The anniversary of the January 6 right-wing attack on the Capitol building to stop the legitimate election of Joe Biden marks a tragic and shocking day in the history of the world’s oldest democracy. Whether our democracy can survive remains an open question because one of the two major American political parties has fallen completely in line behind those who tried to overturn the government. The news media have covered and scholars and congressional representatives have investigated causes of the January 6 insurrection, but our public discourse has so far failed to examine Christianity’s role in this attempted coup.
Seventy-five percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump and remain firmly in his sway. While the Catholic vote had favored Trump in 2016, Biden made gains of several percentage points in 2020, but who won that vote depends upon which poll you consult. Those claiming no religious belief went 75 percent for Biden. (See the Gallup summary by Frank Newport, “Religious Group Voting and the 2020 Election.”)
Overwhelmingly people of faith voted for Trump, while those outside the faith traditions voted for Biden.
School for Alternative Facts
Christianity bears some of the blame, both for Christian support for Trump and the attempted insurrection. I am not arguing that all Christians individually or the Christian churches alone are responsible, but the Christian churches must accept major responsibility for the election of Trump and the assault on the Capitol. Liberal Christians have been very willing to blame conservative Christians in this regard, but I contend that all Christianity has prepared the way for the subversion of our constitution.
The meaning of the English word “faith” has shifted in the long history of Christianity. It comes from Greek and Latin roots. The Greek pistis means trust, confidence, or reliability. The Latin fides has the same meaning. But in the fourth century, especially after the Council of Nicaea, its meaning shifted from trust to belief. Pistis and fides became a way of knowing. One knew certain things because one believed them. Knowledge through faith was certain. In the medieval period, Anselm proposed the theological slogan fides quaerens intellectum, “faith seeking understanding.” Belief came first. Then understanding sought reasons for established beliefs. Reason served faith. (See my blog posts “The Trouble with Faith” and “Faith, Republicans, and Trump.”)
The scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the eighteenth-century Enlightenment problematized this understanding of faith as belief. The Enlightenment cherished values that Christians found problematic. Enlightenment thought valued individual freedom and opposed monarchical regimes, even though individual philosophes sought the support of enlightened monarchs. Christianity, born in an imperial age of the ancient Roman empire, adopted a hierarchical structure and favored absolute monarchs and their established churches. Luther rejected the peasants’ revolt and in 1864 Pope Pius IX in his Syllabus of Errors condemned as false the assertions that “The Church ought to be separated from the State, and the State from the Church” and ”Every man is free to embrace and profess that religion which, guided by the light of reason, he shall consider true.” The final condemned proposition read, “The Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with, progress, liberalism and modern civilization.” All these condemnations of Enlightenment values rested on the proposition that “error has no rights.” Since the church knew the truth, it could ignore all new modern developments and bore no responsibility for scientific ways of knowing.
In 1898 Pope Leo XIII rejected the American notion of the separation of church and state and condemned it as the heresy of Americanism. Roman Catholicism did not reconcile itself to democracy until Vatican II.
The churches’ conflict with science runs even deeper. At every point, Christian churches have resisted scientific advances, beginning with Galileo and continuing with Darwin. Various Christian churches have sought accommodations with science, but those accommodations have been fragile and hard fought. (See my blog post “God’s Shrinking Space.”)
In today’s world, Christian faith schools its adherents to believe things that are not true. Former president Trump’s advisor and campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, is a devout, conservative Catholic. When pressed to explain why Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, lied about Trump’s election numbers, she infamously replied, “he gave alternative facts.” One might mistake Conway’s remark for cynicism, but she had been trained throughout a lifetime to believe in alternative facts. Her faith convinced her to accept alternative facts, falsehoods, as true.
No Christian church has fundamentally examined how the church’s understanding of faith continues to function as a school for alternative facts, or its threat to democracy. They have mostly failed in a critical and radical examination of what faith is or could be in the modern world.
The Imperial Church
Faith is only part of the problem. When the early Jesus movements became the Christian church and then part of a Christian Empire, they transformed themselves from resisters of empire to its supporters. Even more, the church restructured itself along the lines of the Roman Empire, becoming an empire. That heritage has become part of its DNA, so deeply buried that we hardly ever examine it.
When the envoy Paul proclaimed, “Jesus is the Lord,” he made a counterfactual claim, ironically presenting a different type of alternative facts. “Lord” (kurios in Greek) is an imperial title and denotes the emperor’s rule over the oikumene, the whole world. But Jesus could not be the imperial lord because he had been crucified by the real imperial, lordly power, Rome. His very crucifixion demonstrated that he could not be the anointed of Israel or lord of the whole world. The real lord, the Roman emperor, had crucified him. His alternative facts do not deny reality but point to its injustice. He asserts a different way reality should be in the face of the way it is. A crucified lord is the oxymoronic heart of Paul’s good news, his euangelion, another imperial term.
