Dismissing the Capitol insurrection as something that could 'only happen in America' is unwise

As an illuminating video shows, the mob which stormed the US Capitol on Jan 6th 2021 was deeply angry. The earliest arrivals forced their way into the building past an outnumbered police force. As they walked the corridors, they shouted over and over, “treason!” and “defend the Constitution!”  Then a number of them found a door that gave them entry into the Senate chamber, which had been evacuated only a few minutes before. One leader, dressed in military fatigues and helmet, urged the rioters to behave respectfully towards the place. This was an “information operation”, he explained. Others were in no mood for orderly protest. One said: “While we’re here, we might as well set up a government.”

For several minutes they rummaged through the Senators’ papers and speech notes, looking for material to use against them. In the gallery, a bare-chested man, nicknamed the QAnon Shaman, chanted, howled and banged his American flag on the ground. He was wearing a horned bearskin headdress and patriotic face paint. Then he came down to the floor of the Senate Chamber and sat in the Senate President’s chair, saying that Vice-President Mike Pence “is a f— traitor”. He was joined at the front of the Senate chamber by three other men.

One of them yelled “Jesus Christ, we invoke your name!” to loud cheers. The QAnon Shaman, otherwise known as Jacob Chansley from Arizona, then led them all in a lengthy and fervent prayer, thanking God for filling the Senate chamber with patriots and for allowing the United States to be ‘reborn’. The assembled group of young men joined in, heads bowed solemnly, hands raised in invocation to heaven. Then they left peacefully, expressing their support for the police who escorted them out.

These were among the most bizarre images from the storming of the US Capitol which led to a number of violent deaths; but there is no mistaking the Christian identification of many of the Trump supporters who marched, demonstrated and rioted that day. As the Washington Post reported: “Images and references to being on the march for Jesus were common at the massive Jan 6 rally.”

It would be easy to shrug this off as American exceptionalism of a different kind, something that could ‘only happen in America’.

White evangelicals had voted overwhelmingly for Trump in 2016. They did so again in 2020, despite four years in which almost every week he demonstrated his unfitness to hold public office. Various prominent Christian leaders, many proclaiming themselves to have prophetic gifts, identified Trump as God’s anointed servant and believed that it had been preordained that he would serve two terms as President.

To those who believed that Trump was chosen by God and would be re-elected, it must have followed, as night follows day, that if Trump did not win, then there must have been fraud on a massive scale, at least in those States where the result was reasonably close. They laid a religious foundation for the Jan 6th rally.

Eric Metaxas, a prominent voice in the American Christian community, was among those who strongly promoted the idea of widespread election fraud, notwithstanding the complete lack of evidence, as well as the weaknesses of the argument. If there was any voter fraud in the election, such as voting in the name of a person who had died, was it not at least as likely that Trump supporters would engage in this conduct? Would states led by Republicans engage in fraud against Trump, or alternatively in a cover-up? The claims, none of which got close to success in any court, were wild, deranged, fraudulent; and believed by a very substantial proportion of Republican voters, many of them passionate about their Christian faith.

Fault lines are developing in Australia as well, and for some of the same reasons.

Are there any lessons for Australian Christians from this debacle? It would be easy to shrug this off as American exceptionalism of a different kind, something that could ‘only happen in America’. Americans have managed to fuse an intense nationalism with a belief that in some sense, God has a special purpose for the United States as a Christian country. Australians have a more relaxed sense of national identity, and even the most fervent Australian believers do not equate it with the kingdom of God.

Yet dismissing all this as an American aberration would be unwise. The US Capitol riot was the culmination of a growing polarisation in the United States that is, to a great extent, along religious lines. Evangelicals, charismatic Christians and conservative Catholics overwhelmingly support the Republican Party. This is quite a recent phenomenon. The differentiation between Democrats and Republicans is seen by some in exaggerated and apocalyptic terms, a battle between good and evil, representing a choice between the saving of America and its demise. Both sides engage in that kind of rhetoric, but on the Republican side this battle is much more likely to be seen in religious terms as a spiritual battle between God and the powers of darkness.

Those fault lines are developing in Australia as well, and for some of the same reasons. Support for Trump among Christians was driven by fear that the progressive movement would take away fundamental freedoms, and in particular religious freedoms, as well as seeking to change US society in ways which represent an abandonment of traditional Western values.

It is a grave mistake to trust in princes, as many Trump evangelicals did, or to believe that the kingdom of God can be advanced by gaining, or maintaining, political power at any cost.

Such fears are not misplaced. About seven years ago, I spent a few days in Washington DC talking to prominent, mainstream Christian leaders about threats to religious freedom. They were seriously concerned about changes to the law or to conditions for public funding, in the name of one version of ‘equality’ that threatened the right of faith-based organisations to maintain their religious identity and values. We have the same concerns in Australia. Other concerns, both in the USA and, increasingly here, arise because of some of the extreme and irrational beliefs emerging from the humanities departments of many elite American universities such as critical race theory and new ideas about gender. These are being advanced on the left of politics.

Both major parties in modern democracies have emphases within their policy frameworks that Christians, informed by Jesus’ teaching, could readily endorse.

However, it is a grave mistake to trust in princes, as many Trump evangelicals did, or to believe that the kingdom of God can be advanced by gaining, or maintaining, political power at any cost. The days of Christendom are over. Christians who supported Trump, right or wrong, pursued the kind of Faustian bargain that Jesus had so firmly rejected in his wilderness temptations. Those who argued baselessly that the election had been stolen and sought to overturn the results even after all courts had rejected the claims, pursued that Faustian bargain to the point of seeking to prevent a democratically elected government from taking office.

It is a form of blasphemy to associate the purposes of the Creator of the universe with the position of a political party in one country at one moment in time. Political parties take different positions on the equality/liberty spectrum as well as on the proper scope for public services and the redistribution of wealth within a society. Both major parties in modern democracies have emphases within their policy frameworks that Christians, informed by Jesus’ teaching, could readily endorse. We know from Scripture how much God cares for the poor, the vulnerable and the disadvantaged, and so should we. The aspirations and concerns of many of those on the left of politics are not to be dismissed as having no points of connection with the teachings of Jesus.

Christians in Australia may not be prone to the extremes of some of our American brothers and sisters who believed Trump was divinely appointed. However, we are at risk of identifying so closely with one side of politics as ‘being on God’s side’ that we are no longer capable of having a constructive dialogue with the other. This can make us politically ineffective.

Christians in Australia may not be prone to the extremes of some of our American brothers and sisters who believed Trump was divinely appointed. However, we are at risk of identifying so closely with one side of politics as ‘being on God’s side’ that we are no longer capable of having a constructive dialogue with the other. This can make us politically ineffective. A party that thinks a voting constituency is locked in to supporting it, no matter what, has little incentive to use political capital to address their concerns. All successful parties are coalitions of people and groups with different perspectives and interests. If we close off dialogue with one side of politics we risk it becoming deaf to our views. Furthermore, believing that God is on the side of a particular party, or that the party is on God’s side, can make us blind to the party’s failings and unjust policies. An authentic Christian voice in the public square needs to draw attention also to those areas of Christian concern that the government of the day is neglecting.

To avoid the damaging polarisation of US politics, we need to strengthen the sensible centre, on both sides of the political aisle, seek Christian influence in all political parties that are open to that engagement, and avoid the trap of identifying one party’s policies or continuing governance with the kingdom of God.

Patrick Parkinson AM is a Professor of Law at the University of Queensland.

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