The Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection and assault on the U.S. Capitol was broadcast live as it unfolded. Across the country, millions of Americans sat transfixed in front of their computers or televisions watching as a mob whipped into a frenzy by President Donald Trump overran barricades, broke into the Capitol, vandalized the building and assaulted police officers.
The men and women who took part in this melee did nothing to hide their participation. In fact, they seemed proud of it; many took selfies or made videos as they rampaged through the Capitol and posted them to social media.
In light of this, it would seem pretty obvious that Trump supporters are responsible for the sacking of the Capitol that day. But many Christian nationalists have since fingered a different suspect: progressives and Democrats.
“The mob behavior and mentality on display on Jan. 6 was already getting rooted in our country and justified and encouraged by political leaders in the Democratic Party,” Star Parker, a right-wing columnist and popular speaker on the Christian nationalist lecture circuit, wrote last month. “Suspicions about improprieties in the electoral process in 2020, which led up to the Jan. 6 incident, were and are quite justified given the closeness of the election coupled with the track record of dishonest behavior in the Democratic Party.”
Parker’s screed may seem too fantastic to take seriously – but she’s far from the only one pushing that line. In fact, one year after the horrific assault on the Capitol, it’s clear there’s a coordinated effort under way by Christian nationalists and others on the far right to rewrite the history of Jan. 6, 2021.
In the weeks and months that followed the attack, leaders of prominent Christian nationalist organizations either downplayed the insurrection or expressed sympathy for those who took part, portraying them as patriots. (See “Sympathy For The Devils,” July-August 2021 Church & State.) None bothered to engage in soul-searching or ask themselves whether their rhetoric and actions might have led to the assault.
Several journalists and scholars have bluntly explained how Jan. 6, 2021, was bound up with Christian nationalism.
“The most serious attempt to overthrow the American constitutional system since the Civil War would not have been feasible without the influence of America’s Christian nationalist movement,” writer/researcher Katherine Stewart wrote in a New York Times essay marking the one-year anniversary of the assault. “One year later, the movement seems to have learned a lesson: If it tries harder next time, it may well succeed in making the promise of American democracy a relic of the past.”
Stewart explained that the coup attempt wouldn’t have been possible “without the unshakable sense of persecution that movement leaders have cultivated among the same base of voters. Christian nationalism today begins with the conviction that conservative Christians are the most oppressed group in American society. Among leaders of the movement, it is a matter of routine to hear talk that they are engaged in a ‘battle against tyranny,’ and that the Bible may soon be outlawed.”
Writing in Salon, investigative reporter Kathryn Joyce highlighted the prayer shouted in the Senate chamber by Jacob Chansley, the so-called “QAnon shaman” who dressed in a fur vest and a headdress adorned with horns. His invocation, Joyce wrote, “was just one moment among hundreds that day illustrating how deeply the insurrection was intertwined with Christian nationalism. Across the sea of protesters in and outside the building, t-shirt and ball-cap slogans proclaimed it: ‘Jesus is my savior, Trump is my president’; ‘God, Guns, Trump’; or, on the sweatshirt of a man helping construct the rough gallows erected on the Capitol lawn, ‘Faith, Family, Freedom.’”
Rather than defend the indefensible, Christian nationalists have chosen to tell lies about what transpired on Jan. 6, 2021. You’ll likely hear them again, so here are five key points to keep in mind:
Christian nationalists claim that their own people weren’t prominent in the insurrection – they were. Video and photos taken the day of the insurrection clearly expose this claim for the lie that it is. People in the crowd can be seen hoisting crosses and other Christian symbols and signs. Some held prayer huddles during the event, including at the Senate leader’s rostrum. Their presence was so prominent that Daniel Hodges, an officer with the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department who was assaulted by the mob, remarked on it while testifying before Congress in July, observing, “It was clear the terrorists perceived themselves to be Christians. I saw the Christian flag directly to my front. Another read, ‘Jesus is my savior, Trump is my president.’ Another: ‘Jesus is king.’”
Several scholars and journalists have analyzed the Christian nationalist presence during the insurrection. Scholars affiliated with Uncivil Religion, a collaborative project between the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama and the National Museum of American History, put it succinctly: “Religious symbols, rituals, identities, banners, signs, and sounds suffused the events surrounding the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021.”
Christian nationalists insist that left-wing groups like Antifa and Black Lives Matter were behind the attack – they were not: Even as the attack on the Capitol was unfolding, evangelist Franklin Graham issued a tweet insisting that the rioters were members of Antifa. In the days that followed, other Christian nationalist leaders made similar claims. This is an absurd lie. Trump supporters took selfies and made videos of themselves inside the Capitol. Many were festooned with MAGA gear. As the arrests began, every single person charged was, without exception, a right-wing supporter of Trump. Yet despite this clear evidence, a poll taken five months after the insurrection showed that 73% of Republicans still maintained that left-wing groups were responsible.
