Today, January 6th is the traditional day for the celebration of the Epiphany. It is a word taken from the Greek epiphaneia meaning “manifestation, striking appearance; from epiphanes meaning “manifest, conspicuous,” and from epiphainein “to manifest, display, show off; come suddenly into view.” In a post earlier today, I asked “What is revealed this day.” It was a small reflection, but what came to mind when I thought about all that the Epiphany might reveal.
January 6th a year ago today was an epiphany of another sort.
21st-century insurrectionists managed to do something the Confederate Army was never able to accomplish during the Civil War: fly the Confederate battle flag inside the Capitol. But it wasn’t the only flag or totem carried into the Capitol. Intermingled with the battle flag were Christian symbols and rhetoric. There were numerous Bibles, crosses, “Jesus Saves” signs and “Jesus 2020” flags that mirrored the design of the Trump campaign flag. During the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, Christian religious imagery vied with pro-Trump MAGA gear for pride of place.
Also carried into the Capitol was the Christian Flag, a banner white with a red Latin cross inside a blue canton, officially adopted by the Federal Council of Churches in 1942. This flag was notably at the head of a “Jericho March” organized by Christian groups in the days before the attack. They marched blowing shofars as they encircled the Capitol, imitating the siege of the city of Jericho by the Israelites described in the book of Joshua in the Hebrew Scriptures. On the day of the insurrection, one video showed the flag being paraded into the congressional chamber through breached doors just minutes after members of Congress had been evacuated through underground tunnels.
There are plenty of churches and denominations that have been active and tacit supporters of the previous administration and saw that administration as an answer to their fervent prayers. There are some who have gone further in their support of the former president’s claims of election fraud. There are small number that call for active resistance to the current administration’s supposed anti-Christian agenda. There are online videos of Christian preachers who fired up the crowd on that day. Some cable news networks regularly interview “evangelical” spokespersons. It is hard for me to garner from them anything that is consistent with the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) or find anything that evidences the fruits of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23). But that may not be the larger problem.
There is reporting that suggests that many people participating in the Jericho marches, the insurrection, and events since are not tied to any specific church or denomination. They see themselves engaged in a spiritual war. For such people, their faith is individualistic, largely free of structures, rules, the approval of clergy, and tradition of a denomination. But part of the milieu is that our nation is in a period when institutional religion is not trusted and losing influence. Religion is becoming more individualized and more disconnected from denominations, theological credentials and oversight. People are becoming their own “popes” and deciding the canon of their beliefs. Even before Jan. 6, some sociologists said the fastest-growing group of American Christians are those associated with independent “prophets” who largely operate outside denominationalism. Less than half of Americans told Gallup in March 2020 that they belonged to a congregation; the first time that has happened since Gallup started asking in the 1930s.
It seems to be part of a movement more prominent in recent years: a growing overlap between white Americans who put a high value on individualism and libertarianism and those who embrace Christian nationalism, a cultural belief that America is defined by Christian identity, heritage and social order and that the government needs to protect it – a Christian Nationalism. Something that should be very familiar to any Catholic who would be a student of history.
Anti-Catholic animus in the United States reached a peak in the 19th century when the Protestant population became alarmed by the influx of Catholic immigrants. The resulting “nativist” movement, which achieved prominence in the 1840s, was whipped into a frenzy of anti-Catholicism that led to mob violence, the burning of Catholic property, and the killing of Catholics. It was rooted in the white anglo Protestantism of the day. This violence was fed by claims that Catholics were destroying the culture of the United States and polluting the Christian identity of the country. Irish Catholic immigrants were blamed for raising the taxes of the country as well as for spreading violence and disease. The nativist movement found expression in a national political movement called the Know-Nothing Party of the 1850s, which (unsuccessfully) ran former president Millard Fillmore as its presidential candidate in 1856.
What was true in the 1850s seems to be true today. Studies of this milieu of people of “Christian identity” movements indicate that their beliefs are not due to deep indoctrination or education. They tend to have a thin knowledge and understanding of their beliefs beyond quoting specific texts from Scripture that they use to support their beliefs/actions – while ignoring the larger canon. They make individual decisions about the ideologies they want to follow and even what it means. The resulting claimed ideology tends to be a syncretic fusion of several ideologies. They have an idiosyncratic relationship with God as they are unmoored to a local church body which carries the long history of Christian thought, reflection, and expression. Unmoored, they are subject to the danger of allowing politics (or any other matter) to become an inordinate focus of their lives with a patina of “religiosity.”
As Christians we are called to carry the full gospel to the public square. Denominations, traditions, local pastors have a role in shaping the Christian message to the public square. But those very things are losing traction in private and public square. That is a denominational and institutional problem as more people drift away from traditional churches.
But a growing segment of the Christian faith in the country is the “nones.” People who hold a traditional Christian orthodoxy, but do not belong to a traditional denomination. This group tends to find its own ways to be a Christian community. Sociological studies indicate that as much as 25% of US Christians now identify with these base Christian communities, even if they occasionally attend traditional churches. The studies also indicate that they bring with them traditional Christian beliefs seeking the three B’s of a lived faith: believing, belonging and behaving. It is the last two dimensions they find lacking in their former institutional churches. Belonging and behaving are the two dimensions they feel their “home churches” provide, allowing them to live a more integrated faith. Are they the precursor of a larger field of change coming to the American landscape of faith?
The history of religion in our country has had its own moments of breakdowns, ferment and reinvention in the past: the Great Awakening, Second Great Awakening, the Restoration Movement, Latter Day Saints, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Fundamentalism, Evangelicalism, Pentecostalism, and more. Such moments are periods of opportunity and creativity but also of danger and violence. Perhaps we are in the midst of one such period now.
If two emerging movements are the libertarian Christian nationalists or the home churches of the “nones”, or any other emerging model, I think a simple assessment of believing, belonging and behaving in the light of the full Gospel is a good measuring rod. It is also a measure for the denominational congregations.
And so, I muse about the future of the religious landscape here at home. Is this all just a moment of time, or a harbinger of larger waves of change? There are certainly other factors, dynamics and more that should be part of a larger “musing” but this is enough for today.