February 24, 2021
More than 100 evangelical leaders, including a number of influential pastors and seminary leaders, published an open letter today condemning Christian Nationalism’s role in the January 6 insurrection.
It is a good and necessary statement, and one that begins as it should: by clearly identifying the problem. “As leaders in the broad evangelical community, we recognize and condemn the role Christian Nationalism played in the violent, racist, anti-American insurrection at the United States Capitol on January 6.” And while the January 6 insurrection was a particularly horrifying manifestation of Christian Nationalism, the letter notes that the problem is bigger than one event and its damage more widespread. It poisoned many individuals, communities, and churches long before January 6, and its malignant effects will continue to linger.
The letter also serves as a call for action. “We urge all pastors, ministers, and priests to boldly make it clear that a commitment to Jesus Christ is incompatible with calls to violence, support of white Christian nationalism, conspiracy theories, and all religious and racial prejudice.” After naming some of the specific groups the coalition of leaders rejects, such as the Proud Boys and Oathkeepers, along with the more amorphous collection of QAnon adherents, the letter gives concrete advice. “We urge faith leaders to engage pastorally with those who support or sympathize with these groups, and make it clear that our churches are not neutral about these matters: we are on the side of democracy, equality for all people, anti-racism, and the common good of all people.”
The document is a good illustration of how Christians who belong to different churches, each with their own histories and political priorities, can unite around a basic set of nonnegotiable principles. One way of sharpening those principles is by explicitly stating what they are not, just as the Church has done throughout its history.
“Over the centuries, there are moments when the Church, the trans-national Body of Christ-followers, has seen distortions of the faith that warranted a response. In ages past, the Church has responded by holding emergency councils in order to unilaterally denounce mutations of the Christian faith, and to affirm the core values at the heart of Christianity. It is in that spirit that we unite our voices to declare that there is a version of American nationalism that is trying to camouflage itself as Christianity — and it is a heretical version of our faith.”
The charge of heresy grates against many modern ears – the era of burnings at the stake is happily long behind us – but is an important theological tool for identifying what counts as authentic Christianity, and for excising what does not. It is a way to “combat bad theology with better theology,” as the letter puts it, and in this case combating a heresy, white supremacism, that was tragically not recognized as such for much of Christian history. Whatever else may be the case about the storming of the Capitol, which left police officers dead and lawmakers traumatized, it is clearly not a Christian act according to any possible interpretation of that term.
And this brings me to my biggest disappointment with the letter, one that is completely outside the control of those who organized it. It is endorsed by virtually none of the “conservative” evangelical leaders who bear direct responsibility for the attack, including all those who endorsed or otherwise countenanced Trump’s lies about election fraud. Even if they could somehow justify their actions before January 6 – “hey, I’m just asking questions; the results don’t feel right to me” – how could they possibly remain silent when they saw the damage Trump’s lies caused? How could they possibly permit a violent attempt to subvert a free and fair election to masquerade as faithful Christian witness?
It is always dangerous to question the sincerity or legitimacy of others’ religious beliefs, but after January 6, one cannot help but wonder if it is more dangerous not to.
Evan Sandsmark is a doctoral candidate in Religious Studies at the University of Virginia.
Photo by Blink O’fanaye via Flickr