Some Christian nationalists have massaged this argument a bit. They concede that the attackers were Trump supporters but insist that their actions were somehow justified because, earlier in 2021, supporters of Black Lives Matter and other groups on the left protested in several American cities, usually peacefully, though sometimes clashing with police who often responded violently.
The argument has a few glaring faults: Most of us learned as children that two wrongs don’t make a right. And the street protests, as raucous as some of them were, didn’t involve an attempt to subvert American democracy.
Christian nationalists say Trump wasn’t to blame – he was: One thing should be crystal-clear about the assault on the Capitol: Trump bears much of the blame for it. Trump urged people to come to D.C. on Jan. 6, promising them a “wild” time. On the morning of the event, Trump gave an incendiary speech, repeating the lie that he had won the election and telling the crowd, “We’re going to walk down to the Capitol, and we’re going to cheer on our brave senators, and congressmen and women. We’re probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them, though … because you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong. … So we’re going to the Capitol and fight like hell!”
Trump did not join the march on the Capitol. Instead, he returned to the White House and watched the chaos he had spawned unfold on television. For more than three hours, he ignored pleas to call off the mob. When Trump finally did issue a televised statement, it was long after the rioters had breached the Capitol, and it was tepid. He repeated the claim that the election had been stolen and told the insurrectionists to go home and “We love you. You’re very special.” (Several police officers are suing Trump over his role in inciting the violence.)
Christian nationalists say the assault wasn’t so bad – it was: Several Republicans have tried to argue that the insurrection, which millions of Americans watched unfold on television, wasn’t so bad. U.S. Rep. Andrew Clyde (R-Ga.) even compared the rioters to tourists. These “tourists” did $30 million in damage to the Capitol and in related costs, mauled approximately 1,000 police officers and threatened to murder several politicians including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority-Leader-elect Charles Schumer (with antisemitic threats to that effect) and Vice President Mike Pence. Four people in the crowd died, and five police officers who were there died in the days and weeks afterward.
Christian nationalists assert that the insurrectionists were merely expressing their anger in a legal way – they were not: The members of the Jan. 6 mob were whipped into a frenzy by the Big Lie that Joe Biden had stolen the election from Trump; they reacted with violence and terrorism. In no way was this a lawful demonstration.
Groups with grievances come to Washington all the time to hold rallies, hear speeches, march and speak out. All these activities are protected by the First Amendment. If the Trump hordes had limited themselves to lawful actions, Jan. 6 would have been just another day. But they didn’t – they overran the Capitol, beat police officers, stole things, committed acts of vandalism and threatened lawmakers. That’s why 725 of them thus far have been charged with crimes that include assault with a deadly weapon, destroying private property (mainly cameras and other items that belonged to members of the media), entering restricted areas and possession of dangerous weapons. That’s why 165 rioters have already pleaded guilty.
The lies embraced by Christian nationalists, Fox News and others on the far right may sound confounding to anyone who lives in the real world. After all, we saw the Jan. 6 insurrection unfold on live TV. We know what happened. The evidence is clear.
But if the Trump years taught us anything, it’s that for millions of Americans, truth has become elastic – a thing that can be twisted into whatever shape one desires as long as it serves a partisan end.
Of course, such a twisted tangle isn’t truth at all – but that doesn’t mean Christian nationalists won’t embrace it. Our task on this somber anniversary is, frankly, to make Christian nationalists uncomfortable by reminding them, over and over, if need be, of what really happened, how their poisonous ideology helped bring it about and why all Americans of goodwill are determined to see that it is never repeated.
On the one-year anniversary of the grim event, Americans United President and CEO Rachel Laser issued a statement reminding Americans of the prominent role Christian nationalists played in the attempt to overturn the results of a democratic election.
“One year ago today, armed radicals determined to overthrow the results of a free and fair election assaulted our Capitol,” Laser said. “Many hoisted crosses and other religious symbols as they took their anti-democratic, Christian nationalist crusade to the heart of American democracy – and they came much too close to succeeding.
“Church-state separation is a foundational democratic principle: It ensures freedom and equality for every American,” she continued. “The adversaries of real religious freedom are the adversaries of democracy. On this somber anniversary, we at Americans United for Separation of Church and State recommit ourselves to the best values of our Founders. We invite all who cherish our country’s promise of freedom without favor and equality without exception to join us in fighting to uphold these values against the dangerous forces of religious and political extremism.”