Uncivil Religion: January 6, 2021

Battle Hymn of the Republic and the Apotheosis of Washington

This short video-clip of a younger man celebrating with fellow insurrectionists after breaching the Capitol Rotunda illustrates the complex and changing relationship between race, religion and nationalism in the MAGA movement, the present state of what some scholars of American religion call “White Christian Nationalism” (WCN). 

At first blush, the young man known to internet sleuths as “RotundaRoundFace” (RRF) may seem a poor exemplar of WCN: his physical appearance and facial features are racially ambiguous. Is he white? Latino? Or perhaps mixed race? But who does and does not count as “white” in America has often been a subject of debate, and has always been intertwined with religion and nativism. Just a century ago, Irish and Italian Catholic immigrants were often not regarded as fully “white”; so were Jewish immigrants. Today, Latinx and mixed-race Americans occupy a similarly ambiguous position in the nation’s racial order, with some claiming “whiteness” and others rejecting it.   

Based on his appearance alone, it is impossible to tell whether RRF identifies as “white.” But his actions clearly suggest that he does identify as an American patriot, and as “Christian,” in some sense. The clips ends with RRF huddling together with a half-dozen compatriots engaged in an impromptu prayer.  The style of the prayer—spontaneous and unscripted—is vaguely Protestant.  But the words of the prayer itself are not Christian in any specific sense. There is talk of “our beliefs” and “your will,” but no mention of Jesus or salvation. It could just as easily be a paean to a Greek god as the Christian one.  Or a prayer for victory made during a football game for that matter.  As others have pointed out, professional sports has become a sort of “civil religion” for many Americans, with the Super Bowl its high holiday.

Does the prayer-huddle that RRF joins represent “true Christianity?”  WCN often presents itself as a mixture of thinned-down theology and American popular culture as in the above example of the prayer-huddle, which combined elements of religion and sports. This has led some observers to question if there is anything truly or authentically Christian about WCN. Be that as it may, there is no question that RRF is experiencing something like “religious feeling.” As the clip opens, his face displays a mixture of awe, elation and empowerment, such as a Christian believer might experience upon entering the sanctuary of a great cathedral, such as Notre Dame. Of course, such experiences of “collective effervescence,” as the French sociologist Emile Durkheim famously called them, are not limited to “religious” settings in the strict sense of the world. They can occur in any situation where a group of people feels they are in the presence of something sacred.  

And the Capitol Rotunda is surely that for many Americans: the inner sanctuary of the nation.  It was intended as such by its designers. At its apex, in the “eye” of the Rotunda, is the neo-classicist fresco known as The Apotheosis of Washington, which depicts the nation’s “founding father” ascending to heaven flanked by female figures representing “freedom” and “glory.” 

This heady mixture of religion and politics is nothing new in America, of course. As the English cultural critic, G.K. Chesterton famously observed a century ago, “America is a nation with the soul of a church.” In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, many Americans broke into spontaneous renditions of “God Bless America,” the patriotic hymn penned by Irving Berlin during World War I. RRF and his compatriots also burst into song, in this case, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, the great anthem of the Union Army during the Civil War.  Rife with apocalyptic imagery drawn from the Christian Book of Revelation, it is set to the tune of “John Brown's Body.” The latter commemorates abolitionist leader John Brown, who was hanged for his role in the failed insurrection at Harpers Ferry in 1859, the goal of which was not simply to free the enslaved but ultimately to overthrow the Federal government. The words were written by the Unitarian poet and literary critic, Julia Ward Howe, after she observed a Union encampment in Northern Virginia in late 1861.  
RRF seems not to really know the song. After mumbling the refrain, “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah,” he breaks off into embarrassed laughter.  Meanwhile, some of his fellow insurrectionists are waving Confederate Flags and other symbols of white supremacy. No one seems aware of the irony of the scene. One imagines John Brown’s body “a-turnin' in the grave.” 

WCN has evolved considerably since the era of the Civil War and the Battle Hymn. It has turned inward. In Julia Ward Howe’s era, WCN was an ideology of WASP triumphalism that legitimated westward expansion and then American Empire. It was more the ideology of Northern liberals than of Southern conservatives. In our own era, it is evolving into an expression of white working-class grievance that underwrites border walls and “America First” policies and includes many Southerners. Once fodder for the sermons of liberal Protestant pastors of the Northeast, it is now a staple in the homilies of conservative evangelical preachers in the American “heartland.”  So long as white Christians were the dominant majority, WCN could exist in a comfortable symbiosis with liberal democracy. As white Christians confront minority status, it is rapidly mutating into an anti-democratic ideology.  The presence of RRF at the Capitol—Trump’s appeal to some working-class blacks and Latinos in 2020—suggests that WCN may be evolving into something new: nativist, Christian nationalism.

Philip Gorski is the Frederick and Laura Goff Professor of Sociology and Religious Studies and Chair of the Department of Sociology at Yale University. His research focuses on religion and politics in comparative and historical perspective in the early modern and modern eras. His latest book ​​(with Samuel Perry), The Flag and the Cross, will be published this April. You can follow him on Twitter @GorskiPhilip.

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