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Michelle Budge, Deseret News

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One year after Jan. 6, what’s changed for faith groups?

A year after the insurrection, there is growing awareness of the dangers of Christian nationalism. But the most extreme believers have only become more entrenched in their views

Most of us have a memory from that January day — a moment when we realized something profound was happening in Washington, D.C., the city that houses the Constitution and the organs that keep today’s body politic breathing.

For Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty — an organization located across from the Supreme Court — that moment on Jan. 6 came when she started receiving a slew of text messages asking “Are you OK?” Concerned, she checked Twitter. After seeing the news, she tuned into a live broadcast. By that time, “the Capitol had already been breached and I knew something was terribly wrong,” she told me this week.

For the Rev. Adam Wyatt, now a member of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee and pastor of Corinth Baptist Church in Magee, Mississippi, that moment came when insurrectionists pulled down an American flag and hoisted a Trump flag in its place.

“Allegiance should be to America, not to Trump,” said the Rev. Wyatt, who added that he voted for Trump.

Rabbi Jack Moline’s strongest memory comes from a few days later. The Sunday after the riot, he drove into Washington, D.C., with his wife and walked through the city.

“We were horrified to discover that Washington looked like a prison camp,” recalled Rabbi Moline, who serves as president of Interfaith Alliance. “Seeing the Capitol enclosed in barbed wire shook me out of complacency about the natural ability of America to survive this.”

The weeks following the Jan. 6 insurrection further traumatized D.C. residents, Tyler added, as they lived “on edge,” wondering if their city would again be the target of “domestic terrorism.”

These moments have something in common: They’ve served as inspiration to change America’s discourse around religion and politics. In the past year, Tyler, the Rev. Wyatt, Rabbi Moline and dozens of other scholars, activists and pastors have been working hard to ensure that people of faith promote peace rather than political violence.

A year on, there are signs of progress. Interest in webinars and articles about toxic forms of faith-based political activism seems to be growing. More people are discussing Christian nationalism — a worldview that presents America as a Christian, rather than secular, nation — and how to address it, faith leaders said.

Naming the problem and equipping the public with language to discuss it is an important step towards solutions, said Rabbi Moline, adding that, “The antidote to objectionable speech is more speech. If you give up, you give in.”

Changing attitudes

Tyler, whose organization has been leading and coordinating the “Christians Against Christian Nationalism” campaign since 2019, said that the Baptist Joint Committee’s January 2021 webinar “Democracy and Faith Under Siege: Responding to Christian Nationalism” drew several thousand attendees and has since received an additional 11,000 views. Additionally, the Baptist Joint Committee’s curriculum about Christian nationalism has had more than 1,000 unique downloads, said Tyler.

Statistics show that there has been a downward trend in some of the attitudes associated with Christian nationalism. Public Religion Research Institute found that, between 2013 and 2021, the number of Americans who agreed with the statement “God has granted America a special role in human history” dropped significantly.

Pew Research Center has published similar findings. Surveys fielded between 2016 and 2020 — that is, even before the Jan. 6 insurrection took place — showed that the share of the U.S. public who believe being Christian or having been born in the U.S. are important to being “truly American” is dropping.

So attitudes are changing. But, at the same time, those who hold the most extreme Christian nationalist views are only becoming more isolated and more entrenched in their views, according to new research by two of America’s leading experts in Christian nationalism, Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry.

Writing in Time, Whitehead and Perry, authors of “Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States,” explained that they conducted two surveys of the same respondents about the insurrection in 2021, one in February and one in August. In the time between the two surveys, Americans who rank highest on measures of Christian nationalism — a group that the scholars refer to as “Ambassadors” — seemed to grow more supportive of the attack on the Capitol.

“The percentage of white Ambassadors who felt the rioters should be prosecuted dropped over 22 points from 76.3% to 54.2%,” Whitehead and Perry reported in Time. “Even more striking, the percentage of white Ambassadors who said they stood on the side of the rioters doubled from 13.6% to over 27%.”

So, when it comes to the insurrection, these people aren’t looking back with regret. Rather, their views are becoming more extreme as time passes.

“We see white Ambassadors becoming more accepting of the riots at the Capitol and of the rioters. They are also likely to see violence as a solution to negative political outcomes,” Whitehead told me. “This means the negative influence of (Christian nationalism) is still very much with us. Given another political moment like the 2020 election, we’re likely going to see a similar explosion of violence.”

In other words, there is still much work to be done.

Biblical patriotism

The Rev. Wyatt’s new book, “Biblical Patriotism: An Evangelical Alternative to Nationalism,” outlines a possible approach. Arguing against nationalism and cosmopolitanism — and for the middle road of patriotism — the Rev. Wyatt examines how the Bible portrays patriotic duty.

The Rev. Wyatt said the book was framed around a simple question: “If I want to be a faithful Christian, what do I need to look like as a citizen?” Following biblical principles, like caring for one’s neighbor, can also serve as healthy patriotism.

The book also considers patriotic liturgy, as well as the role the flag plays in the church.

While nationalism leads people to sacrifice their religious values, patriotism encourages citizens to bring their values to the public square in a way that could potentially benefit all citizens and uphold democracy, Tyler said.

“You can still be patriotic and can rely on your faith and religious values to question your country,” she said. “That is a healthy sense of patriotism.”

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