Scholars of religion and politics respond to the Capitol insurrection

Supporters of President Donald Trump pray outside the U.S. Capitol on January 06, 2021. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The following perspectives were originally published by the online journal Religion & Politics, a project of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics

Jan. 6, 2021, is a day that will live in infamy. A sitting president, abetted by congressional leaders, incited a violent mob of his supporters, who sieged the United State Capitol in an attempted coup, the scope of which we are still uncovering. All along the route from Trump’s rally on the Ellipse to the Capitol, there was no shortage of religious imagery. Some of the rioters carried crosses, or spoke of the “end times,” or brandished images of Trump as Jesus. They waved Christian flags and Confederate flags. They wore markers of racism and neo-Nazi loyalty.

We at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics condemn the Capitol siege in no uncertain terms. It may be impossible to make sense of the actions of violent extremists, but there are lessons to be learned from what happened. Some of these pertain to the variety of ways rioters and their supporters, like many before them, have weaponized religion for political ends. In light of these appalling events, we invited the faculty of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics to share their initial thoughts, bringing their expertise in history, ethics, and religious studies to bear on this fraught moment in U.S. politics.

Marie Griffith, Director and John C. Danforth Distinguished Professor in the Humanities


There’s been a great deal of commentary on the white Christian nationalism on display at the Jan. 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol. The name of God was everywhere, invoked by men and women claiming to wear God’s armor as patriot soldiers protecting the soul of an exceptionalist nation. Josh Hawley, a Christian nationalist senator who egged on their false belief that the recent presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump, was seen raising his fist in solidarity with those gathered. The blood of Jesus was said to be “covering this place,” as prayers rang out pleading that “the evil of Congress be brought to an end.” Members of Christian militias that spread lies about Muslims were in abundance, as were marks of anti-Black racism, anti-Semitism and Holocaust nostalgia. It was a menagerie of Trumpian evangelicalism, as far from what many other Christians see as the gospel of Jesus as it seems possible to be.

Some Christian critics saw more of the occult than the orthodox in the QAnon conspiracies fueling the rioters’ aspirations to be knight liberators; to be sure, it’s hard to tell the difference between evangelicalism and occultism these days, and the lines are so blurred that the terminology hardly matters anymore. From multiple origins, a conglomeration of superhero narratives have converged, luring countless numbers of Americans to see themselves as, in Ross Douthat’s words, “actors in a world-historical drama, saviors or re-founders of the American Republic.” Analyzing the Capitol insurrectionist whose military gear included patches sporting slogans like “Armor of God” and “God will judge our enemies. We’ll arrange the meeting,” Peter Manseau marvels at “the danger of comic book notions of faith meeting comic book notions of nation,” concluding, “We are being held hostage by permanent adolescents.” The armed so-called freedom fighters are doing their best to bring their comic book, their superhero movie, their violent video game, or their Book of Revelation revenge fantasy (isn’t it all the same?) to real life, and their target list includes all of us who don’t accept their reality.

Those of us who don’t accept their reality and who object to Christian nationalism, white supremacist ideology, and self-appointed savior vigilantism are a diverse lot ourselves, occupying what are still starkly divergent political, economic, and religious worlds. We are hardly a “we.” Progressive fans of the Squad in Congress have little in common, policy-wise, with the conservative never-Trumpers who spearheaded the Lincoln Project, and the 2020 election made for strange bedfellows, as so many elections do. But I would wager, or hope, that most dissenters to the riot have at the very least not attached ourselves to the persecution narrative of the Christian nationalist who sees Satanic power in feminism, anti-racist efforts, or religious pluralism. I want to think we reject the hubris of imagining ourselves to be God’s violent foot soldiers in the war against such so-called principalities and powers, that whether we are religious or secular, our everyday lives have meaning through caring for others, not fantasizing the bloody deaths of political foes. How to live among those who see life as a cosmic war between good and evil, self-righteously certain of just who is evil and who shall be victorious, is the great test of our time.


