I was in my 20s when I first set foot inside the U.S. Capitol. My then-boyfriend, now husband, and I moved to Washington, D.C., in the summer of 1995. Our apartment was on Capitol Hill, and the Capitol was no longer just in my history books. I witnessed its grandeur on a regular basis as I jogged on the National Mall and walked to the Metro. A few years later, I entered the world of nonprofit issue advocacy and finally had reason to go inside.
If you have never walked the halls of the Capitol, doing so is pretty incredible. Every time I’m there, I’m struck by its beauty, history and importance. I feel connected to our nation’s core values. I feel proud to be a small part of our great democracy. I feel grateful to the public servants and staff who dedicate their careers to our country. But one thing I never feel is worried that an angry mob will infiltrate the building, threatening the physical safety of those inside.
And so, as word started to circulate that the Capitol was under assault on Jan. 6, I was stunned. I was working from home, as many of us are these days, when my computer began to light up about the angry Pro-Trump mob in front of the building.
I ran downstairs to the television, where I met up with my husband and two of our three children. Together, we watched in horror as the angry throng poured into the Capitol, undeterred by law enforcement. For our family, there was another element of fear: My oldest daughter was there, steps away from the Capitol, reporting live on behalf of The Washington Post. Even though she sent me a much-appreciated occasional text message to let us know she was OK, our entire network of extended family and friends was completely on edge until she left to go home around 7 p.m. that night.
Weeks later, I am still learning about and processing what happened. But what I do know is that a mob of white Christian nationalists inflamed by President Donald Trump’s incendiary rhetoric – waving “Jesus saves” banners and parading crosses alongside their Confederate flags – traumatized and destabilized the nation.
Robert Jones, president of Public Religion Research Institute, summed it up well in a column for Religion News Service: “This seditious mob was motivated not just by loyalty to Trump, but by an unholy amalgamation of white supremacy and Christianity that has plagued our nation since its inception and is still with us today.”
It wasn’t just the mob’s behavior that demonstrated the plague that Jones describes. Consider that this majority white Christian horde got away with scaling walls, breaking into and pillaging our Capitol and destroying media equipment while a majority Black group of peaceful protestors demonstrating last year in the wake of George Floyd’s brutal murder faced a menacingly large force of U.S. Park Police and National Guard troops. In one case, protestors near the White House were dispersed with tear gas, just so President Donald Trump could pose for a photo with an upside-down Bible in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church.
Think about what a majority Black or Muslim mob raiding the Capitol would have faced. Make no mistake: White privilege, hand-in-hand with Christian privilege, was on full display.
All of us at AU are clear that it’s our job to fight against this privilege and to fight for an inclusive America. And we know that the need to achieve our mission couldn’t be more dire. So, we have multiple exciting new projects under way – on top of our ongoing work – to increase our power and efficacy.
In preparation for our 75th anniversary next year, we are undergoing a careful rebranding process to modernize our look and lay the foundation for a special anniversary celebration. We are in the midst of a new round of comprehensive public opinion research to help us learn how we can resonate with new, younger and more diverse audiences and our traditional supporters alike. And we have also had some very productive meetings with the Biden-Harris transition team to advocate for the immediate change we need to see, even in its first 100 days.
I can guarantee you that the dedicated staff of AU will bring everything we’ve got to this fight – because we never want to see a day like Jan. 6, 2021, again.
Rachel K. Laser is president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.