the riot, the figures who drove the violence, or the evidence slowly trickling out as court cases are made public. Making their argument persuasively would require drawing direct causal links between the actors who incited the violence and religious motives. People would have to be named. Information about these people would have to be examined. What were their reasons for engaging in violence? What can we discern from court records or public comment? Rather than answering those questions in the specific and painstaking detail required to make a causal connection between supposed Christian convictions and violence, they rely on weak inference.
A New York Times op-ed by Thomas Edsall titled, “The Capitol Insurrection Was as Christian Nationalist as It Gets,” was published a couple of weeks after the riot and is emblematic of this sort of argument. A veritable “who’s who” of Christian-nationalist critics joined together into a single chorus assigning the violence of January 6 to Christian nationalism. These critics energetically provided detailed arguments about perceived evils of Christian nationalism, but spent almost no time on the actual evidence and facts of the event at the Capitol, which were quite spare at the time.
Rather than engaging in any of the empirical work of examining arrest records, court documents, or public statements from defendants or prosecutors, those who place the blame on Christian nationalism for the events of January 6 are mostly drawing upon inferences from their own body of research. In a recent article, Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry, both sociologists and authors of an influential book on Christian nationalism, assert: “We are forgetting that January 6th was very much a religious event—white Christian nationalism on display. We must remember that fact.” A curious statement, for sure, given that their evidence amounts to television videos and sociological surveys from folks not directly involved in the protest and ensuing violence.
In Perry and Whitehead’s article they make no reference to a single individual arrested or charged by the government, or any of the groups on which prosecutors are primarily focused. Nor do they spend time looking at any of the detailed investigative reporting done on the groups that instigated the violence at the Capitol. As with Tisby, they have a narrative and body of scholarship that is never connected to the event. Even if we were to grant that the phenomenon of Christian nationalism is what they say it is, that does not mean these people at this specific event are those Christian nationalists. Their answer to the question “How do you know?” is not a barrage of evidence and detailed analysis from the facts on the ground, but surveys and historical narrative.
The common thread among critics is their failure to directly engage with the facts of the case. This was perhaps an understandable omission at the time of the riot, as arrests and information were not available. But why do they continue to speculate and make such confident assertions? Critics seem invested in making this event fit a narrative they want desperately to be true, regardless of whether it reflects the facts.
The rather neat and consistent picture of the January 6 rioters as religiously motivated stands in stark contrast to the emerging picture of the identity of those who actually became violent at the Capitol. Professor Robert Pape of the University of Chicago and the Chicago Project on Security and Threats (CPOST) has been compiling and analyzing data as it is made available. Pape and his research team are attempting to understand the persons involved, including where they live and other relevant information as to their motives. None of the proponents of the Christian-nationalism thesis have cited Pape’s work.
A number of Pape’s findings present a very different picture of the make-up and motives of rioters than the one presented by the Christian-nationalist critics. Roger Parloff, a journalist and senior editor at Lawfare, is performing an ongoing deep dive into the cases of those arrested and charged in the wake of January 6. His detailed analysis of the persons charged and brought before the D.C. District Court has also painted a rather different picture than the Christian-nationalism narrative.
Let me touch on a few of the major findings. One of the core claims of those who assert that Christian nationalism motivated the January 6 violence is that the events of that day were an extension of white conservative evangelicalism, especially as practiced in the Bible Belt. The CPOST study presents a contrasting picture of the geographical origins of those arrested. States with the largest absolute numbers of arrested individuals from January 6 are, in descending order, Florida, Pennsylvania, Texas, New York, and California.
Perhaps Texas is less surprising, but California, New York, Florida, and Pennsylvania do not exactly fit the narrative of “God and country” evangelicals from the Bible Belt imbibing theological beliefs that motivated violent protest. Quite the opposite. In fact, one of the more surprising findings of the CPOST study is that the more rural a county, the less likely that county was to have sent someone to the Capitol who would later be arrested. This was true despite the fact that the more rural a county, the more likely it was to have voted for Trump, painting exactly the opposite picture of the one painted by critics. An even more surprising finding is that the higher a county's percentage vote for Trump, the lower the chance that county would send someone to the Capitol who would be arrested for activities related to January 6. Against the assertion that deep-red Trump counties were breeding grounds for violent Christian nationalism, we find that the more pro-Trump a county, the less likely violent protestors were to have originated there.
The study addresses the assumption that many on the political left hold, including critics of Christian nationalism, that the rioters hailed from deep-red America: “A common narrative amongst the political left maintains that insurrectionists come from places where Trump is the most politically dominant – rural, almost completely white, and with high unemployment – not Biden strongholds … But we find that this is not the case. Although the January 6 insurrectionists are all pro-Trump activists, they do not hail from just the reddest parts of the country.”
What, then, is the make-up of the counties from which the rioters were more likely to have come? Again, the findings are counterintuitive. Violent rioters were much more likely to come from urban rather than rural counties: 28 percent came from large central metro areas; 28 percent came from the fringe of those large metros; and 22 percent came from medium-sized metros. All of this leads to the conclusion that January 6 was an urban phenomenon rather than a rural one. Furthermore, violent protestors were more likely to have come from counties that Biden won than those that Trump won. Most protesters, however, came from contested (purple) counties outside the Bible Belt and the South. Rather than coming from places with ideological uniformity, it was the areas with the greatest political division that supplied the protesters who actually became violent.
