Far-right violence in USA: faith, nationalism, love and justice

By Savi Hensman
January 10, 2021

As US lawmakers were meeting on 6 January 2021 to ratify the results of the presidential election, far-right supporters of the US president, Donald Trump, stormed the building. He had refused to accept his defeat, urging them in a speech to “walk down to the Capitol” and saying that “you will never take back our country with weakness”. Just before, his lawyer Rudy Giuliani had called for “trial by combat” against the party which had won.

Amidst the riot, both tried to persuade Republican senators to overturn the election results. Trump later called on his followers to leave and the police regained control of the Capitol. But there are fears that extremists will feel emboldened and further attacks launched before the handover of power or that a war will be started against Iran, with devastating consequences.

No doubt many who voted for Trump disapprove of the behaviour of what the president-elect, Joe Biden, described as “a riotous mob. Insurrectionists. Domestic terrorists” and of the blatant contempt for democracy. But many leading fellow-Republicans had shrugged off appalling abuses of power and backed anti-democratic measures, until rioters’ disrespect for national symbols and thuggery in public view became too embarrassing. The fact that the trouble was allowed to reach this point, despite numerous warning signs, points to the depth of the problem.

So does the role of the many pro-Trump fanatics who regard themselves as devout Christians and patriotic Americans. Indeed there are wider questions about how religion and nationalism across the world tie in with values such as compassion, truthfulness and justice.

Underlying violence and division

Many commentators have pointed out the stark difference between the violent way that the security forces earlier treated generally peaceful Black Lives Matter protestors in Washington DC and the weakness which left armed white nationalists temporarily in control.

In general, there is much tolerance of routine violence against people treated as not mattering so much – black people and other ethnic minorities, the homeless, prisoners and so forth. Many voters for both presidential candidates live at constant risk of going without food, shelter or vital healthcare if things go wrong, despite the huge wealth around them, yet turn their insecurity or resentment against others in the same or worse plight. More widely, rapid social change in the world of work and beyond has left many feeling vulnerable but unable to articulate this clearly and at risk of being preyed on by far-right mainstream and social media.

This has sometimes been complicated by denial or shame – or a reaction of defiant shamelessness – around historical violence. Victims include native Americans when the USA was being formed, slaves, workers’ rights activists, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT+) people and those overseas who elected governments of which US leaders disapproved. Feelings around this can be especially charged because, often, this was done in the name of God or the nation.

Those with the same heritage, faith or flag may end up either feeling guilty for things over which they had no control, or using aggression to push away guilt, especially if they have held prejudiced attitudes themselves. Finding ways to talk about past and present injustices while avoiding self-righteousness or defensiveness can require sensitivity and self-awareness.

Other countries’ history too, is often chequered, as are the actions of faith groups within these. Generosity and cruelty may be intertwined, likewise courageous witness by religious leaders and betrayal of the marginalised to gain wealth or power. Being upfront about such complexities can promote wisdom and understanding.

In the USA, twisted versions of Christianity and patriotism have become intertwined with far-right views and community and family bonding – though others have found resources in their beliefs and history to help challenge oppression. This has been widespread among white Christians, including large numbers of Roman Catholics and evangelicals, leading to what the thoughtful conservative commentator David French has described as idolatry.

As he has pointed out, those whose neighbours, friends and fellow-worshippers mostly profess such views may find it hard to explore alternative views, for fear of dislocation or rejection. The understandable anger and fear of those whose rights are disregarded or very existence threatened by discrimination and disadvantage may deepen divisions, as may the different experiences of city-dwellers and those in small towns and rural areas.

Tackling the far right effectively

This spike in far-right confidence and power in recent years is not unique to the USA. This includes much of Europe, including the UK. If grassroots organisers had not mobilised communities under threat and others committed to diversity and democracy, in America and beyond, the situation would be far worse.

The challenge now is perhaps to build on such initiatives and strengthen alliances, as well as winning over people attracted to reactionary movements but uneasy about extremism or open to rethinking their views. A willingness sometimes to work with, at other times to challenge, sections of the ruling class averse to fanaticism yet largely indifferent to the harm done by poverty, exploitation and environmental damage may also be needed. This is an important task not only in the USA but also elsewhere – and easier to undertake before armed right-wingers are quite as well-connected and bold in seeking power.

Racism and xenophobia can too easily replace commitment to making one’s country the best that it can be and seeking the wellbeing of all its people and those with whom they share this planet. This may include looking at other aspects of heritage and ‘traditional’ culture which reinforce opposition to fascism and other forms of tyranny and cruelty. The arts and sharing of truthful information and stories can also help to build bridges among those of different ages and with different experiences and identities and, at best, allow difficult emotions and uncertainties to be explored, not exploited.

Those in ‘mainstream’ churches should be looking more deeply at ways in which core values of love and justice can be replaced by the opposite – and how otherwise kind and pious people may be seduced by authoritarian leaders who pretend to champion faith and freedom. Symbols and resources such as the Bible can be misused. Constant reminders of the core importance of self-giving love, of the kind embodied by Jesus in the Gospels, andof  his care for the marginalised, as well as of the risks of idolising fallible humans, may be needed.

There is a need too to provide a depth of fellowship which overcomes divisions and provides an alternative ‘home’ for those rejected by family and friends because they oppose prejudice, hate and injustice. This can also be a space for spiritual reflection in the broadest sense, which may strengthen people in the quest for a better, non-violent future.

© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and respected commentator on welfare and other issues. She is author of the book Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church (Ekklesia, 2016): http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22613 and has been involved in seeking greater inclusion. She wrote on ‘Health or Wealth?’ in Feast or Famine? (http://dltbooks.com/titles/2195-9780232532616-feast-or-famine)

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