[A]nd became trustfully obedient all the way to death,
even to death by crucifixion.
That is why God raised him higher than anyone
and awarded him the title that is above all others,
so that on hearing the name “Jesus,”
every knee should bend,
above the earth, on the earth, and under the earth,
and every tongue declare: “Jesus the Anointed is lord!”
The one raised higher than anyone, literally super-exalted, is the lord. His status as crucified is not changed. He remains a crucified lord, a contradiction in terms.
But after Constantine, Paul’s counterfactual claim lost its status as an alternative fact and became actual fact. Images of Jesus Christ as pantocrator make this fully evident. Jesus is not the emperor’s victim. He is the emperor. (For more details, see my blog, “Jesus the Lord: It’s Dangerous.”)
Image from Hagia Sophia shows Jesus Christ as pantocrator, in the guise of the emperor.” (Wiki-Commons).
The Religious Temptation
When the churches that originally celebrated their martyrs achieved majority status in the empire, they turned on others. Those formerly persecuted became the persecutors. Believers assume that religion is good and it reveals the truth. This can be a powerful seduction. The righteous then have a duty to wipe out the unrighteous—error has no rights. One of the first victims of righteousness is reason. Who needs reason if you already possess the truth? Who needs to question what is good when you are already identified as good? This certainty licenses the persecution of those who disagree. This is what I call the religious temptation. All manner of evil can be licensed in the name of the good religion does.
With imperial power comes imperial actions. Christians developed a reputation for intolerance. In the sixth century, Pope Hormisdas sent a delegation to Emperor Anastasius in Constantinople, requesting that he use his imperial power to crush the heretics and pagans in Italy. Anastasius responded that he would not make the streets of his cities run with the blood of his citizens. His duty was not to destroy one half of his empire but to find an accommodation. He quoted John 14:27 to the pope: “My peace I leave with you, my peace I give you.” In the same century, persecutions of Jews and the remaining pagans broke out due to the demands of Christian mobs.
Jesus’ parable of treasure (Matt 13:44–46) warns against the religious temptation. The man who finds a treasure hidden in a field goes, sells everything, and buys that field. Since he must buy the field, he was not the owner. Therefore he has gained the treasure by deceit. The joy of the treasure has seduced him into doing evil. This is the religious temptation at its most basic level. (John Dominic Crossan first worked out this understanding of the parable in Finding is the First Act. I riff on his work in Hear Then the Parable and Reimagine the World.)
The gospel attributed to Matthew pursues this same line of thought under the topic of righteousness. For that gospel, righteousness is a fundamental virtue. “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled” (Matt 5:6 KJV) (See my blog “Tragedy: The Gospel of Matthew” for how the theme works out in the birth narrative).
In the parable of the wheat and the weeds, when the master discovers that his enemy has seeded his field with weeds,
The slaves said to him, “So do you want us to go and pull the weeds?” He replied, “No, otherwise you’ll uproot the wheat at the same time as you pull the weeds. Let them grow up together until the harvest, and at harvest time I’ll say to the harvesters, ‘Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles for burning, but gather the wheat into my granary.’” (Matt 13:28–30).
Matthew’s allegory interprets the parable thus:
Just as the weeds are gathered and destroyed by fire—that’s how it will be at the end of the age. The Human One will send his messengers and they will gather all the traps and the subverters of the Law out of his empire and throw them into the fiery furnace. People in that place will weep and grind their teeth. Then the virtuous will shine like the sun in my Father’s empire. (Matt 13:40–43)
Only at the last judgment will it become evident who are the wheat and who the weeds. That is not the community’s decision.
The last judgment scene in Matthew adds a wrinkle to this theme. The righteous and wicked do not seem to know why they have been selected.
Then the righteous will say to him, “Master, when did we see you hungry and feed you or thirsty and give you a drink? When did we notice that you were a foreigner and offer you hospitality? Or naked and clothe you? When did we find you ill or in prison and come to visit you?”
And the king will respond to them, “Let me tell you: whatever you did for the least of my brothers and sisters, you did for me.” (Matt 25:37–40)
Caring for the least, the outcast, the unclean becomes the standard for righteousness.
Modern Christianity has given into the religious temptation. It has unhesitantly trained its adherents to believe what is not true. Is it any wonder that so many Christians have fallen for fake news, denied science and climate change, supported Trump’s big lie? The Christian churches need to examine their consciences in this matter.
Jesus or Christianity
After Jesus before Christianity argues that no Christians existed in the first two centuries. Many modern Christians find this surprising, confusing, and threatening. But I find it liberating. It means that we can be followers of Jesus without being Christians. And maybe to follow Jesus means to renounce Christian identity. Christianity’s imperial ambitions were not inevitable. We can try again to follow Jesus without aspiring to imperial power. Conservative Christians claim that we must be faithful to the past, to tradition. The past begins before the fourth century. We can choose fidelity to the anti-imperial traditions of the first two centuries and Jesus himself.
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