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Some Thoughts on Healing the Great National Divide

It is not surprising that the most interesting articles appearing in the Religion News Service for the month of January relate to the Capitol insurrection on January 6th. I will begin by summarizing the content from two of them: “For Insurrectionists, A Violent Faith Brewed from Nationalism, Conspiracies and Jesus,” by Jack Jenkins and “Conspiracy Theories and the American Madness that Gripped the Capitol,” by Emily Farlan Miller. Links to both articles are cited at the end of the essay. After the summary, I will make some specific recommendations for healing this toxic partisan divide.

The insurrectionists who attacked the United States Capitol on January 6th appealed to a wide variety of Christian symbols to justify actions that left five dead, extensive property damage, and a duly elected President on the verge of having his election overturned. These Christian symbols represent an aggressive form of Christian nationalism that fuses God and country. President Trump is seen as a man of God who is defending the country against Satanic forces in the guise of Democrats, political liberals, and the media. There is an us-versus-them mentality. Trump supporters passionately believe the United States is a Christian nation, and that if we as a country surrender to the forces of Satan all is lost. The preaching, teaching, and devotional life coming from many evangelical churches has spawned this hate-filled ideology.

Christian nationalism presents three significant challenges. The first is that it is anti-democratic, which poses an existential threat to the survival of American democratic institutions. The second is that the movement is widespread. We are not talking about a small collection of fringe nutcases, but it is estimated that 50% of Americans buy into Christian nationalism as an ideology to varying degrees. Finally, these beliefs are deeply held by many within Trump’s cult, which means that they will be difficult to expunge from the American political consciousness.

The first step in dealing with the deep and bitter partisan divide in the country is to accurately diagnose the problem. As I look out at the Republican party, I see two very different types of conservatives. The first group we might label philosophical conservatives. They believe in small government with a real skepticism when it comes to using government to achieve major social change. As a counterpoint, they believe in individual liberty and the magic of the market. With regard to the market, they oppose excessive government regulation and support lower taxes. When it comes to international relations, they support a strong national defense. They are often quite liberal on social issues such as gun control and gay marriage. Because they passionately defend established democratic institutions and oppose radical change in all its forms, they are not part of the problem. They were never members of the Trump cult and will easily move beyond him. Many did so in the recent election.

The second type of conservative we might label personality conservatives. Their political beliefs come from deep seated psychological needs. The vast majority of them are white, evangelical Christians.

In varying degrees, these people fear the advance of secular culture where science and biblical scholarship are destroying their deeply held belief that the Christian Bible is inerrant, that it reflects the word of God. They resent, often bitterly, what they perceive as a federal government that benefits African Americans at their expense. Many feel victimized by an economy that no longer works for them. They resent elites from all the professions who they believe are the cause of their problems and who look down on them. They have a Manichean worldview which views reality in absolutist terms of right and wrong.

A mindset defined by fear, anger, and resentment pushes out love from awareness. It is a mindset that is unable to process Jesus’s teachings on inclusion, nonviolence, economic and social justice. Instead it is a mindset that gravitates to the God in Joshua who lays waste to Gentile towns. This is a God who leads the righteous in battle. Many Trump supporters have participated in “Jericho Marches” where they encircled government buildings blowing trumpets and shouting “Stop the Steal.” Their God is about getting revenge on their perceived enemies. A belief that such a God is on their side empowers them.  To justify their actions, they selectively pick biblical passages, and proclaim Jesus as their king. They seek a strongman to lead them, and their membership in the group becomes cultist. It empowers and helps them feel good about themselves.

Understanding the psychological underpinnings of their beliefs is important because it suggests that bringing them back into the political mainstream will be difficult. Some have psychological wounds that are so deep they are sadly beyond help. Many others, however, can be brought back into again accepting American political culture and institutions.

The first two steps in this process are relatively easy and already proceeding.  Evangelical leaders must speak out against Trumpism as a cult.  This is happening, and let’s hope it continues. The second step is to regulate social media to prevent lies and conspiracy theories from spreading across the internet at warp speed. Several companies have finally recognized there is a problem, that they have some responsibility for it;  and, as a result, they are taking actions to remedy the problem. Some government regulation will most likely be needed to complete the job.

Economic development in depressed rural areas is a more long-term solution. As I point out above, the economic downturn in many rural areas of the country over the last twenty-five years is a source of anger and resentment. A good job which promises a stable, promising future will give the recipients a stake in the system and help to reduce interracial tension.

About a year ago on this website, I reported on the economic devastation that occurred in the small Southern town where I began my teaching career forty years ago. (“Laurinburg NC: A Lesson on Healing the Racial Divide in America”) When we moved there in 1978, there were five manufacturing plants, virtually no unemployment with an average wage of $20 dollars an hour. The schools were all integrated, there were no Christian academies, and relations between the three races within the town, white, black, and Native American, were cooperative. Today only one plant remains, the average wage is $12.50 an hour, and the unemployment rate has climbed to more than 30%. Crime has soared, and Christian academies have taken many white students from the public schools. The easy cooperation between the three races is a thing of the past. Trumpism has thrived.

The second long-term solution calls for a major overhaul of the public school system. To begin with, all government support for Christian academies must end. It is time we see these schools for what they are. They function like Islamic Madrasas, and are a major part of the problem. They teach Christian nationalism, and graduate students who see themselves as separate from the larger society. Second, we must reenergize desegregation efforts in the public schools. The studies are clear: integrated schools promote racial harmony. Finally, a large infusion of resources is needed to improve the quality of our public schools. Good jobs and civic understanding of American democracy depend on improved public education.

The last long-term solution comes right out of the New Testament. We must make every effort to love our Trump supporting neighbors. Let me tell you about my next door neighbor. She is a white, evangelical Christian, and an ardent Republican. We have become good friends despite her knowing that I am a liberal Democrat and a committed Christian who sees Jesus as a beautiful human being—period. I help her with projects when brawn is required. She brings me cookies to say thanks which I love but do not need. Because she is a widow and her social life has been severely restricted due to the pandemic, my wife and I have had her over several times when the weather allowed us to be outside. We all know Trump supporters. Befriending them is important because it takes some of the sting out of the bitter partisan political divide.

In graduate school, I spent considerable time studying comparative governments. For some reason I can’t quite explain, I had a real interest in European fascism. I wanted to understand how large segments of a population could buy into such a perverse ideology and perform such despicable acts. The one thing I never imagined was that fascism could come to the United States. Unfortunately, the myth of American exceptionalism has been totally discredited. Fascism came close to coming to our shores during the last four years. Let’s hope that we as a society can take the steps necessary to see that such a threat never happens again.
Dr. Rick Herrick (PhD, Tulane University), a former tenured university professor and magazine editor, is the author of four published novels and two works of nonfiction. His most recent book, A Christian Foreign Policy, presents a new way of looking at the relationship between religion and politics.

** Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed here do not necessarily represent the official policy of Any content provided by authors to our website are of their own opinion; we are not becoming a political organization, but we feel unusual times like these times call for a theological response.

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