Roger Parloff’s investigation of recent indictments presents us with even more contrary evidence to the Christian-nationalism thesis. He examines the origins of the violence at the Capitol by attempting to reconstruct the exact timeline and actors who started the riot. Drawing upon earlier work done by the Wall Street Journal and the claims found in recent government indictments, Parloff came to the conclusion that two right-wing groups—the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers—played the central role in fomenting the violence that occurred on January 6.
In a follow-up discussion of his article, Parloff came to a somewhat surprising conclusion: without the instigation of the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, the violence at the Capitol probably would not have happened. Parloff was asked point blank: "If the Proud Boys were not at the Capitol on Jan 6th, would the violent insurrection have happened?” To which he replied: “It seems conceivable. It seems conceivable. I know that’s a strange thing to say. [The Proud Boys] are a tiny percentage of the rioters…. But it does seem possible that they really played these crucial roles.”
The most serious charges—seditious conspiracy—have been brought against the leader of the Proud Boys, Henry “Enrique” Tarrio, and four other members as well as the founder and leader of the Oath Keepers, Stewart Rhodes, and ten other members. The Proud Boys are not considered a religious organization. Christian-nationalist critics never mention the Proud Boys or Oath Keepers as Christian-nationalist groups, and for good reason. The goals of these groups, though they may have some vague connection to a type of cultural Christianity, have no real connection to Christian churches, theology, or religious practice. The government’s prosecution of the leadership of these two groups indicates exactly who the government believes bears responsibility for instigating the violence, and it is not Bible Belt Christians.
If we are to discern the motives of the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, Parloff points to the belief that the election was stolen (“the Big Lie”) and the belief that Biden was a communist or some sort of political radical seeking to impose socialism. Pape’s CPOST study concludes that those arrested on January 6 were motivated by the belief that the election was stolen and what they call “the great replacement”—the theory that white Americans are being displaced by minorities. What neither Parloff nor the CPOST study mention is any explicit religious motivation, let alone theological beliefs about America being a Christian nation. Religious motives barely show up at all in the studies, and when they do, they are ancillary to the actors who instigated the violence.
At a minimum, the CPOST study and Parloff’s research provide no evidence that Christian beliefs were a causal factor of the violence. At most, critics could claim that Christian beliefs were at work on January 6 by implication, but that would be pure speculation lacking measurable evidence. The brute facts of the groups and persons involved do not cohere with the neat narrative the critics present. Proving a negative is hard, but the evidence gives little credence to the sweeping claims of those who lay the primary blame for Jan 6. on Christian nationalism.
More strongly, we may conclude that the findings of these studies undermine the Christian-nationalism thesis in important ways. The violence was not religiously inspired, and it did not emanate from the Bible Belt or portions of the country that voted overwhelmingly for Trump. The phenomenon is more complicated than the critics have led us to believe. In fact, the CPOST study concludes that the political movement that engaged in violence at the Capitol is a new movement and not the continuation of a political movement from the past.
We are left with a question: why do those who advance the connection between Christian nationalism and January 6 appear so uninterested in the evidence? What I have been interested in the past year and a half are the claims made by Christian-nationalist critics in the wake of January 6. The real question regarding January 6 is whether Christian groups or convictions were the cause (or even a cause) in bringing about the violence that erupted on that day. That is my sole focus here. What I have found is significant distance between the claims of the critics and facts as they have been reported.
As with so many other events in the polarized contemporary U.S. culture, January 6 appears to be a Rorschach test. We are inclined to see something, whether it is there or not. For many, it was a foregone conclusion that the attack on the Capitol was primarily driven by Christian nationalism. From the get-go, they “knew” what was going on, and no amount of evidence to the contrary was going to convince them otherwise, nor has it moved them afterward. A great irony, to be sure, from a group of critics who pride themselves on making claims substantiated by data.
Hannah Arendt, the great political theorist and public intellectual, once commented that the danger of philosophers involving themselves in politics is that they see ideas at work in everything. Something like that seems to be driving the furor against Christian nationalism. A ready-made theory was conveniently at hand to explain the entirety of the event. When the facts didn’t match the theory, devotees doubled down.
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The early claims made by scholars in the aftermath of the violence have obscured rather than illuminated the events of that sad day. It looks more and more like the thesis of Christian-nationalist-motivated violence is a narrative in search of facts, a conclusion lacking evidence. This is what psychologists call motivated reasoning. When we analyze events, we are often motivated by our assumptions and the outcomes we want to see. Our biases shape how we interpret events. We are already “primed” to interpret events a certain way given our underlying commitments and, thus, we unconsciously try to fit events into a pre-existing frame. In this case, the critics were primed by what they witnessed to make the leap that this event was self-evidently fueled by religious nationalism. They appear to have been driven by a partisan narrative that reflexively blames evangelical Christians for the ills of society.
In the forward to a recent book on Christian nationalism, Tisby insists that “white Christian nationalism is the greatest threat to the witness of the church in the United States today.” If we are looking for motivated reasoning, then this is about as clear an instance as one could find. The problem with this tidy narrative is that what one gains in simplicity and coherence one loses in accuracy and specificity. The immediate knee-jerk assumption that January 6 was part of a long history of white Christian nationalism rejects the possibility of any further investigation as to the actual motivating factors of the events of that day.
To be sure, the zeal of those who instigated and participated in the violence may appear to observers like the zeal of religious fanatics, but that is a far cry from the claims of the critics who want to see a long-entrenched form of religious nationalism as the true motivation of the rioters. Perhaps further analysis will show there is a stronger link to Christian nationalism. Perhaps as the evidence is further sifted, we will discover links between religion and violence that day. Perhaps. At the moment, the link is not there.