Mark Valeri, Reverend Priscilla Wood Neaves Distinguished Professor of Religion and Politics


From the American Revolution to the Civil War, the Civil Rights movement, and 9/11, Americans have relied on religious language to assert the importance of momentous events. Jan. 6, 2021, was no different. Insurrectionists, observers, and critics alike deployed the rhetoric of the sacred to describe what happened as a cataclysm, a tragedy.

The sight of the symbols of religion carried by participants in the storming astounded and saddened me. Supporters brandished flags with the name of Jesus, held large Bibles, conducted prayer circles, and marched around blowing shofars to signal divine punishment on the government—an imitation of the story of the fall of the walls of Jericho in the book of Joshua. One could interpret these gestures as parody, more frivolous than reverent. One could also interpret them as literal and deadly serious.

The commentary of much of the media and of politicians on Jan. 6 depended on a different set of tropes, derived from America’s tradition of civil religion. Several pundits and members of Congress denounced the assault on the Capitol as a desecration—the defilement of a holy site. Others spoke of the Capitol as a shrine to democracy, violated by malevolent enemies. President-elect Joe Biden referred to the sacred rite of confirming a presidential election. The rhetoric conveyed the magnitude of the offense by asserting the sacrality of America’s democratic traditions.

The speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, and her colleague in the Senate, Timothy Kaine, relied on yet a third tradition of sacred words and imagery. Pelosi reminded the House that Jan. 6 was the feast of the Epiphany (the revelation of the divine nature of Jesus to the world), and she prompted her listeners to see the events in D.C. as an epiphany of the true nature of the Trump presidency. As she denounced sedition, she quoted from the famous prayer traditionally ascribed to Francis of Assisi (“Lord, make me a channel of thy peace”) and said a prayer of her own. Kaine spoke later of the need for fellow senators such as Josh Hawley of Missouri to reckon with Jesus’ admonition against selling one’s soul for the sake of worldly gain. Pelosi and Kaine are self-identified Roman Catholics.

During times of crisis, Americans have used religious language because that language conveys a sense of judgment and justice, of pleading and hope, that frames tumultuous events. Our references to the sacred helps us to interpret our current situation in relation to transcendent realities and ideals, the disregard for which was all too evident by those who stormed the Capitol and their advocates in the ranks of Congress itself.


Tazeen M. Ali, Assistant Professor of Religion and Politics


Much of the country watched in horror as a mob of white supremacists attempted to overturn the 2020 election results by storming the U.S. Capitol last Wednesday. Acting at Trump’s behest, these domestic terrorists sought to interrupt the process of certifying Joe Biden’s victory, which they declared had been fraudulent. Throughout the week, many Americans repeatedly expressed different configurations of disbelief and outrage that a coup could be attempted in the United States. Others shared in the sentiments of horror, but not the shock, rightly pointing out that this event was anything but surprising. In the months leading up to the November election, Trump and his key supporters had continuously cast doubt over the integrity of the process and repeated that the only way he could lose the election is if it was stolen from him. In no uncertain terms, he vowed that he would never concede the election. And Trump has stayed true to his word. Last Wednesday’s events follow dozens of post-election lawsuits contesting Biden’s victory, focusing in particular on predominantly Black cities like Philadelphia, Detroit, and Milwaukee, insisting that only “legitimate” (barely veiled code for white) votes should count.

While Trump’s status as a serial liar is well documented, it behooves us to take seriously the ways in which he has been transparent and consistent about his white supremacist agenda. Throughout his presidency, Trump has delivered on his promises to uphold the racist status quo of the United States. Rampant Islamophobia undergirded his 2016 campaign as he called for “ a complete and total shutdown” of Muslims entering the country. Many insisted that this was mere hyperbole, that Trump would never act on it. Yet only days into his presidency, he signed an executive order banning entry to foreign nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries. This would be the first of three “ Muslim bans.” Since Islamophobia in the U.S. is a form of anti-Muslim racism rooted in anti-Blackness, it should come as no surprise that this travel ban included a number of African countries with significant Muslim populations. Trump’s immigration policies hearken back to an earlier period in U.S. history when citizenship was tied to whiteness and Christianity: Muslims were barred from naturalization until the mid-twentieth century.

