A bit early this week due to current and evolving events….My theological observation about last week’s terrorism in Washington DC….
As we so painfully saw, thousands of Trump-inspired demonstrators broke into and vandalized the US Capitol on Wednesday January 6th. They came from across the country, including several hundred from my home state Michigan. Angry people at war with both truth and democracy.
The wild demonstrators had various affiliations — QAnon, Proud Boys, elected officials, everyday Americans — but they were united by one allegiance to their cult leader and his post truth environment. Many carried “Christian” symbols and banners proclaiming “Jesus is my savior, Trump my president.” They think they are saving the world from Satan. They carried crosses and flags announcing “Jesus 2020.” Constantine (272 – 337 CE), the world’s first authoritarian “Christian” monarch, would have been very proud of them. He marched and fought along the Tiber in 312 CE with the Chi Rho, the first two letters of Christ’s name in Greek, painted on the soldiers’ shields.
Last week, the merging of Trump and Jesus was a common theme. Right-wing Catholics proclaimed their support as well. Church Militant (Ecclesia Militans) called the terrorists’ ransacking of the Capitol “an act of American patriots.” The Catholic anti-abortion LifeSite proclaimed “What I saw was a lot of people who love God and love their country.”
What I saw last week and see in this week’s news updates is a bunch of Right wing “Christians” with a neo-medieval vision incompatible with constitutional democracy. They may be on the far Right but their vision of Christ and Christianity is far wrong.
The mobsters who pillaged the US seat of government followed orders from their authoritarian leader. They beat the police with pipes. “Hang Mike Pence!” they chanted as they pressed inside. Outside, a makeshift gallows stood, ready for Biden’s execution complete with wooden steps and the noose. Guns and pipe bombs were stashed in the vicinity.
Trump exhorted his supporters “to fight.” “We will never give up, we will never concede,” he shouted, delighting the crowd and calling Democratic election victories the product of what he called “explosions of bullshit.” Trump’s faithful followers used Christian rhetoric and symbols but behaved like anti-Christian barbarians.
Very early in the Trump presidency the authoritarian cult danger signs were there:
- Opposing critical thinking and calling it fake and leftist thinking.
- Isolating critical authoritarian followers and penalizing them for being disloyal to his administration.
- Emphasizing values like dishonesty and the denigration of other people: values so fundamentally contrary to the example and teaching of Jesus.
- Fabricating thousands of falsehoods and calling them statements of truth and reality.
- Using family members to strongly support his cultic leadership with unquestioned loyalty and devotion.
- Using Christianity and church leadership to support his home-grown fascist cause, while remaining a non-church-going-agnostic.
- Gladly accepting the religious devotion of authoritarian followers who proclaimed him chosen and sent by God.
Authoritarian leaders in public office find religion a wonderful convenience. It enables them to lord it over other people; and it allows them to punish their “enemies” guilt-free, since that punishment, they can proclaim, is what God wants. It enables them to bully people and denigrate them: women, gays, non-whites, foreigners, and miscellaneous “losers.” Values like love, mercy, and compassion disappear. The key value is faithfulness and obedience to the authoritarian leader.
There are classic historical examples: The atheist and anti-clerical Benito Mussolini (1883 – 1945) needed backing by the Vatican to promote his National Fascist Party. He therefore married in the Catholic church and had his children baptized. In his first parliamentary speech in 1921, he announced that “the only universal values that radiate from Rome are those of the Vatican.” —- Spain’s Generalissimo Franco (1892 – 1975) became a cruel and murderous dictator; but most Spanish Catholic bishops overwhelmingly endorsed Franco’s Spain. The Catholic Church portrayed the Spanish Civil War as a holy one against “godless communists” and called for Catholics in other countries to support Franco’s Nationalists. Although Franco himself was known for not being very devout, he portrayed himself as a fervent Catholic and used religion as a means to increase his power and popularity. He used the Guerrilleros de Cristo Rey (Warriors of Christ the King) to implement his culture of torture and executions. —- And of course we know the story of Adolf Hitler (1889 – 1945). Hitler ceased being a Catholic when a teenager. He and his Nazi party promoted “Positive Christianity” which rejected most traditional Christian doctrines especially the divinity of Jesus. He described Jesus as an “Aryan fighter” who struggled against the corrupt Pharisees. Joseph Goebbels (1897 – 1945) Hitler’s Reich Minister of Propaganda and one of his closest and most devoted associates, wrote in April 1941 that although Hitler was “a fierce opponent” of the Vatican and Christianity, “he forbids me to leave the church. For tactical reasons.”
These authoritarian dictators used Christianity just like Donald Trump, a “good friend” of New York’s Cardinal Dolan, has used conservative Christians, who conveniently looked the other way when it came to his immoral behavior. Their argument: he was publicly anti-abortion, anti-gay-marriage, supported religious liberty, and (to keep Dolan happy) supportive of Catholic schools.
A great number of US “Christians” still believe Donald J. Trump has been “anointed by God.” Remember that day in early June 2020 when, Bible in hand, the President posed for photos in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church. It was a moment of political theater only made possible by spraying protesters with tear gas. The Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington DC, Mariann Budde, stressed that Trump had used the Bible at St. John’s “as if it were a prop or an extension of his military and authoritarian position.” God bless Bishop Budde.
Ideally, religion maintains and gives meaning to our lives. It proclaims values about how we should live and how we should relate to one another. It can unite us and give us hope and courage for tomorrow. All the great religious traditions call for honesty, justice, respect, and compassion. When grossly distorted, however, religion can also be a source of violent division, destruction, and death.
Promoting a healthy Christian way of life, my friends, may very well be our biggest Christian challenge in 2021. With each other we need to reflect and examine our beliefs and behavior. And we need to call our religious leaders to repent and reform. As the Jesuit Fr. James Martin, editor-at-large of the Jesuit magazine America, observed: “This is the time for Christian leaders to admit their part in the violence at the Capitol. When you cast elections as ‘good versus evil,’ vilify candidates and say that voting for one candidate is a ‘mortal sin,’ you encourage people to think that today’s actions are moral.”
America is not broken. There is light at the end of the tunnel. The destination is not a white, Christian America but a society with liberty and justice FOR ALL. Leadership counts. Character counts. Authentic Christianity makes it happen.