‘There, in front of us, was an unholy amalgamation of white supremacy and Christianity’

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By Ruth Peacock

American faith leaders and scholars, still deeply shocked by the insurrection on Capitol Hill, have spoken of their trauma as they take stock at what has happened to their country.

Mariann Budde, the Bishop of Washington, said the range of emotions as she witnessed the events was difficult to articulate: “Shock, outrage, deep confusion and alarm at the way events unfolded without adequate response from those whose role is to keep the city safe.”

Winnie Varghese, a priest from New York City, said the images were profoundly traumatic: “Washington and the Capitol is the temple to our democracy and this was a trauma to our closely held ideals.”

They were speaking in a Religion Media Centre online briefing, where they tried to make sense of what they had witnessed.

At the core of the protest was a declaration of ownership by white Christian supremacists in the face of demographic change and a lost election, said Dr Robert Jones, chief executive of the Public Religion Research Institute.

For him, the riots on Capitol Hill were the legacy of white supremacy in American Christianity, fuelled by a president whose slogan, Make America Great Again, “is dripping with racist overtones”.

He had consulted historians who told him that yesterday was the first time a Confederate flag flew inside the US Capitol building, something not even achieved in the American Civil War.

That, coupled with the waving of Christian flags and banners saying “Jesus Saves” and the blowing of the shofar — the Jewish trumpet sounded when the walls of Jericho fell — meant “it was all there, right in front of us, this unholy amalgamation of white supremacy and Christianity”.

Trump’s courting of the white evangelical vote has been well documented and has remained stable, despite racism, misogyny and narcissism, according to Chine McDonald, head of public engagement at Christian Aid, who although living in the UK, was devastated at the scenes playing out on television, and found she was physically shaking as she watched the screen in London.

She sees it as her calling to detoxify the brand of evangelicalism because she recognises that deep within the fundamentalist branch of Christianity, “white supremacy reigns”.

Professor Andrea Hatcher, from Sewanee the University of the South, said the world had witnessed “full-throated insurrection”, with people walking into the Capitol with impunity as if they had ownership. She suggested one explanation for the enduring support from evangelicals for Trump, was the reliance on authoritarian leadership.

She was alarmed at a YouGov survey immediately after the events, which showed mass support for Trump, even after the insurrection. “These are not marginal numbers” she said.

So has this movement and set of alliances gone too far to eradicate or reform. “I am sad to say that I think that is the conclusion,” she said, adding that politicians looking at securing their support base and political future had no basis to try to correct anything.

The extent of the pro-Trump ideology among the country’s Catholic population was outlined by Mike Lewis, who runs the website Where Peter Is. He said that half the Catholic vote supported Trump, fuelled by propaganda that Biden was a Marxist, a socialist. Such ideas were fostered by the right-wing global television network EWTN (the Eternal Word Television Network), which until 20 years ago showed simple devotions for devout believers, but now openly promoted Trump. Mr Lewis said EWTN reports “romanticised” Wednesday night’s events.

Key to the Catholics’ support for Trump was their opposition to abortion, an issue that had been used to demonise the Democrats, leading to conspiratorial theories, he said.

This “unholy alliance” of hostile views was clear to see in reports of the protests, including vivid pictures of the riot leaders wearing QAnon T-shirts, or Viking clothing.

Dr Joe Uscinski, from Florida State University, has studied QAnon since it appeared in 2017 and said it was important to differentiate it from conspiratorial ideologies, for example, that a ring of paedophiles ran the “deep state”, which he says have been around for decades, if not longer.

He told the briefing of alarming figures that up to 30 per cent of Americans buy into conspiratorial ideas, but many of those have never heard of QAnon. Just because one protester in a leading position wore a QAnon T-shirt did not mean that it was a growing movement: it was still on the fringe, Dr Uscinski said.

For many speakers, the lack of action against protesters — compared with how police dealt with recent Black Lives Matter marches in Washington and beyond — was testament to the deep malaise that fuelled the insurrection.

The language around policing came into the mainstream on Wednesday, Ms Varghese suggested, showing how policing worked differently for black and brown people than for white people. Something really profound about “who we are” was revealed and there was a sense of real fear, she said.

Bishop Budde said there was a wide disparity of treatment: “The racial hypocrisy is absolutely devastating to the city, and has been one of the overriding themes as people in the city react to what happened.”

What happened next is “really key”, as there is fluctuation in society at times of crisis like this, she said. She was deeply touched by Joe Biden’s strategy to pull the country together. But more than this, Bishop Budde was watching and listening for evangelical leaders who have remained silent in the past to speak out, citing Beth Moore, who has “taken a bold stance against her tribe”. These people, she suggested, had potential to sway and move the conversation.

Watch this online briefing here