Trump’s incitement of mob violence last week is only the latest event in his thorough commitment to upholding the white supremacist ideals that the U.S. was founded upon. Just the last four years provide sufficient context to overcome our shock and understand exactly how this situation came to be, let alone considering the last four centuries of American history and the enduring legacies of slavery. This was no random angry mob, but a group led and incited by elected officials, further evidenced by Trump’s affectionate words towards them. Moreover, even as Republican Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley “ condemned” the mob violence, they still went on to contest the certification of the election results with no sense of irony. We should not linger on Cruz and Hawley’s so-called cognitive dissonance; their halfhearted condemnations of white mob violence were never going to cohere with their attempts to overturn the election results. In other words, we should not focus on their lies, and instead take seriously when they speak their truths. Trump and his allies have been clear and consistent in their commitment to white supremacy, and we should take them at their word.

We should not understand the resignations of members of Trump’s cabinet, or the institutions that are suddenly distancing themselves from him at this chaotic eleventh hour, as anything more than a farce. We also should not linger on the discrepancy between police attitudes towards peaceful BLM protestors and violent white supremacists. To do so fundamentally misunderstands the history of law enforcement that was established to uphold the racist status quo. This long history will not be undone with the advent of a new administration. But in the meantime, Trump and his enablers should be held to account beyond the end of their terms in office, in order to prevent the possibility that the next coup attempt will be successful.


Leigh Eric Schmidt, Edward C. Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor in the Humanities

Leigh Schmidt

In 1973 the acclaimed historian of early modern France, Natalie Zemon Davis, published one of her most enduring essays, “The Rites of Violence,” on the bloody religious riots that recurrently stained Europe’s post-Reformation landscape. A harbinger of the shift toward a cultural history deeply inflected by cultural anthropology, Davis’s essay exhumed the ritualistic patterns that governed otherwise chaotic mobs and fevered rabbles bent on destruction and desecration. Contemporary descriptions of sixteenth-century religious rioters—Protestant and Catholic—commonly depicted them as disordered, hydra-headed crowds driven “by the appetite of those who stir them up [to] extreme rage, just looking for the chance to carry out any kind of cruelty.” Davis suggested that we needed to look beneath the surface of frenzied tumult and mindless brutality to see the performative prescriptions—the liturgics—of religious violence.

I was reminded of Davis’s essay as Trump’s riotous insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday. It will take a while for us to sort through the video evidence and journalistic reporting to see what role religion and ritual played in these “wild” and seemingly unscripted scenes. We know enough already, though, to recognize many of the religious threads that were woven into these latest rites of violence. We might well start with the religion of the Lost Cause, the huge debt the rioters owe to the palpable devotion to the Confederacy still nurtured in rightwing circles (Trump was yet battling the removal of Confederate names from American military bases days before this rampage). Those Confederate flags waving inside the Capitol building or from its balconies looked like the requital of all those who had so piously tended Southern “heritage” and white supremacy for well over a century.

We would need to turn quickly thereafter to the evangelical Protestant nationalism that has wrapped itself in the Trump flag, to all those who showed up with Bibles in hand as their ritualistic prop of white Christian solidarity (much as Trump did for his photo-op in front of St. John’s Church last June to dramatize his supposed vanquishing of the Black Lives Matter movement). One rioter carried a Christian flag into the Senate building; another carried a banner that read “Jesus is my savior/Trump is my president”; many sported T-shirts or baseball caps heralding their combined loyalty to “God, Guns, and Trump”; many were zealous to demonize their enemies—from the media to Nancy Pelosi to Mitt Romney—as profaners of their amalgamated deities. All told, the “heavy religious vibe” among those in attendance was impossible to miss, the liturgical pageantry of the rioting all too plain, if not always easy to decipher: What are we to make, for example, of the two celebrants wearing vestments, emblazoned with an image of the Virgin Mary, who were intoning a Catholic blessing over the gathering, while carrying Jewish shofars? It will take scholars with Davis’s gifts for semiotic analysis to fathom our own rites of violence in all their religious complexity and perversity. We will be facing the challenges raised by the religion-saturated rioting of Jan. 6 for years to come—not only as academics, but also as citizens of a democracy made vulnerable by these latest lords of misrule and those Republican politicians who incited them to overthrow the altars.


