Politically motivated violence in the United States is becoming increasingly acceptable. Scholars and political observers have been expressing anxiety over this development for some time, well before the violence at the Capitol Building on January 6. The legitimacy of this concern has been backed up by a number of recent polls.
YouGov poll last fall prior to the election found a significant portion of both Republicans and Democrats who hold that violence can be justified to achieve political goals. Among the findings was that 36 percent of Republicans and 33 percent of Democrats said it is at least “a little” justified for their side “to use violence in advancing political goals.”
A January 2021 American Perspectives Survey study also found there is an increasing tolerance for political violence among Americans. And this is particularly the case among Republicans. “A majority (56 percent) of Republicans support the use of force as a way to arrest the decline of the traditional American way of life.” Nearly 40% of Republicans agree with the statement, “If elected leaders will not protect America, the people must do it themselves even if it requires taking violent actions.”
Considerably less than half as many Democrats answered in the same way. But among them, as well, a disturbing acceptance of political violence can be found. Daniel Cox, director of the American Enterprise Institute, described the findings as “really dramatic” in an interview with NPR. “I think any time you have a significant number of the public saying use of force can be justified in our political system, that’s pretty scary,” he said.
A CBS/YouGov poll taken subsequent to the insurrection found “half of Americans (51%) expect even more political violence in the years to come. A majority of Republicans (59%) and Independents (55%) expect more political violence in the next few years.” Furthermore, “Most Americans believe the biggest threat to America’s way of life is other people in the country and domestic enemies.”
What role have Christian leaders had in this tendency to find political violence more acceptable? Considerable, I’m afraid, especially in white conservative churches that most closely identify with the political right. As Rebecca Sager and Brie Loskota have written, “This merging of racial and religious interests created political alliances were more than just a marriage of convenience: white entitlement and grievance, packaged with a moral veneer of racialized religious belief, uses the language of spiritual warfare to justify the pursuit of political power by any means.”
Rather than calling for peace during this time when violence-prone passions seem to be on the increase, some Christian leaders are throwing fuel on the flames. Distressingly, the language of spiritual warfare has transitioned into the sort of religious rhetoric that lends support to literal civil war, or at least religiously sanctioned violence. So it should be no surprise that religious symbols and signs at the deadly January 6 protest made abundantly clear the fervid participation of many conservative Christians.
While many across the spectrum of opinion condemned the violence, it was not universally the case. The morning following the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, The Dove Christian television network’s morning news program featured right wing activist John Guandolo telling viewers that the Trump-supporting mob actually displayed “restraint” by not executing the “traitors” in Congress.
Speaking of progressive influences in American society, he went on the say, “I don’t see any other way out than a real armed counterrevolution to this hostile revolution that’s taking place, primarily driven by the communists,” said Guandolo, who conducts anti-Muslim law enforcement trainings throughout the United States and propagates anti-Muslim conspiracy theories. It is ironic that Guandolo’s call for civil war took place on a television channel called “The Dove.”
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Well-known author and conservative Christian radio host Eric Metexas has contributed to the sanctioning of political violence. During a November episode of his show, Pennsylvania State Senator Doug Mastriano put Trump on speakerphone. “I’d be happy to die in this fight. This is a fight for everything. God is with us,” declared. Given the context of his words, it would be difficult for him to claim he was speaking figuratively. And in fact he didn’t claim to be doing so! When Metexas was later asked what he meant, he answered, “I meant exactly what Nathan Hale meant when he said, ‘My only regret is that I have but one life to give for my country.’”
He went on to say, “When you believe liberty is being threatened; when you believe elections are being threatened; when you believe that any of these things are being threatened—people have died for these things.” He denied that he was talking all about Trump but then immediately reaffirmed that he believed Trump won the election and criticized those who say, “We just don’t want to stick our necks out on this.” He insisted there is evidence of widespread voter fraud but produced no evidence at all. Metexas refused to admit that questioning the legitimacy of the election could provoke violence even as he himself employs militant rhetoric.
Late last year right wing Christian author and pastor Rick Joyner voiced his support for a civil war during an appearance on the The Jim Bakker Show. “We’re in time for war. We need to recognize that. We need to mobilize. We need to get ready,” Joyner. He went on to say, “One of the things I saw in a dream I had related to our civil war was that militias would pop up like mushrooms. And it was God. These were good militias.”
He claimed, “If God’s people don’t become a part of the militia movements, the good militias, the bad people will take them over.” When asked who these “bad people” are he pointed to Black Lives Matter, declaring that Christians must aggressively oppose the organization because it’s “the KKK of this time.”
Despite the frequent fretting heard from the political and religious right over Black Lives Matters, this is for the most part, a fabricated threat, a distraction to draw attention away from the real danger that is found overwhelmingly with the radical right. While in a small minority in the thousands of BLM protests there has been property damage and violence, 95% of the demonstrations were peaceful, according to a study done by The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED).
It is a testimony to the rarity of even violent talk -much less action- among BLM that those on the right endlessly refer to one incident in one protest where the chant, “pigs in a blanket, fry ’em like bacon” was heard. This chant occurred in 2015 in a demonstration in St. Paul Minnesota, lasting about 30 seconds. There is no evidence that such a chant was ever used in any of the hundreds of other BLM demonstrations for racial justice. But leaders on the right have repeatedly and slanderously tried to characterize the movement by tying it to the chant.
However, far too many voices on the white Christian right have been raised on behalf of political violence. The same is not found among more progressive Christians.
As those at the Southern Poverty Law Center have observed, “Extremist ideas don’t exist separately from our larger culture – including our political economy, media landscape, and education models.” If political violence in the U.S. is going to be curtailed the various influences that contribute to it need to be confronted. Since right wing radicalism obviously has enlisted many Christians, clear thinking church leaders need to actively and openly point to a better, more faithful way.
Some ministers have attempted to intervene -both through personal counseling and in sermons- when they have become aware that church members have become radicalized by rightwing propaganda. This needs to take place much more often. It seems that far fewer ministers who are unsympathetic to the radicalism on the right are willing to speak up than those who align themselves with it. The voices of religious leaders are indispensable if white Christians –evangelical and otherwise- are not going to continue having their faith subverted by the far right.
According to Elizabeth Neumann, who served as an assistant secretary of counterterrorism at the Department of Homeland Security under Trump until last Spring, “It’s important to acknowledge what a challenging moment we have as a nation, but also the fact that there was an element of the Christian community that participated in what got us to this point,” she said. “We need to pause and take a moment and reflect, and if we have sinned, repent of it.” Indeed, we do!