You Fight Bad Religion with True Religion
Notes on a sunrise prayer vigil for democracy on the January 6th anniversary
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The light grew brighter with each passing moment, but it was still discernibly before sunrise.
In the chill of the pre-dawn hour, more than a dozen faith leaders gathered for an event called the Sunrise Prayer Vigil for Democracy organized by the BJC and Faithful America. It marked the second anniversary of the January 6th insurrection when a violent mobbed stormed the Capitol building in an attempt to overturn legitimate election results.
As we stood clustered together, some holding electric lights molded to look like candles, we each took turns praying. A coterie of reporters from several national news outlets trained their camera lenses and microphones on each speaker.
“You fight bad religion with true religion,” he said.
That sentence probably took 2.5 seconds to speak, but in that time a cascade of thoughts passed through my mind. As soon as I heard the first part, “you fight bad religion” I instantly started wondering what he would say next.
You fight bad religion with…good religion? Better religion? Great religion?
I think he chose precisely the right words. You fight bad religion with…true religion.
We assembled that morning not simply to lament the loss of life and the damage to democracy represented by the insurrection. We gathered there to stand against white Christian nationalism and present a truer witness.
I define white Christian nationalism as an ethnocultural ideology that uses Christian symbolism to create a permission structure for the acquisition of political power and social control.
White Christian nationalism was on full display that horrifying day two years ago, and helped fuel those anti-democratic and deadly actions. To learn more listen to the White Nation Under God series and read this report about the role of white Christian nationalism at the January 6th, 2021 insurrection.
A Different Gospel
Later, Shane Claiborne of Red Letter Christians, began his prayer by reading from the book of Galatians.
6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. - Galatians 1:6-7
He identified white Christian nationalism as a false gospel. It is false because it adds to the pure gospel of Jesus Christ a strict political program, racial and ethnic requirements, authoritarian tactics, and the use of violence to secure earthly power.
White Christian nationalism makes the political entity known as the United States of America co-terminus with the church that Christ is building. It reminisces about an imagined past when we were truly a “Christian nation” and laments the changes brought on by greater inclusion and an increasingly diverse population.
This is not to presume that we can simply dismiss white Christian nationalists by saying they aren’t “real” or “true” Christians. While such a neat division is tempting, especially when their beliefs lead them to break into the Capitol, all Christians have a responsibility to fight white Christian nationalism in our own congregations and denominations.
A Truer Witness
Most of the speakers had prepared their remarks. A few had been chosen prior to the event to pray. I wasn’t one of them. I was simply there in solidarity and support. But then then they passed the mic to me…
I began with these words…
Lord, we come here declaring the evil that is white Christian nationalism, and we come as your witnesses to a different way, a better way, the way of Jesus.
I came to the prayer vigil for many reasons. As a historian, I recognize the significance of January 6th and each anniversary of the event. As a citizen, I want to stand for a multiracial, inclusive democracy. As a Christian, though, I came to present a different witness of the faith. A truer witness.
We should be wise. January 6, 2021 was not an end but a beginning of constant and dangerous threats to the existence of democracy in the United States. The next two years leading up to the presidential election of 2024 will be especially fraught.
But we should also nurture hope. There are people of faith who see white Christian nationalism for the idol that it is. We write, preach, teach, and pray to present a different witness of what the interaction between faith and politics can look like.
We prayed for about 30 minutes. In that short time the light in the sky had built from a dim glow to a crescendo of light as the sun peaked over the horizon to herald a new day.