Lerone A. Martin, Associate Professor of Religion and Politics


I write this letter to white evangelical moderates. I write not as an outsider, but as a son of evangelicalism. I am a born-again believer, my faith nurtured in the cradle of white evangelical churches and schools.

As we confront the aftermath of Jan. 6, there is much blame to go around: President Trump, the legion of violent insurrectionists, Senators Joshua Hawley and Ted Cruz, and the list goes on. They have most certainly sown lies and violence, causing us all to reap the same.

Yet, my attention, however, turns to you: The white evangelical moderate who aided and abetted the violence at the Capitol. I do not mean the violent white Christian nationalists; they already stand condemned. Nor do I refer to the white evangelicals who consistently stood for justice and equality. No, I am writing to you, who with loud voices proclaimed from the mountain tops of social media your disgust with Trump, Hawley, and Cruz this past week, but who remained silent during the violence of the past four years.

Your support and silence helped create the insurrection. The ashes of destruction that remain at the Capitol are not the result of a sudden fire. Wednesday was no spontaneous combustion. It was a slow burn, a flame that was fanned by white evangelical affirmations and the even louder silences during the Trump years. Perhaps you feel my criticism is too harsh. But with political power comes moral responsibility. Simply put: to whom much is given, much is required. Yet, the majority of moderate white evangelicals counted the political cost and chose not to bear their cross. In exchange you received your political salvation: lower corporate taxes, pro-life judges, and a renewed sense of cultural power and relevance.

To you I ask: What does it profit a body of believers to gain political appointments and lose its own soul?

As we approach MLK Day, I paraphrase what he said to white Christian moderates in 1963. I have looked at your churches and colleges and asked: “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of [President Trump] dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when [President Trump] gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary [black] men and women decided to rise … to the bright hills of creative protest” against police brutality.

Your silences have spoken volumes, permitting four years of deception. You allowed the sin of bearing false witness to simply become “alternative facts.” You blessed the fount of lies from which sprang “stop the steal.” And any white evangelical who said otherwise was excommunicated, cast into the outer darkness of treason.

Now that the nation’s Capitol lies desecrated, it is in vogue to engage in soul-searching. White evangelicals and Republicans alike have expressed shock and moral outrage with the Trump administration and its coddling of white nationalist violence. Yet none of these statements will divorce you from your history.

I know my disappointment may come across as harsh, but as King said, “there can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love.”  Beloved, if you do not muster the courage to stand against sin on the left AND the right, you will remain, as King noted of the white moderates of his day, “the great stumbling block” towards racial equality and justice. It is not the white Christian nationalists and far-right extremists who present the greatest hurdle, but rather “the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” Beloved, if you fail to unhinge yourself from the chains of conformity, your faith communities and gospel witness will continue to lose authenticity, you will forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be treated as a white nationalist political party masquerading as a church.

I close as King closed his letter to white moderates: If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth, I ask your forgiveness. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates a willingness to settle for anything less than justice and equality, I beg God to forgive me.


Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp, Archer Alexander Distinguished Professor & Interim Dean and Vice Provost for Graduate Education


One of the casualties of the economic downturn spurred by the pandemic has been cutbacks in the academic study of history and society. Numerous colleges and universities, feeling the multiple pressures of parental focus on “practical” training, the rise of majors in the STEM fields, and the need to reduce their budgets, have cut programs in the liberal arts, including foreign languages, history, and religious studies. Their arguments are utilitarian: Job markets are shifting, and increasingly students seek an education that will provide a solid basis of employment.

I strenuously disagree with this erosion of the humanities, but my purpose here is not to argue with the calculus employed by students, their parents, and academic administrators. What worries me is this: On Jan. 6, Trump supporters, encouraged by politicians, stormed into the U.S. Capitol, damaging its contents and terrifying its occupants. How are we to make sense of such events without some knowledge of history, critical thinking, and social movements? Or without the reasoning and rhetorical skills provided by philosophy and literature? How do we assess the puzzling mix of Nordic headdress, signs bearing the message “Jesus 2020,” crosses, shofars, and “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirts without knowing something about both the recent and ancient past?

