WASHINGTON – A man screaming with his fist raised, a Byzantine cross in red on his shirt. A white flag with a lonely green pine tree and the words “An Appeal to Heaven” fluttered over the angry crowd. The Christian flag whipped in the wind from a parked pickup truck.
These pictures, exhibited at the January 5-6 rally and riot in Washington, DC, have raised concerns that some of former President Donald Trump’s most passionate and dangerous supporters, including groups like the Proud Boys, Oathkeepers , QAnon, 3 Percenters, and America Firsters, camouflage themselves in biblical language to justify their actions.
The flags and other displays are the latest examples of how white terrorists throughout history, including the KKK, have cited Christianity to justify what they believe to be their God-given right to control races and ethnic groups, experts said.
The advertisements – including a prayer by a QAnon shaman from the Senate podium who broke into the Capitol – alarmed some religious leaders into publishing an open letterFridaysigned by more than 1,400 pastors and church leaders who condemn the “perversion” of their faith.
“The use of Christian symbols, iconography, and scripture in efforts to dominate and exclude is as old as the republic itself,” said Rev. Fred Davie, executive vice president of Union Theological Seminary in New York City. “It’s burned deep into our nation. It’s deep, but it has also been proven wrong time and time again.”
Davie, who served as the Faith Liaison in the White House, said evangelicalism in particular has been linked to American nationalism, especially white nationalism. Online some die-hard Christians find acceptance of their racist beliefs from white nationalists, most of whom do not share their beliefs but are united in their hatred.
“We’re talking about a minority within a minority, but it’s a powerful minority,” Davie said. “But they do not represent the essence of white Christians in America – or Christians in America as a whole.”
Use Christianity to justify hatred
Some of the people who display Christian symbols or rely on the Bible to justify their actions are largely cynical. Several experts said: You are sending a signal to other racists.
“To them, it’s just an acronym for identity,” said Edward Ahmed Mitchell, deputy executive director of the US-Islamic Relations Council and former Georgia prosecutor. “There is absolutely a connection between far-right political extremism and far-right religious extremism, but I doubt these people show up at church every Sunday and read their Bibles.”
Matthew DeMichele, a research sociologist specializing in extremism at RTI International Research Institute in Raleigh, North Carolina, said there are clearly Christians who believe their religion justifies racism, and today’s accounts are “an intense redistribution of ancient tactics.”
In the United States, many Christian pastors preached for centuries a “natural order” whereby whites were entitled to enslave black men, women, and children, citing everything from the writings of Paul the Apostle in the New Testament to the curse of ham in the Old Testament. Others argued that since the Bible designates slavery as an institution without expressly condemning it, it must be divinely permitted. In 1861, Texas leaders cited “the simplest revelations of divine law” to justify slavery and secession from the United States.
DeMichele said what we see today is a streamlined re-emergence of the approach of groups like the KKK, which have wrapped themselves in Christian symbols and set fire to crosses as a terrorist tactic.
“Unthinkable for Christians to support the proud boys”
The letter, published this week by Christian leaders across the political spectrum, explicitly acknowledges that terrorist groups like the KKK have been tolerated and even accepted by white evangelicals.
“We choose to speak now because we don’t want to be silent accomplices in this ongoing sin,” the letter says. “Just as it was tragically inconsistent for Christians to support the Ku Klux Klan and Nazi ideology in the 20th century, so it is unthinkable for Christians, the proud boys, oath-keepers, QAnon, 3 percent, America Firsters and similar groups to support.”
The letter urges pastors to advise parishioners who join or support racist and hate groups and to highlight the values of democracy, anti-racism and equality.
“Instead of considering a particular political leader or party as appointed by God, we believe in the prophetic and pastoral ministry of the Church to all political leaders and parties,” the letter reads. “Instead of power through violence, we believe in and seek to imitate the mighty servant love practiced by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
DeMichele, who has interviewed dozen of white supremacists, said the United States had purposely not investigated why and how people become white supremacists and white nationalists. He said a better understanding of why white Americans fall in love with these ideals will help fight domestic terrorism and help the United States live up to its ideals.
“People don’t want to say this is a country based on white supremacy. But we know that is true,” DeMichele said. “It is very important to understand that it is not new for white supremacists to have a Christian identity. But it is fascinating that the white nationalists and those of the Christian identity increasingly overlap.”
White nationalists generally claim the white race is superior and advocate segregation. White supremacists go a step further and insist that white people deserve to be responsible for everything because of the color of their skin. The two descriptions are often used interchangeably by the public, although scholars distinguish between the two.
Davis noted that Christian symbols have been visible at other white nationalist rallies in recent years, including the “Unite the Right” march in Charlottesville in August 2017, during which a mish-mash of hundreds of white nationalists, neo-Nazis, the KKK and white militias protested the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
A similar gathering of groups gathered at the Capitol on January 6, including white nationalists, QAnon supporters, oathkeepers, and others who waved Christian flags and blew ram horns.
“The different ideologies are all conflating,” said Stephen Piggott, a researcher at the Western States Center, a Portland, Oregon-based nonprofit that supports inclusive democracy. “If a neo-Nazi showed up at a Trump rally a year ago, they were probably kicked out.”
Making “something very dark” out of religious beliefs
White nationalists have invoked Christianity internationally to justify their actions – even if they are not Christians themselves. A man who attacked a summer camp in Norway in 2011 and killed 77 people claimed to be a member of an international Christian military order created to combat Muslims. He later said he was actually a follower of pagan Nordic gods, including Odin, and a neo-Nazi, and that he was inspired by al-Qaeda.
Comparisons between al-Qaeda and white nationalists professing a twisted, extreme version of Christianity are accurate, said Javed Ali, a former analyst with the FBI and the National Security Council. Terror groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS have both picked their way out of Islam to justify their violent attacks, said Ali, who teaches counter-terrorism at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.
“You could turn Islam into something very dark,” he said. “I see the same thing on the far right: these symbols are being hijacked for an entirely different purpose. And it helps to justify their actions.”
While Christian symbols were present in the Capitol during the January 6 uprising, prosecutors did not identify any significant links between arrested participants and churches. Mitchell of the American-Islamic Relations Council said federal agents should not target churches for investigation the way they target mosques after 9/11. Critics of this surveillance said there was a risk of alienating and possibly radicalizing Muslims who suddenly felt unwelcome in their own country.
“You don’t have to look for churches. All you have to do is take seriously the violent rhetoric that is being openly expressed,” he said. “In our opinion, the federal government has never taken the threat posed by right-wing religious extremists as seriously as Muslim extremists, who are far fewer.”