It is those “softer” skills that help us explain, analyze, and (hopefully) work through dark social moments. These are languages that citizens of a democracy must learn. Just as I stare in ignorance at circuit boards, I worry that students, without the ability to decipher complex codes of social knowledge, will shrug in helplessness at political, religious, and cultural events to come. I’ve already heard over the past week repeated phrases uttered in disbelief: “How could we have seen this coming?” or “We’re better than this.”

For those who engage seriously in the study of the liberal arts, Jan. 6 was neither a shock nor an aberration. For people of color, the eruption of white nationalist sentiment wrapped up in a (mostly) Christian package was no surprise. And this is why we all have to know what our country is and has been in the past. This is why I teach about religious achievement and religious conflict in U.S. history and politics.

Our students need this knowledge alongside the more obviously “useful” knowledge gained in business, engineering, or computer science. Without it, they will be caught up short every time by future social challenges—or, worse yet, easily persuaded by any demagogues that come along. The liberal arts are not the optional desserts consumed by a privileged elite; they are the bones and sinew of our body politic that allow our democratic society to exist. We scale them back at our own peril.


Fannie Bialek, Assistant Professor of Religion and Politics


What does it mean to feel, and to say, that the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6 was not surprising? From around the time footage of the attack began appearing on television, Twitter was full of people proclaiming their lack of surprise, citing historical precedent in white supremacist violence and fascist movements as well as Trump’s tweets, for weeks, advocating increasingly extra-procedural measures to “stop the steal.” By the evening, the unsurprise had reached mainstream media and I watched even my local news anchors comment that the day was “shocking, but not surprising.” In the days that have followed, reasons not to be surprised have been piling up: historical reasons and proximate reasons, including the explicit announcements of the action by many participants and political leaders, and their transparent preparations for violence.

The attack was not a surprise. It was planned in the open, it was promoted by the president, and it follows decades of right-wing extremist violence that included in only the last few months an effort to kidnap a sitting governor. To be surprised admits of not having paid attention, or not having understood. It might indicate an over-investment in fantasies of American exceptionalism, or a privileged and myopic position in a society that has long shown many of its members the possibility of this kind of harm.

The problem with not being surprised—the pain of it—is that surprise would allow us to forgive some failures to have prepared for it, or prevented it. At the beginning of the pandemic, I often felt a version of this relief. The coronavirus was novel, as its name reminded us daily; the disruptions were not our fault, the lack of a treatment was not our failure. The work required was to care for each other now and start fighting the threat expediently, for the days ahead. As the failures in this country to be prepared for such a pandemic became more obvious, any sense of relief from responsibility vanished. This virus was novel, but the possibility of a pandemic wasn’t. And the mismanagement of the pandemic, from those precious early days, squandered whatever blamelessness novelty might afford.

It is comforting to find horrors surprising because it suggests that you couldn’t have done anything to stop them, since you didn’t even know they could happen. It is also comforting, in some strange sense of comfort, to be surprised because you had done everything you could to prevent them, and their defeat of those efforts is what presents the surprise. The pain of the insurrection on January 6 is compounded by finding little about it surprising, and knowing from that lack of surprise that there was so much that could have been done to keep things from getting to this point.

The right response to this pain cannot be to hope the perpetrators have all learned their lessons, the ones that we who are not surprised already knew. The problem is not what was known and not known—that’s what being unsurprised should teach us. The problem is what was not done: the many incidents of domestic terrorism that have been implicitly sanctioned by a lack of response; the repeated incitements to violence by a president and other political leaders that meet sighs instead of censure; the proliferation of guns and militia groups and open domestic terrorist activity that is so rarely addressed by more than shock. Genuine accountability for this attack is necessary. To move on, even to some supposed prevention of future violence, would sanction such violence irreparably. If justice is not done here, the next attack will not be surprising again. We must build a society through accountability and repair in which we can again be surprised.

Leave a Comment

Comments and respectful dialogue are encouraged, but content will be moderated. Please, no personal attacks, obscenity or profanity, selling of commercial products, or endorsements of political candidates or positions. We reserve the right to remove any inappropriate comments. We also cannot address individual medical concerns or provide medical advice in this forum.